• Observations and analysis from the Portland Trail Blazers’ 129-95 win over the Philadelphia 76ers at Moda Center on Sunday night…

    • This one was over before halftime, and C.J. McCollum was the biggest reason why. The Blazers star guard freed himself from the shackles of season-long shooting woes to score 35 points on 13-of-18 from the field. He also shot 4-of-7 from beyond the arc and made all five of his free-throw attempts. If this game was competitive going into the fourth quarter, all indications were that McCollum would have continued pouring it on, perhaps netting the second 50-point game of his career. As is, most of his damage was done in the game’s first 24 minutes, when he scored 26 points courtesy of a dizzying array off-dribble jumpers and herky-jerky drives to the paint. McCollum, as Portland fans know all too well, hasn’t been himself in 2018-19, and his team won’t get where it needs to go to avoid major roster changes unless he plays like the efficient bucket-getter he is. Might this game be a sign of things to come for the season’s remainder? At the very least, it will serve as a confidence boost McCollum can recall when circumstances deem doing so necessary. He hasn’t played with this much confidence in weeks. Here’s hoping his shot continues to fall.

    • Nearly as impactful as McCollum’s breakout game was the absence of Joel Embiid. The Sixers rested their superstar big man to allow him extra recovery time from a sore left knee. Obviously, it’s incumbent on Philadelphia to monitor the health of Embiid with something close to extreme caution. That he played in 35 of the his team’s 36 games of this season, only sitting out to rest, makes it easy to forget that there was once a legitimate question of whether he’d ever be able to suit up in the NBA at all. It makes sense that the Sixers would struggle sans Embiid; he has a darkhorse case for MVP despite going cold from beyond the arc, sporting a +13.3 net rating, best on the team by a mile. Still, it was jarring to watch Portland blow the doors off Philadelphia with players the caliber of Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler on the floor. The latter missed his first seven shots, failing to score until late in the second quarter. It’s defensively, though, where the Sixers probably missed Embiid most. On multiple occasions, Jusuf Nurkic, who was strong on both ends for the third consecutive game with 14 points, seven rebounds, and three assists, simply used his laughably superior size and length to score over the top of overmatched defenders. Evan Turner was a force on the block, too, easily exploiting mismatches of his own without having to worry about one of the league’s premier rim-protectors affecting his shot. Embiid is Philadelphia’s best player, and it’s probably not particularly close anymore. But this team, obviously, is still far better without him than how it played against the Blazers on Sunday night.

     

    • Zach Collins‘ numbers weren’t all that impressive, especially considering he didn’t sit for the entirety of the fourth quarter along with his fellow rotation players, instead racking up extended garbage minutes alongside Portland’s seldom-used young players. Regardless, he gave multiple glimpses of the feel and nuanced skill level that portend good things for the future irrespective of whether he ultimately reaches his ceiling. Collins found Turner, checked by the six-foot T.J. McConnell after switches, in the post for layups on three different occasions early. The first assist came from the wing, with the ball perfectly placed in Turner’s extended left hand as he fended off McConnell with his right, leading him directly to the basket. The second was even more impressive, as Collins caught on the left block, faced up, and tossed a soft lob over the top of McConnell to Turner right in front of the rim. The plays looked routine, and for the most part they were, but there are only so many bigs in the league capable of easily taking advantage of a mismatch down low with such deft entry passing. Collins might not ever develop into the all-court impact player Portland thinks he has a chance to be, but for reasons like this one and many others, he’ll always have a place in good team’s rotation.

    • Just like they did against Draymond Green, the Blazers began the game by giving Amir Johnson, Embiid’s replacement, a country mile of space when he caught the ball on the perimeter. The veteran responded on Philadelphia’s first possession by facing the basket, looking for cutters, waiting another beat, then draining a 20-footer. Moments later, he further weaponized Portland’s sagging defense to his team’s benefit by initiating quick dribble hand-offs, a staple of Brett Brown’s offense, with J.J. Redick, who swished a deep two and wing triple completely unencumbered by the defense. Clearly, this gambit didn’t come back to bite the Blazers in a big way on Sunday, and wasn’t overly costly in either of prior two games versus the Golden State Warriors. There are rippling benefits to leaving a non-shooter alone on the perimeter, with the player in question’s man playing center field close to the rim, putting out fires all over the court. But the more defenses employ that strategy, the more offenses will be ready to counter it with hand-offs and other actions that mitigate its effects. Keep an eye on this, both offensively and defensively for Portland, as the season continues – especially in the playoffs, when every player’s greatest weakness is preyed upon by the opposition.

     

    • Some notable non-McCollum numbers from a game with one of the most lopsided final scores the Blazers will be a part of all season: Portland shot 59.0 percent from the field and 54.5 percent from deep, both season-highs. Even more impressive? The Blazers made a staggering 60.7 percent of their two-point attempts, and out-rebounded the Sixers 59-36 – a discrepancy better explained by one team’s ridiculously-hot shooting and the other connecting on just 35.4 percent of its field goal attempts than anything else. Not a single player for Portland notched more than McCollum’s 28 minutes. Seth Curry, getting early run due to McCollum picking up two quick fouls in the first quarter, was a game-high plus-33. Maybe most eye-popping, though, is that Portland managed this offensive onslaught despite committing 21 turnovers, tying a season-high, including eight in the first quarter alone. Just imagine the numbers that might have been put up if Terry Stotts’ team wasn’t so sloppy with the ball.

     

    • Moe Harkless sat out of Sunday’s game to rest his surgically-repaired left knee. Though he’s apparently sore, the team stressed that there’s been no setback in his ongoing recovery from going under the knife. Good thing, too, because the energy and athleticism Harkless, ostensibly approaching pain-free status, has provided over the past two weeks has been a major boon for the Blazers.
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