The Portland Trail Blazers faced one of their stiffest challenges of the season on Monday night, facing the Denver Nuggets and their MVP center, Nikola Jokic. As it turned out, the challenge was as stiff as overdone dough, as the Blazers steamrolled 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 distance. With Jokic spending most of the game on the bench with foul trouble, 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! Luckily Matthew Legros has you covered our quarter-by-quarter summary. After you read through that, here are seven observations from Portland’s win.
Smart Nuggets…During Halftime
Field goal percentage is one way to tell if a team’s offense is clicking. But percentage doesn’t say everything. Where the shots come from also matters (and often contributes to percentage). Denver had no problem getting shots exactly where they wanted them in the first half. They feasted in the lane of layups, posts and offensive rebounds. In between, they generated enough kicks to make the Rockettes jealous. Even on their lower percentage three-point attempts, they simply rose above the shorter Blazers. Credit to the Nuggets for the veteran know-how, taking advantage of matchups without having to feed a star for isolation attempts. Denver got 49.5% from the field for the game.
The Blazers also had a few tricks up their sleeves. Tap rebounds for second chances have become a staple of Portland’s offense. Portland can’t necessarily grab boards, but they can push them away from the opponent. Fast break points also provide a source of easy buckets when the offense dries up. Those extra, easy points take away the over-reliance on the three-pointer.
Portland got 9 offensive boards tonight, almost matching the 10 that the much bigger Denver team snuck in. 26 points at the break highlighted the effort the Blazers put forth.
The Blazers have run zones against every opponent they have faced so far. It didn’t work very well. Tonight, it did. Zoning up against the Nuggets forced them to shoot in the joints. The openings came from mid range. This was the only time all night that Denver’s efficiency faltered, but boy did it falter. They only got jumpers against the zone and almost all of them missed badly.
The third period was won on the back of a long shot, but Portland’s zone made the margin significant instead of ceremonial.
Normally “zone defense” and “good defenders” don’t belong in the same sentence, but there’s something vaguely appealing about the mobile Blazers, who stay in the vicinity of plays rather than being dragged out of position and having to recover.
Third Quarter Adjustments
The third quarter was a nightmare for the Blazers last year. It’s been an intermittent thing for a while. Under-talented rosters tend to stand out early, then fade when the better team starts paying attention.
If the early season third periods are any indication, the Blazers might be the better team this year. The Blazers trailed 61-55 at the half, but it took them about three minutes to erase that deficit with their change in defense, running, and a barrage of Anfernee Simons threes. By the time the smoke cleared, Portland led 99-86. It was a 19-point swing in a single period.
Stay tuned, but half time can only be a boon this year.
Portland started the game sketchily from distance, but then when it got hot, they got hot. The Blazers hit 11 second-half triples, blowing the Nuggets out of the water. They are better as an inside team now. When too? the outside shots fall? Be careful.
The Blazers had no answer for the forwards of Denver. Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter, Jr. were just too big for Portland’s defenders to manage. Porter, Jr. had 18, shooting 50% from the field and 4-8 from the arc. Gordon scored 26 on 12-16 shooting.
Portland’s guards did their own damage, though. Denver didn’t get out far enough on Simons and couldn’t stay in front of Lillard. Dame fed Simons in the third period as Anfernee hit 6 of 7 three-pointers. Yes, in the fourth. At a certain point, it was like a video game out there. Portland was on the good side of it. Simons had 22 points, yes, IN THE QUARTER.
If Nikola Jokic is The Joker, the referees were Batman tonight. Jokic spent nearly the entire evening in foul trouble, picking up his fourth midway through the third period. He scored his fifth with 9:00 remaining in the quarter. Jokic only attempted 4 shots in 27 minutes of play. No matter who else Denver has, that’s a big advantage for the opponent.
If you’re counting, the MVP finished slot machine the evening with 9 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists. Theoretically coins should have been spilled out of Denver’s locker room at that point, but based on the final score, it was probably more like tears.
The Blazers welcome the Miami Heat to the Fashion Center on Wednesday night, with tip-off at 7:00 p.m., Pacific.