The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Sacrament Kings 115-108 on opening night of the 2022-23 NBA Season. The contest was neck-and-neck throughout, the virtual tie broken by the play of Portland’s forwards against the overwhelming scoring of Kings guard De’Aaron Fox.
If you want to see a quarter by quarter description of the action, you can find it in our Instant Summary. After you read through that, here are a dozen factors that affected the game.
The Blazers showed a clear, persistent commitment to getting the ball in the lane in this game. They attempted 28 three-pointers, but made 56 in the paint. This is a reversal of their usual norm. They didn’t run from the long ball, but it wasn’t their first option. Instead they pushed for layups or step-up jumpers inside. The ongoing lane attack had a side benefit of drawing fouls. Portland attempted 33 free throws tonight, frustrating the HECK out of the Sacramento crowd.
Pushing tempo off rebounds and turnovers was a huge part of Portland’s offense. They played opportunistically whenever the ball changed sides. It was as fast and hard as we’ve seen a Blazers team run in forever. Fast breaks have long been a dead zone for Portland. Tonight they scored 20 on the run. Not bad.
16 forced turnovers didn’t hurt things. To say Portland played good defense would be a stretch, but they kept their hands busy and tried to force steals. When they got one, they were off to the races.
When they got stuck in the midfield, the Blazers ran into a bit of trouble. None of their ball handlers could get past Sacramento’s young, active defenders individually. When it came to one-on-one play, the Blazers fell short, with free throws from whistles providing the only real relief.
They solved that problem somewhat with center screens. The Blazers are neither deep nor overly talented up the middle, but their bigs can stand tall and absorb a hit. With centers setting up picks from multiple spots on the floor, Portland’s guards found seams they couldn’t have created themselves. For Anfernee Simons, that was enough. It was sometimes for Lillard as well. Alternatively, the guards made passes against a collapsing Sacramento defense, finding forwards at the arc or rim.
Screen setting was one of the most consistent aspects of Portland’s half-court offense tonight. They deserve a lot of credit for joining the scheme and making it work.
Lillard Up and Down
Damian Lillard certainly looked confident when he took the floor for the first time in ten months. His shot did not follow him onto the court. His rare three-point attempts looked decent leaving his hands, but roll the dice to see where they hit the rim. His drives were hampered by a lack of speed compared to his defenders. When he was able to get in, he ended up forcing shots over outstretched hands.
To be fair, Sacramento persistently inserted Dame. He made them pay with the passing game. He seems fond of setting up teammates and counting their scores as his own.
Lillard shot 5-18 from the field, only 1-8 from the arc, scoring 20 points and 8 assists in his season debut.
Simons In and Out
Anfernee Simons helped lead the charge on the inside attack. He didn’t take many threes early, focusing on finding the rim instead. He shot confidently when he did look at the bow. It just didn’t happen as much as in previous years.
Looking comfortable on the floor is testimony enough though. Simons did not in preseason. It’s a good sign for the Blazers that he seemed to feel confident in his role.
Simons scored 22 on 9-22 shooting, 3-10 from distance.
Shaedon Sharpe got separation on almost every drive attempt, but had trouble finishing. His first two steps seemed effortless, but as players closed in, he seemed to look away.
He had no such problem with a catch-and-shoot three, though. Those looked sharp and immediate. The rookie scored 12, going 3-3 from the arc in his NBA debut.
Jury out is Angle
Jusuf Nurkic was part of the impressive projection mentioned above. Full marks for that. He also did well on the boards, with 7 in 25 minutes.
The rest of the evening was mixed. Nurk looked slow. Both defense and offense seemed to slow down when he took the court, let alone when the Blazers tried to work through him. Nurkic had 4 turnovers and shot 3-9 from the field.
The experiment needs more time, but this is something to watch. There is no option to sit Nurk. It’s just hard when the less talented centers behind him seem to be playing much faster, and at least tonight, better.
If rebounding is going to be an issue for this height and crowd-challenged team, it didn’t show up tonight. The Blazers had 11 offensive rebounds, the Kings just 4. Granted, Sacramento isn’t a giant team either, but it’s still hopeful.
If you’re hoping for a return to the Terry Stotts, three-point offense of the past, you’re going to be waiting a while. Portland shot 11-28 from distance, a respectable 39.3%. They simply did not generate the attempts, preferring to go inside.
The Kings had no such problem. Portland has done a credible job facing guns one-on-one. They couldn’t shut down any action. Sacramento shot 17-44 from the arc.
If you do the math, that’s an 18-point deficit from the arc. That will be a stat to watch this season.
Jerami Grant had a nice debut for Portland. He was as active on defense as advertised. The Kings won, but not so much in their section. Plus Grant made the most of the handy buckets. He stayed on the sideline for catch-and-shoot threes, becoming one of the few Blazers who actually hit from distance. When he got the ball, he drove quickly, either converting layups or drawing fouls with a change of direction. He even grabbed a few boards, including an impressive offensive-rebound stick-back dunk in the third.
Grant’s stat line read 23 points on 5-11 shooting, 3-3 from the arc, 8 rebounds, and 2 steals in 35 minutes. If the Blazers get that from him every night, they’ll be ecstatic.
You Must Have Deer
Josh Hart was all over the floor tonight, in his usual style. His biggest contributions came in the third period. When Portland started falling behind by double digits, Hart ran the floor and got the ball inside. His layups and short shots provided a consistent flow of points when nothing else worked. His continued aggression was evident. He and Grant really got the team going in the second half. Hart’s final stat line read: 19 points, 8-11 shooting, 7 rebounds, 5 assists in 38 minutes.
And Justify For All
Justise Winslow was key to the third and fourth periods for the Blazers. He played defense, converted layups, grabbed rebounds and even hit a three-pointer. Coach Chauncey Billups kept him in for overtime late, even as the starters returned. Some of the starters did NOT come back in when Winslow played power forward and center during crunch time. It was enough testimony to his effort. Winslow notched 11 points and 8 rebounds (3 offensive) on 5-9 shooting in 26 minutes. That’s one more minute than Nurkic played.
In case it was not clear, the forwards of Portland – Grant, Hart and Winslow – won this game for the Blazers in the second half. Their energy, rebounding and commitment to driving gave Portland the spark they needed.
If Portland’s guards were hesitant during this contest, De’Aaron Fox had no such problem. The Sacramento point guard shot 12-21, 5-9 from the arc on his way to 33 points. The Blazers had no answer for him on defense. Get well soon, Gary Payton II.
The Blazers take the Phoenix Suns on Friday night in their home opener at the Moda Center at 7:00 PM, Pacific.