• Observations and analysis from the Portland Trail Blazers’ 128-122 victory over the Toronto Raptors at Moda Center on Friday night.

    The Blazers’ dominant bench

    Portland’s reserves combined for a season-high 59 points, nearly doubling the total of Toronto’s. Four of the five bench players who appeared for the Blazers scored in double-figures. They went 22-of-36 from the field, good for 61.1 percent shooting. After the game, Terry Stotts awarded four more game balls than normal, one of each to Seth Curry, Nik Stauskas, Evan Turner, Zach Collins, and Meyers Leonard. Still, neither those gaudy numbers nor Stotts’ special gesture accurately convey the impact Portland’s all-reserve lineup had on Friday’s game. It extended the Blazers’ lead from two to 11 in the first six minutes and 44 seconds of the second quarter before Stotts, for the first time this season, used a hockey substitution, bringing all five of his starters back to give his bench a much-needed blow after a game-changing stint. The late third and early fourth quarter was a near repeat of the second, only longer, with the Blazers’ reserves turning an inherited five-point advantage into an 11-point lead by the time Stotts pulled them en masse again with 4:45 on the game clock. If he’d gone back to his regular crunch-time lineup earlier, there’s a chance Stotts would have lost this game for Portland – it took a five-second violation and timely 3-point shooting of their own for the starters to quell the Raptors’ onslaught from long range, which at one point pulled the road team within a single possession of taking the lead. Credit Stotts for rolling with his second unit for far longer than normal, yes, but the vast majority of acclaim lies at the feet of Curry, Stauskas, Turner, Collins, and Leonard, a group much-maligned of late that propelled its team to a win over league-leading Toronto – which, it bears noting, played without star table-setter Kyle Lowry – by playing with the energy, engagement, and enjoyment that’s been sorely missing for the Blazers over the last month of the season.

    Curry and Collins break free from slumps

    It would be remiss to single out any of the Blazers’ bench players for their role in the win without further asserting just how good they were as a whole. In 19 total minutes of play, the lineup of Curry-Stauskas-Turner-Collins-Leonard outscored the Raptors by 10 points, racking up an offensive rating of 130.8 and true shooting percentage of 71.8 – all while going a pedestrian 4-of-11 from deep. Maybe most encouraging overall about the performance of Portland’s second unit, though, was the play of Seth Curry and Zach Collins, two players who entered Friday’s action enduring respective levels of basketball strife. Curry, who many assumed would be the Blazers’ first guard off the bench this season, scored 13 points, a season-best, to go along with two assists and two steals just 48 hours after receiving his second DNP-CD in three games. Collins, meanwhile, broke out of a mini slump to play his best basketball in weeks, finishing with 16 points (6-of-8 FGs, 1-of-2 3PTs), four rebounds, one steal, and one block. Coming into 2018-19, the viability of Portland’s decision to abandon staggering the minutes of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum hinged on whether Curry, who missed all of last season with a nagging injury in his left leg, would be able to find the form that made him one of the league’s most pleasant surprises with the Dallas Mavericks two years ago, and the scope of Collins’ development after a promising, if understated, rookie campaign. Should they make a habit of playing like this simultaneously? There’s no other swing factor that could alter the the trajectory of the Blazers’ season more, as was made abundantly clear against Toronto.

    Passing, and cutting, fancy

    Jusuf Nurkic led Portland with seven assists. Turner had six dimes, while Lillard and McCollum doled out four apiece. The Blazers collected 29 assists altogether versus the Raptors, a new season high. Hot three-point shooting – Portland was 13-of-27 from beyond the arc – undoubtedly contributed to those impressive passing numbers, but so did a renewed commitment to playing with pace and edge in the halfcourt. The Blazers set better screens and made crisper cuts, taking full advantage of Toronto’s aggressiveness defensively en route to 60 points in the paint and 24-of-39 shooting at the rim. “The Blazers played really fast,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse told NBC Sports Northwest’s Dwight Jaynes after the game. “They were just flipping the ball around and cutting super hard…They made the better decisions most of the night. They played with a little more speed than we did tonight.” The bench obviously had a lot to do with the Blazers’ success offensively, but the starters were effective, too, and Moe Harkless was one of the biggest reasons why. One game removed from sitting to rest his surgically-repaired knee, three of his four field goals were dunks. When Portland gets into its offense early and moves the ball to multiple side of the floor in the halfcourt is when this team’s whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, and a healthy Harkless is crucial to that equation.

    Damian Lillard, controlled and clutch

    Make no mistake, though: Lillard was still the Blazers’ best player on Friday night. He had 24 points, two rebounds, and four assists, connecting on all three of his tries from deep and all five of his free-throw attempts in just 29 minutes of play. Against one of the league’s best defenses, replete with several stellar individual defenders on the perimeter, of differing styles and sizes, Lillard was in complete control offensively, playing one of his most efficient games of the entire season. He saved Portland late, too, ripping the ball from Fred Van Vleet’s hands to thwart a would-be layup in transition with 1:25 remaining in the game – and the red-hot Raptors suddenly down just two points.

    McCollum drained a three seconds later as the defense scrambled to get back into position, putting the Blazers back up by two possessions. Toronto would get no closer.

    Raptors roar in crunch time

    It’s a testament to Toronto’s talent level that it managed a 124.5 offensive rating without Lowry, the team’s offensive engine and the league leader in assists. That number was inflated, though, by some ridiculous late-game shot-making by Kawhi Leonard and C.J. once Stotts went back to his starters to close out the win. The two combined for five three-pointers in the 4:45 of the fourth quarter, leading a furious charge that saw the Raptors score 23 points over that stretch. To be clear, there wasn’t much Portland could do about Leonard’s triples – all three of them came off the dribble and were at least semi well-contested. If not for similarly timely threes by Lillard, McCollum, and Al-Farouq Aminu, Toronto might have stolen this game late.

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