• Observations and analysis from the Portland Trail Blazers’ 111-101 win over the New York Knicks on Monday night at Moda Center…

    • Six players scored in double-figures for the Blazers, and every player who was healthy enough to finish the game managed at least seven points. Indeed, this was one of Portland’s most balanced offensive efforts of the season, as the home team shot 47.1 percent overall, connected on 11-of-31 from beyond the arc, and doled out 25 assists, good for an offensive rating of 114.0 – better than the Golden State Warriors’ league-leading number. Jusuf Nurkic reached 20 points for the sixth time in seven games; Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum scored 17 points apiece despite off shooting nights; and the bench combined for a whopping 49 points on 56.3 percent from the field. The Blazers will always be at their best when Lillard and McCollum have it going, but Monday’s victory was a nice reminder that this team has enough quality NBA talent across its roster to casually beat a young, losing team at home when neither of their stars has it going and Nurkic isn’t dominating in the paint. This was a professional victory, exactly the kind Portland needs to continue keeping pace in the Western Conference playoff race with confidence.

     

    • Lillard didn’t have his best night. In fact, there was one ugly two-way sequence in the first half that made it seem as if the Blazers’ captain was simply going through the motions, confident his team could show up and beat an objectively inferior foe absent consistent energy and engagement. He picked it up after halftime, of course, scoring 11 of his 17 total points in the third quarter, which Portland won 32-23 after taking just a one-point lead into halftime. One potential reason for Lillard’s early listlessness? New York blitzed him in pick-and-roll action from the opening tip, bringing bigs high up the floor to force the ball from his hands. Lillard was undaunted, though, creating a pair of layups for Nurkic in the early going first by hitting Al-Farouq Aminu on a “short roll” at the moment the double-team committed, and on the next possession finding Nurkic with a quick bounce pass almost immediately after taking a dribble hand-off. Later, in the third quarter, he strung out the double-team by taking two extra dribbles down the sideline before slipping a behind-the-back bounce pass, with his left hand, to Meyers Leonard for a wide-open three on the wing. Those release valves, like “shorting” ball-screen action by bringing up another outlet from the weak side and working the two-man game from there, certainly aren’t groundbreaking. But that Lillard has grown so comfortable taking advantage of the extra defensive pressure afforded him by easily utilizing those various counters and more is a harbinger of good things to come under the microscope of the playoffs. Teams can try and take Lillard away, but through ongoing development as a passer, he’s ensured his overall impact won’t be muted by that strategy.

     

    • Moe Harkless returned against the Knicks after missing Saturday’s win over James Harden and the Houston Rockets with left knee soreness, the same malady that’s plagued him dating back to last spring. After starting and playing nine non-notable minutes in the first half, though, the Blazers announced he would sit out the game’s remainder, opening the door for Jake Layman to begin the second half alongside the starters. Assuming Harkless’ exclusion after intermission was a precautionary measure, it could prove beneficial for Portland in the long run if Layman continues playing with the pace and aggression he’s shown since being recently re-inserted into the rotation. He had 10 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists on 3-of-5 shooting in 22 extremely encouraging minutes on Monday, using his speed and vertical explosion to find seams to the rim via cuts, get out in transition, and attack the offensive glass. Perhaps most encouraging was the nascent court sense he exhibited on several possessions, sacrificing a “good” look of his own for a “great” one for one of his teammates courtesy of the extra pass. Layman’s lack of any off-dribble verve whatsoever is still problematic, but definitely to a lesser extent when he’s hunting open jumpers, cutting hard to the basket, and helping the Blazers’ oft-stagnant offense keep the ball moving. He’s here to stay in the rotation, and Portland is much better off for it.

     

    • Stotts toggled the matchups up front on defense to account for the individual strengths and weaknesses of both his players and the Knicks’. Nurkic spent the majority of his time on the floor guarding Noah Vonleh, who’s finally found an NBA home in New York as frontcourt playmaker, while Al-Farouq Aminu was matched up with Luke Kornet, a 7-foot-2 center who’s jacking over nine triples per-36 minutes of play. Portland stuck with that alignment when Zach Collins gave Nurkic a breather, too. This is hardly the first time we’ve seen Stotts slot Aminu onto bigger players who pose an imminent threat from beyond the arc, and it will hardly be the last. Nurkic is ill-equipped to close out on shooters, and provides his best defensive value when stationed near the rim anyway. Limiting his responsibilities on the perimeter by putting Aminu on the superior shooter of the opposition’s starting bigs not only plays to individual strengths of both players, but also allows the Blazers to stay as scheme consistent as possible, continuity that the team hopes results in its whole on defense being bigger than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, not all modern-day frontcourts are as underwhelming as New York’s. A tough litmus test in that regard for Nurkic, Aminu, and company awaits when Portland visits the Denver Nuggets on Sunday.

     

    • Aminu needed 12 shot attempts to score just eight points, and hit only one of his four tries from deep. Still, this was a game that made abundantly clear just how important he can be to the Blazers even when his jumper isn’t falling and he’s having trouble finishing. He was a menace defensively, capably guarding everyone from Kornet to Emmanuel Mudiay en route to two steals and one block. He also grabbed nine rebounds, always fighting hard on the glass against one of the league’s better offensive rebounding outfits. Aminu also pushed the pace in transition, on multiple occasions beginning the break himself whether or not he was ultimately the one to finish it. Of course, that aspect of Aminu’s game still needs refinement, as does his penetrating ability in the halfcourt, but he still showed improved control and patience when putting the ball on the deck against New York, continuing the obvious strides he’s made this season. There aren’t many role players in the league who impact the game like Aminu can when they’re struggling to score, a reality that can sometimes go more easily overlooked than it did against the Knicks.
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