The Portland Trail Blazers faced the Houston Rockets on Friday night without starting point guard Damian Lillard. During the opening weeks of the season, Portland relied on Lillard’s 31.0 ppg scoring average to carry them through several close wins. Against the Rockets, they should manufacture other attack points and safety nets.
As it turned out, points of attack came in abundance and safety nets were not needed. Anfernee Simons filled Lillard’s shoes with aplomb. Rookie Shaedon Sharpe responded to his first-ever NBA start with 14 points, including some that brought the Fashion Center and everyone watching on broadcast streams to their feet. Jusuf Nurkic dominated the middle. Josh Hart and Jerami Grant found openings and played defense. All of it together added up to a relatively easy 125-111 win over Houston.
If you missed the game, you can find our quarterly recap here. After that, here are other observations from the evening.
From the start, the Blazers made up for Lillard’s absence – and Houston’s generally poor defense – by sharing the ball willingly. 2-3 passes on a given play became the norm. They usually set up the action by penetrating through the drip. Houston almost always called the cavalry for help and then the fun began.
Counting assists is only half the battle in a game like this. (The Blazers had 30 of 48 made buckets.) The infamous “hockey assist,” or a pass that sets up the assist pass, made frequent appearances. The Blazers shooting 53.3% from the field stands as a testament to the effectiveness of the offense as a whole. Add to that 125 total points while shooting just 20 free throws. The foul shot has been a staple of Portland’s point production this season. They average 30.6 attempts per game. They didn’t need the charity stripe tonight. Most of their looks ended up being loosely guarded.
Nurkic Plays Bully Ball
Jusuf Nurkic scored 27 points on 12-17 shooting. The low post was his bread and butter. He towered over opposing defenders. As a result, he could grab, lean his body against an opponent in a mass-based seal-away, then turn quickly and build short shots unopposed, even though the other center was literally inches from him. Not having to dribble or hesitate made Nurkic great in the post.
When things didn’t go right for Nurkic, the turnovers and spotty play returned, but things went right for most of his 32 minutes on the floor.
Shaedon Sharpe got the first start of his NBA career tonight. He came out aggressively, hitting his first jump shot cleanly, then going to town. He scored 14 points on 7-12 shooting, but some subtleties punctuated the spectacular effort. First, he was just as ready to pass the ball as his teammates. Second, on offense, he showed a good understanding of spacing, playing off others when he didn’t have the ball. Both of those traits came in handy during the plays you’ll see on SportsCenter Top 10 tonight:
The Blazers did well on three-pointers, hitting 13 of 35, 37.1%. See also…
Simons Leads the Way
Anfernee Simons stepped into the main scoring role tonight with a combination of authority and poise. He didn’t start the game shooting. He was nearly seamless as part of the ball-moving offense. As the first half unfolded, Ant picked his spots, finding more and more openings. At halftime, he had 7-11 three-pointers hit and 23 total points. He finished the game with 30. It was all that could have been hoped for when Simons stepped in for Dame.
Staying even on the boards has been a secret weapon for the Blazers this season. Nurkic’s height and the commitment of his teammates helped that story continue against Houston. Portland had 45 total rebounds, 11 offensive against 39 and 13 for the Rockets.
Not everything went perfectly for the Blazers. We’ll whisper this because the win was fun and raucous, but Portland still didn’t close out well on a three-pointer and didn’t get back in transition either. The Rockets shot 36.8% from the arc (falling to that level towards the end of the game) and won 21 fast break points against 18 for the Blazers. Easy points are the only kind that Houston can score regularly. Portland didn’t stop them tonight.
Despite this, the Blazers troubled the young Rockets in 17 turnovers. Against miscues helped Portland open its lead early.
We mentioned Jusuf Nurkic above, but Drew Eubanks has also provided energy and a surprisingly solid offensive attack playing behind Nurk. Eubanks was the bench player of the game, scoring 10 on 4-4 shooting. It was a good night to be center.
The Blazers reflect on their incredible 5-1 start for a few days before taking the Memphis Grizzlies Wednesday, November 2 at 7:00 PM Pacific.