The Portland Trail Blazers played one excellent half of basketball—and one not so excellent half—on Friday, blowing a 21-point lead late to fall on the road to the Philadelphia 76ers, 120-119. After the Blazers led nearly wire-to-wire, Joel Embiid knocked down a foul-line go-ahead jumper with 1.1 seconds left to snatch the win right from under Portland’s noses.
Anfernee Simons led the Blazers with 34 points in his second return from a injury. Damian Lillard struggled through a poor shooting night (6-15), but still finishing with 22 points, 11 assists and 6 rebounds.
The Blazers wasted no time making good use of the still minutes-limited Jusuf Nurkic. The hulking Bosnian showed flashes of his “Beast” form early, lumbering into the paint and flipping in a mini-hook for the first points of the game. A couple trips later, while directing the offense from the top of the key, he found a wide open Simons who knocked down an angle three and Portland was suddenly off to the races.
The proverbial hands were hot aplenty for the Blazers in the early going, led by Simons with 13 points in the quarter. He and Jerami Grant both knocked down back-to-back threes which helped build a 24-11 lead midway through the period.
But Embiid is a load, and as soon as Nurkic went to the bench, Portland couldn’t keep the MVP hopeful away from the basket. Embiid led all scorers in the quarter with 14 points after getting the foul line eight times, but the saving grace for the Blazers was that he made only half of those attempts.
A pair of nifty running jumpers by Simons in the final minute help give a bit of breathing room, and the Blazers held a 37-29 lead after one.
If Simons was feeling it during his first stint, he must have unlocked a whole new sense during his next one. Ant came out confident and dangerous, coolly drilling a 27-foot laser from the top of the arc that restored a double-digit advantage for Portland after Philly had closed the gap. He followed that up with another coolly-tossed dart from nearly the same location before driving and finding a wide open Cam Reddish for a dunk. When Simons finally checked out at about the 8:00 mark, he had 19 points and the Blazers led by 12.
From there, Portland finished the half as well as just about any in recent memory. After Lillard made his return and proceeded to immediately slice through the Sixers defense for an easy layup, Philly had seen enough and started to send multiple defenders his way. Dame saw it coming. Flipping a switch, Lillard effortlessly transitioned into a shot-creating virtuoso, assisting on each of the Blazes’ next five baskets.
At the other end, Portland’s zone stymied Philadelphia. James Harden couldn’t hit water from a boat as all five of his heaves from distance failed to find the mark, while Embiid struggled to get the same calls he received earlier when attacking Nurkic in the paint.
Dominating at both ends of the floor, the Blazers went on a 21-2 run over a four-minute stretch. Embiid and Tobias Harris were able to make up some of the ground in the closing minutes, but Portland still headed into the break with a commanding 71-56 lead.
Another triple from Simons followed by a wide open alley-oop finish by Matisse Thybulle seemingly had the Blazers rolling to start the second half. Instead it marked the beginning of a long dry spell. Over the next five minutes, the Sixers rattle off a 13-4 run, with Portland’s only production coming from Simons. It wasn’t until the 4:23 mark that a Blazer not named Anfernee scored again, when Reddish knocked down an angle three.
By then, Philly had whittled Portland’s lead down to 13 at 86-73. They clearly weren’t going to back down.
Lillard and Grant helped stop the bleeding down the stretch, matching the Sixers for the remainder of the period and setting the table for a tense fourth quarter. Heading into the final frame, the Blazers led 96-85.
As was par for the game, Simons began another quarter effortlessly finding his shooting stroke. First he beat his man into the paint to deliver a running floater, then he collected himself from 27 feet with a shifty stepback, finding nothing but the bottom of the net. The latter gave Portland a 14-point cushion at 101-87. Then they would try to hold on for dear life.
A pair of baskets from Danuel House cut the Blazers’ lead back down to single digits. A minute later, when Harden skipped down the lane to convert an and-1 layup that pulled Philly within 5, you could almost hear a collective groan from Portland fans.
Harden continued to cause mayhem, knocking down a three that made it a single-possession game before Embiid drew a foul and completed the comeback at the foul line.
The Blazers had chances to put the game out of reach in the final minutes - notably four trips to the line for Nurkic - but came up empty handed. It ended up costing them the game. The score remained tied at 114 for a solid minute until Lillard drilled a 20-foot fadeaway from the left corner. The stalemate was broken at 116-114 with just over a minute remaining.
Tyrese Maxey answered with an equalizer at the other end, then Nurkic hit a shot at the cup. He was fouled and converted, putting Portland up three. They fouled intentionally, leading to two free throws from Maxey. A Lillard pass got intercepted on the ensuing possession, which set the stage for Embiid’s theatrics. Tough way to lose.
Stay tuned for analysis from the game coming soon!
The Blazers will get a day off before wrapping up the road trip Sunday evening against the New Orleans Pelicans. Tip is set for 4 p.m.