The Portland Trail Blazers lost a narrow, 120-119 barn-burner to the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night. After leading by 20, the Blazers ended up fatiguing on offense. At the exact same time, they found themselves unable to stop Sixers super-center Joel Embiid, who pasted 39 points on Portland, including the game-clinching shot with 1.1 remaining. Portland left the door open. A perpetual MVP candidate barged through it. End of story.
If you missed the action, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. If you’re looking for doom and gloom about the loss beyond that, you’re not going to find it in this analysis. Portland looked healthier and played better than we’ve seen in a solid month. Welcoming back starter Anfernee Simons to match the recently-returned Jusuf Nurkic helped, as detailed below. There have been plenty of losses (and a couple wins) to hang heads about this season. This was not among them. Here’s why.
The Power of the Screen
Gather ‘round, my friends, and let me tell you the story of how the Blazers succeeded in this game. Two factors underlined their effort, neither of which will show up in the boxscore.
The first was screening. You already know how deadly Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons are in isolation. In addition, they’re absolute terrors coming off of picks. If defenders go under the screen against either, they can hit a three in a flash. If defenders follow Lillard around the top, he’s going to hesitate and draw contact for the potential foul. Simons is a threat to drive and pull up or pass, though those aren’t as prized as his three-point shot.
Either way, screens take Lillard and Simons’ base power and add 20% to either, becoming the magic buff that turns them into superheroes.
Having Jusuf Nurkic back makes a difference in several aspects of the game, but this is among the most important. He’s a good screen-setter. No shade to Drew Eubanks. He’s more than willing too. But Nurkic is a bit bigger and he’s definitely more of a threat on the roll, making the opposing big stay close to home instead of bothering the guard.
The Blazers were pristine against the Sixers—especially in the first half—delivering and taking advantage of screens. Notice how nasty the offense got and how many more people got involved in it.
The Power of the Playmaker
No matter how proficient the point-of-attack option is for any offense, NBA defenses will eventually figure out how to take it away. What happens next determines potency as much as any star scorer. Witness Lillard putting up mammoth performances but the team earning a .500 record for an apt example.
When Anfernee Simons was down with his injury, the Blazers had real trouble finding good options off of that initial pass. They could find a shooter, but if he was any threat at all the defense already had a man there. If not, they just left him open. Either way, options were limited.
Simons gives the Blazers a secondary playmaker with almost all the same options Lillard has. That puts real pressure on the defense not just to have a man in front of him off the pass—one isn’t enough—but to shift to the side of the floor that Simons now holds the ball on after the pass is made. If they don’t shift, Simons can drive by or shoot over his defender. If they do shift, the Blazers on the opposite side of the court now find options open.
You could see this playing out tonight in Jerami Grant’s game. With Simons out, Grant found himself the secondary option by default. But he’s not the same one-on-one threat or passer that Simons is. That made it easy for defenses to key on him, either keeping a man in front or sending a second defender without penalty, as there was nobody else on the other side of the floor that would make a difference.
Tonight the ball went to Simons instead. Not only did Simons hit shots to make the defense pay, Grant found himself mobile and lightly-watched on his side of the court. All of a sudden his offensive ability reappeared after a few weeks’ hibernation! It never really left. Portland just didn’t have enough options to allow him full use of it.
You could also see the phenomenon at work in reverse when Portland’s bench unit came in and only one playmaking guard was on the floor again. Plays got harder and the scoring dried up. The starters had mostly plus margins on the scoreboard tonight, the bench minuses.
Combining these themes... At the end of the game, with the score tied and the Blazers needing a bucket, Simons set a screen for Lillard, freeing Dame to go down the sideline for a 20-footer which splashed home. The Sixers defense couldn’t leave Simons alone. Nor could they catch up to Lillard with a single defender. That shot was one of the most important moments of the game. It would not have developed that way without Ant and that pick.
Moral of the Story: Even when Simons and Nurkic don’t have great statistical nights, the threat of screens and weak-side playmaking provide value that the Blazers just don’t have right now without them.
Second and Third Options
We’ve become used to listing Damian Lillard’s stats first as the central key to the game. Dame was still the hub, but Simons shot 13-22, 8-12 from distance for 34 points. Grant scored 24 on 8-13 shooting. That didn’t necessarily make Portland’s offense more prolific than a 50-point Lillard effort, but it sure made things easier.
Dame scored 22 shooting 6-15, by the way.
Threes Tell the Story Again
You could tell this would be a decent outing for the Blazers because their old standby—the three-point shot—stood by them. Portland shot 15-36, 41.7% from distance. That always gives them a chance.
The Sixers, on the other hand, shot poorly from distance for most of the game. That’s unusual for them, as they lead the league with a 39.0% team average. They got hot late and, lo and behold, they caught up quickly. Philly finished the evening shooting 11-30, 36.7% from the arc.
Live by the three, die by the three remains a constant theme to Portland’s season.
Similarly, the Blazers shot 52.5% from the field overall, but they gave up 51.8%. It’s hard to capitalize on great offense that way.
Still Giving Up Easies
The Blazers needed every three they could hit because once again they gave up an enormous number in transition ( 25) and they got outscored in the paint 52-44. The paint points are probably understandable when facing Embiid. Transition points...ouch. Yet again.
Giving up easy points like that is a ticking time bomb. They almost defused it tonight with the three, but not quite. Even had they pulled out the win, it’s hard to take Portland seriously while that transition leak is happening.
Cam Reddish Confident
Cam Reddish continued his streak of striking games, scoring 14 on 6-11 shooting. He focused on driving tonight, using his quick-twitches and first step to full advantage. Reddish’s three-point shot wasn’t falling, but his layups made the difference.
Shaedon Sharpe Hiccup
Shaedon Sharpe appeared to hit another one of those rookie speed bumps in this game. He played 17 minutes and did not attempt a shot. If that’s happening, you know Sharpe can’t stay on the floor. It didn’t help that James Harden was eating his lunch and coming back for seconds. This was a rough night for the young star-in-waiting.
Fouling for Possession
Proper defensive tactics for a team leading by three points late in the game have been up for debate in basketball circles for years. Some advocate playing straight defense, reasoning that a 36% average shot from the arc leaves the leading team ahead 2 out of 3 times. Others claim that a team scores three points 0% of the time if you foul intentionally, making them shoot two free throws.
Blazers Head Coach Chauncey Billups has adhered to the latter theory lately. That’s what they went with tonight too, leading 119-116 with 48 seconds left. Portland fouled Tyrese Maxey, who hit two free throws, leaving the Sixers down 1 with 38 seconds to play.
But the Blazers also demonstrated one of the ways in which it can go wrong, as they turned over the ball on the ensuing possession. That gave Philadelphia a chance at the win with any made bucket instead of needing a three for the potential tie a possession before.
When Embiid’s leaner in the lane fell with 1.1 seconds remaining, Philly had put down the requisite four points. Le sigh.
That doesn’t mean the Blazers chose the wrong approach. It’s an illustration that fouling for possession when up three isn’t as foolproof as some adherents make it.
After a timeout following Embiid’s shot, Portland still had 1.1 seconds remaining and a sideline inbounds on their own half of the court to make good on the win. The inbounds pass was late and somewhat errant, as none of the Blazers could get free. Lillard bobbled the ball then caught it, but his guarded 25-foot attempt came after the buzzer. It didn’t fall anyway.
Whatever play was drawn up, the Blazers didn’t run it with much motion. There was a half-hearted screen on the near side of the floor, but neither player involved went much of anywhere. Lillard was the only player running hard, and his final move was directly away from the basket, parallel to the sideline, and more than halfway across the floor...tough conditions to get a pass through. I’m not sure what the plan was, but three of four targets not moving much can’t have been the optimal execution. It was a puzzling end to an otherwise good effort.
The Blazers finish up their last long road trip of the season on Sunday, facing the New Orleans Pelicans with a 4:00 PM, Pacific start.