Going to work on these in bundles rather than one for each game. Too many games in an NBA season to balance with other stuff. But hell, it’s fun. So I’m going to keep trying out these little Blazer recaps.
Damian Lillard is back.
And for roughly two games, it’s not just been him who has sealed the deal.
On Friday’s home opener against the Phoenix Suns, however, it looked like no one else could follow him. Their opening night guests kept the Rose Quarter door closed on the rest of the Blazers. Fending off anyone not named Damian Lillard, the Suns threatened to blow open the host club’s homecoming. The box score agreed, Lillard filled the rim for 28 first-half points, but the rest of the Blazers combined for 19.
The Blazers’ secondary stars and role players all struggled to make effective offensive actions, any and all out-bounds-attempts were disjointed, and the whole team played carelessness with the ball, giving Phoenix plenty of chances to pickpocket, strip or cajole possession for 23 points off turnovers.
Every point felt like a scrap. DeAndre Ayton outplayed Jusuf Nurkic. Anfernee Simons struggled to find the basket while Jerami Grant was nowhere on the shooting map. Chris Paul carved out space in the paint, and Devin Booker knifed inside with multiple downhill dribble drives.
Meanwhile, Shaedon Sharpe suffered the typical rookie doldrums: ineffectual on offense, not entirely lost on one-on-one defense. Nassir Little failed to use his size for a bully-ball advantage. And Eubanks looked somewhere between hapless and hard-to-watch.
Perhaps this should be expected for a team with an overhauled roster going up against what is, more or less, the same team that won 64 games last season. The players are still figuring out how to fit their games with each other. The assistant coaches are still actively working out the kinks in their philosophies and principles. And Chauncey Billups is still experimenting with player rotations.
Just like in Sacramento, there was no shortage of lineups in the first half. Halfway through the second quarter, Chauncey had test-driven nine different combinations to varying degrees of non-success. With the minutes winding down in the second quarter, Phoenix looked poised to take a dozen-point lead into halftime. What they forgot to account for was a healthy Damian Lillard.
Portland’s rejuvenated star sank back-to-back three-point shots to shave the Phoenix lead to six. Asked about his hot shooting post-game, Lillard that “it didn’t feel like one of those nights where I just had it rolling.” Instead, Lillard relied on tape to key into his opening shots.
“I was able to recognize something that I recognized on film as an opportunity and scored my first basket… I knew at that moment that I’ll be in control enough to have a good game.”
But by halftime, the general narrative had clarified itself: someone, anyone, needed to also have a good game and help keep them in the game. If this was going to be Dame Time, only for Dame to go even somewhat cold, then the Blazers would only stay within distance and never actually have a chance to strike.
In the second half, the team answered the call.
Josh Hart pushed the pace in the third. Jerami Grant continued to prove he needed more shots. Nassir Little and Justise Winslow bailed out half-court sets. Eubanks finished at the rim with flair twice to bring the crowd back into the contest. Nurkic was able to string together a noble 20 points and 17 rebounds performance against DeAndre Ayton. And Afernee Simons found somewhat of a rhythm. With a minute remaining, Simons sealed a catch-and-shoot three-pointer to put the Blazers up 100 to 99.
Wasting no time, Suns floor-general Chris Paul retorted with a layup in transition and was rewarded with a favorable goaltend call. Unfortunately, he undid his own work, fouling Nurkic. Nurkic drilled both shots. And in a final minute that had zigged and zagged, it zigged again; Nurkic undid his own work with a foul on Mikal Bridges.
Bridges missed the first shot. Another zag. But managed the second. Zig again. Instead of using their final timeout, Lillard sent a Hail Mary, and Mary didn’t pick up the line. Overtime at 102.
And at this point, the Blazers had cooked up quite the potion of emotion for their home opener. A team in transition against one of the best sides in the league. A come-from-behind effort. A contentious, back-and-forth slugfest finale. In overtime, it looked like the recipe might get away from the home side. The Suns weaved their way to a 111 to 106 lead. But again, the Blazers rallied.
Nurkic chipped away with another made free throw. Jerami Grant fought for a lazy pass, forced a loose ball foul to turn possession over to the Blazers and capped it off with a cutting dunk off a driving pass from Simons, then bothered the erstwhile phenomenal Booker’s shot enough to corral another stop. Lillard looked ready for another half-court set before turning on the jets to another foul at the rim. Per his resume, the game was all tied up.
For the second time, the Suns cleared out space for Booker at the right elbow. And it was Hart with the assignment. Hart, whose 6’4” frame allows for multi-positional play, is the shortest of the likely small-forward candidates. Booker. And it cannot be helped that nightmares of a three-guard defensive lineup still feel fresh.
So Booker drove at the angle. Hart cut him off. He stopped baseline. Hart recovered. He rose up with a right-hand floater. Hart contested.
Back iron. Dame recovered the rebound with no timeouts, read the double team and handed the live ball to Simons at the left elbow. Cold all game until the last minute of the fourth, Simons drove to just inside the paint and buried a running right-hand hook with seven seconds left on the clock. Monty Williams called time out. The ghost of Mike D’Antoni salivated.
For the third time, the play was run for Booker. And as he met Hart and Nurkic under the rim, falling sideways and out-of-bounds, Booker dumped it off to Ayton. Nurkic pivoted quickly to disrupt the shot, even if for a foul. And then Lillard, without taking a single shot, gave his final lesson in Clutch Studies 101.
As Ayton prepared for the first free throw, Lillard was delivering words to his left ear. Asked what he said, Lillard smiled coyly, “Have you ever been in this situation before?” Read the lips, and you might receive a clearer picture of what was said. (“You think they trust with the game on the line? Hell nah.”) Regardless, it was out of character for Dame, who will gladly riposte but rarely seek. Did it work?
Well, the confetti fell. And the reality is, were it not for free throws, the Blazers might have had a sour homecoming. They had a total of 15 more than the Suns (21), and by sinking 31 of their 36 freebies, among Lillard’s own workhorse scoring night, they stayed close enough to strike. It was only by cleaning up turnovers, playing toward the basket on offense and giving a stout effort on key defensive sets that allowed for Simons sealed the deal.
And it was Lillard who was first among his teammates to give Simons the credit an opening night hero is due.
Portland would have to bottle this opening night energy for a quick trip down to Los Angeles to face their so-far-flailing Lakers.
Normally, such a circumstance constituted a scheduled loss. The Blazers as a team rarely play well in the Arena former known as Crypto.com during the LeBron James era. And Los Angeles was already starving for a win. So Lillard stuffed down another 21 points in the first half, and the Blazers bulldogged out the first half with a seven-point advantage.
Every Blazer scored while Hart swallowed rebounds whole to start fastbreaks. Lillard used off-ball screens to zip around and score at will to the sound of fans singing Billups’ praises. The Blazers didn’t shoot well, but neither did the Lakers. As James has commented frequently, this is not a team constructed to shoot.
In fact, it’s not really a team with much of a blueprint beyond a core of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook.
But between Westbrook, Patrick Beverly, Lonnie Walker IV et al., the Lakers finished an abysmal one of 16 from three-point range by the end of the first half. They finished a dreary 6 of 33 for the entire game. James performed his best Lillard impression from the Lakers L on the floor and whiffed it. Nothing but air. It got so bad the Blazers didn’t even bother to close out on Anthony Davis or Westbrook.
In the second half, the script flipped. Anthony Davis remembered he was Anthony frickin’ Davis and began to start exerting his will over the game. Davis punished any small-ball option and, when motivated, could neutralize any big, anywhere.
For his part, Nurkic ended the game with only six points and 13 rebounds. It might not have been the same noble performance as he put up against DeAndre Ayton, but Nurkic’s presence underneath the rim was either nullified by broken-down rotations, faulty switches or tricky interior passing from Davis. Through three quarters, Davis tallied a respectable total of 20 points, nine rebounds and two assists. James and co. managed to make five three-pointers and the Lakers turned the score inside out, 83 to 78.
In the fourth quarter, Davis only scored two points. The home team took only four three-point attempts and James was left to duel Lillard for the last frame. But for every effort LeBron James made to seal this game for the Lakers, Westbrook undid with poor decisions, poor shotmaking and poor… well, everything.
As the Lakers led by one with 37 seconds, Westbrook corralled another rebound from a failed Portland offensive play, moved down the court and rose. “Oh my,” blurted Lakers color commentator Stu Lantz,
The Blazers, saved by the brick, turned to their leader. And before Lillard could do anything, Nurkic was whistled for the moving screen on Patrick Beverly. Billups sagely challenged the call, even if it seemed Nurkic was indeed moving, Beverley’s embellishments did him no favors. Head referee for the contest, Ed Malloy borrowed soccer terminology to describe the reversal: “Beverly took a dive.”
Now with the ball just behind the half-court line. Lillard took the moment to remind Lakers fans who he was. Echoing past performances, Lillard jab-stepped Walker out of his shoes, stepped-back into his own and sank a three-pointer from 27 feet. Like a boogieman, Lillard climbed from underneath the Laker’s bed and snatched this game.
And then the Blazers echoed this performance with another defensive miscommunication. After advancing the ball, James isolated Nurkic out beyond the arc. With one step, Nurkic was beaten and James shook the rim with seven seconds and seven-tenths left. Tie ballgame at 104.
With Simons suffering another cold shooting night, it looked like the shot was Lillard’s to take. But as is so often now, the Lakers denied any entry pass to the Portland guard. Winslow instead fed the ball to Grant, who twisted and contorted a driving layup for the score. Once again, in the clutch moments, it didn’t need to be just Dame Time. Lillard can instead keep the Blazers steady and in the game, generating more offensive gravity and causing the defense to sag off a supporting cast playing much-improved basketball.
Even if the Lakers snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, it took gumption and resilience from the Blazers to keep the game in a winnable state. Something which can also be said for their efforts against Phoenix. That alone is more than one could say for the Blazers organization at the same time last year. Cronin and Billups are attempting many things at once right now: burning away the taste of last year, building a future contender and installing a team identity that will see success right now.
And three games in? They’re succeeding with a roster that has been described as unbalanced, incomplete and shorthanded. They’re playing fun basketball. And they now come home for a three-game stand before the schedule starts to pick up in intensity.