The Portland Trail Blazers faced one of their toughest challenges of the season Monday night against the Denver Nuggets and their MVP center Nikola Jokic. In the end, the challenge was as tough as overdone pasta, as the Blazers crushed Denver 135-110.
Damian Lillard dominated the first half of the game. He finished the night with 31 points on 10-16 shooting with 6 rebounds and 8 assists. Anfernee Simons took over in the third period which saw Portland turn a 6-point deficit into a 13-point lead. Simons scored 29 for the game, shooting 7-12 from range. With Jokic spending most of the game on the bench with foul issues, that’s all the Blazers needed to win their fourth in a row to start the season.
If you missed the action, shame on you! Fortunately, Matthew Legros has you covered with our quarter-by-quarter recap. After reading that, here are seven observations from Portland’s victory.
Smart nuggets… for half
Field goal percentage is one way to tell if a team’s offense is clicking. But the percentage does not say everything. Where the shots are coming from also matters (and often contributes to the percentage). Denver had no problem getting shots where they wanted them in the first half. They feasted in the lane of lay-ups, posts and offensive rebounds. In the meantime, they generated enough kicks to make the Rockettes jealous. Even on their low-percentage three-point attempts, they simply got past the shorter Blazers. Credit to the Nuggets for veteran savvy, exploiting matchups without having to feed a star for isolation attempts. Denver ended up 49.5 percent from the field for the game.
The Blazers also had a few tricks up their sleeve. Tap-out rebounds for second chances have become a staple of Portland’s offense. Portland can’t necessarily grab the boards, but they can get them away from the opponent. Quick break points also provide a source of easy buckets when the offense dries up. These extra, easy stitches eliminate over-reliance on the three-pointer.
Portland got 9 offensive boards tonight, nearly matching the 10 the much larger Denver team mustered. 26 points at the break underlined the effort provided by the Blazers.
The Blazers have running zones against every opponent they’ve faced so far. It didn’t work very well. Tonight it’s done. Zoning against the Nuggets has forced them to pull at the seams. The openings came from the mid-range. It was about the only time that night that Denver’s effectiveness faltered, but damn it, it faltered. They only got jumpers against the zone and pretty much all of them missed badly.
The third period was won by shooting from distance, but Portland’s zone made the margin meaningful rather than ceremonial.
Normally ‘zone defense’ and ‘good defenders’ don’t belong in the same phrase, but there’s something vaguely appealing about the mobile Blazers sticking close to play rather than being dragged off. of position and having to recover.
Third quarter adjustments
The third quarter was a nightmare for the Blazers last year. This has been an intermittent issue for a while. Under-talented teams tend to excel early, then fade when the better team starts paying attention.
If early-season third periods are any indication, the Blazers might just be the better team this year. The Blazers trailed 61-55 at halftime, but it took them about three minutes to erase that deficit with their change of defense, their run and a three-way Anfernee Simons barrage. By the time the smoke cleared, Portland was leading 99-86. It was a 19-point swing in one period.
Stay tuned, but half-time may well turn out to be an advantage this year.
Portland started the game from range, but once warmed up, they warmed up. The Blazers hit 11 triples in the second half, knocking the Nuggets out of the water. They are better as an inside team now. When the outside blows also fall? Be careful.
The Blazers had no answer for Denver forwards. Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter, Jr. were just too big for Portland’s defenders to handle. Porter, Jr. was 18, shooting 50 percent from the field and 4-8 from the arc. Gordon scored 26 on a 12-16 shot.
Portland’s guards did their own damage, however. Denver didn’t come out far enough on Simons and couldn’t stay ahead of Lillard. Dame fed Simons in the third period as Anfernee hit 6 of 7 three-pointers. Yes, in the neighborhood. At one point it was like a video game there. Portland was on the safe side. Simons had 22 points, yes, IN THE QUARTER.
If Nikola Jokic is the Joker, the referees were Batman tonight. Jokic spent most of the evening in trouble, picking up his fourth midway through the third period. He got his fifth with 9:00 remaining in the fourth. Jokic only attempted 4 shots in 27 minutes of play. No matter who else Denver has, that’s a big advantage for the opposition.
If you count, the MVP ended up slotting the night with 9 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists. Theoretically, the coins should have come out of Denver’s locker room at the time, but considering the final score, it probably looked more like tears.
The score of the box
The Blazers host the Miami Heat at the Moda Center on Wednesday night, tipping at 7:00 p.m. Pacific.