The Portland Trail Blazers played another inexperienced, up-and-down team on Sunday evening, facing the Chicago Bulls at the Moda Center. Neither youth nor athleticism nor the home crowd helped the Blazers avoid a 104-96 defeat at the hands of their visitors. Chicago out-ran, out-hustled, and out-defended Portland, leaving the Blazers with a miserable 40.5% shooting percentage from the field at the end of the evening.
Portland remained persistent and kept the game fairly close, even taking the lead in the second half for a while. If you missed the action, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. After that, here are other key factors and players from the game.
Anfernee Simons Yin Yang
The opposite sides of Anfernee Simons were apparent in this outing.
Nobody in Portland’s uniform gets close to the beauty and grace Simons displays with the three point shot. His release is instant and nearly impossible to stop. The ball always gets close to the rim. If it doesn’t swish, his feathery touch gives it a good chance to drop anyway. The rim welcomes Simons’ deep shots like mom greeting her college student at the door.
The exact opposite happens when Simons tries to drive. He doesn’t gain any separation. His height leaves him at a neutral advantage, at best, against opponents, often a disadvantage against a single defender, inevitably smothered against help. His mass doesn’t allow him to absorb contact and still finish. Nor does he have great left-right ability or nifty tricks to get free inside. He’s mostly going straight line, then trying like heck to figure out how to get up a shot once he gets close to the rim. It’s not working. Chicago snuffed out Simons’ interior play with ease, leaving him with the alternative of shooting deep or getting obliterated.
Ant worked around the constant double-teams and lack of daylight against the Bulls by becoming an assist man. He tallied 8 tonight. A few were precarious, but the ball got there.
Simons also took over the game in the fourth period when the Blazers slipped behind, willing his team to stay close despite the fractured nature of the outing. He turned from rough night to hot quarter with the flip of a switch.
He finished the night with 11 points on 4-15 shooting, 2-7 from distance. It wasn’t enough.
Watching Simons try to negotiate the attention defenses are giving him—and evolving his game accordingly—is one of the better subtext stories of the season. Stay tuned.
Jerami Grant Utility Scorer
Jerami Grant is second on the team in scoring to Simons, posting 21.1 per game on average. We’ve said several times that he’s not a true #1 option, but it’s time to appreciate what he brings. Grant is one of the few Blazers who’s good most anywhere you get him the ball. His mid-range attempts aren’t pretty, but you don’t want to shoot from there much anyway. Grant looks confident on his three-point shot, his moves to the bucket, and his finishes from either side of the floor, left or right. He can also shoot straight away. We should appreciate more the wrinkles that causes for defenses. Opponents want to crowd Simons, lay back against Scoot Henderson, and ignore Matisse Thybulle almost entirely. Deandre Ayton isn’t a long ball threat. Jabari Walker isn’t a mainline scorer. Jerami Grant and Malcolm Brogdon are the two Blazers who can make defenses think twice about their game plan. Of the two, Grant is more potent by far.
Tonight Grant had 24 points on 5-12 shooting, 1-6 from the arc. That isn’t great, but his 13-16 free throw rate made up for it. Somehow he finds a way. He also nabbed 7 rebounds.
Game Savin’ Ayton
When all seemed lost after a listless first half, Deandre Ayton started playing like the first overall pick in an NBA Draft. In the third period, he converted four shots right in the middle of the court. That was the most valuable real estate of the night for the Blazers, as they bricked most everything from the sidelines and the top of the arc. Deandre stood like a lighthouse, keeping his team from foundering on the rocks, at least for a minute.
Ayton scored 22 with 12 rebounds against the Bulls on 9-12 shooting. He was the only starter whose shooting percentage wasn’t abysmal.
The Bulls ran on Portland tonight shamelessly. They crammed a deep-dish point pizza down the Blazers’ throats and told them they couldn’t get up from the table until they ate it all. Giving up a 15-4 advantage to the opponent in transition made life hard.
This is one aspect of this year’s squad I’ll never understand. Getting back on defense is about anticipation, repetition, and speed. They’re young. They have energy to burn. Why do they get blown out on the break so often?
Scoot Henderson had a couple of beautiful floaters from the mid-range tonight. Rembrandt couldn’t have painted them better. Keep watching his offense.
Henderson was also the one Blazers guard actively trying to change the tempo of the game during his shifts. He pushed the ball down the court, making Chicago run to keep up. Inevitably, four teammates trailed behind him. Again...why? Shouldn’t that style of play be contagious?
Either way, Henderson had 4 points and 4 assists in 22 minutes.
Caught Outside the Play
Energy and enthusiasm aren’t always good, though. In the halfcourt defense, the Blazers got caught over-pursuing the ball, under-reacting on the weak side, on multiple occasions. When Chicago threatened on one side of the floor and Portland moved to shut them down, all they had to do was reverse the ball to the other side. They’d find a mismatch, with an extra offensive player, and practically nobody moving to fix it. Nomenclature aside, Portland ended up looking like bulls being played by a matador.
This also happens up high, as defenders go for steals or put on pressure. In another head-scratcher, once the ball goes by Portland defenders, they seem to deactivate, standing outside the radius of the play or following behind at a semi-trot. There’s not even the bad excuse of leaking out, trying to sneak in an uncontested layup off of a miss. It’s like Portland defenders adopt the accent of empire-era British nobility, “Well played, sir! It wouldn’t be sporting to mar such an effort by interfering further with your ability to score. We shall duel again soon!”
Worst of all, Portland’s chasing defense forced only 5 turnovers from the Bulls tonight. They gave up a 17-7 deficit on points after turnovers. Ugh.
Need Some Assistance?
All of these defensive shortcomings culminate in Chicago’s assist numbers for the night: 27 assists on 42 made buckets. Give Portland a single target to defend and they can close. Pass the ball and they’ll not interfere.
Just a guess: if you allow the other team to run freely in transition and pass easily in the halfcourt, they’re going to hit a LOT of shots and you’re going to lose.
The “Sucks to be the Blazers” crowd will want to look at the free throw disparity in this game. Chicago played faster and scored way more in the paint (STATS), but Portland still earned a 29-17 advantage in free throw attempts for a +14 edge for the game. At least something went right. Thanks, Jerami.
Remember when we said last week that the Blazers depended on hot shooting from the three-point arc in order to survive? Tonight they shot 6-33, 18.2%. Enough said.
No rest for the weary. The Blazers get the Philadelphia 76’ers tomorrow night with a 7:00 PM, Pacific start at the Moda Center. Joel Embiid. Deandre Ayton. Let’s see what happens.