• Observations and analysis from the Portland Trail Blazers’ 115-107 loss to the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center on Monday night…

    Believe it or not, it will be tough for the Blazers, on the second leg of a road back-to-back or not, to win going forward when C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic combine for just 12 points on 21 shot attempts. The former, frustrated from the opening tip by the Kings’ length and activity, went just 2-of-14 from the field, missing several makable shots along the way, including a dead layup in the second quarter. Nurkic, meanwhile, never found a groove after Sacramento, forcing three turnovers on pocket passes in the first quarter alone, shut down his ball-screen dance with Damian Lillard. He didn’t get his first touch on the block until late in the first half, either, when Terry Stotts seemed to remember Nurkic has been the linchpin of his team’s recent success.

    Both McCollum and, to a lesser extent, Nurkic were net negatives against the Kings. Lillard had five turnovers in the first quarter. Portland shot 40.2 percent from the field and 10-of-31 from beyond the arc. If not for a second-half explosion from Lillard, who scored a game-high 35 points on 11-of-27 shooting and committed just one more turnover after the game’s first 12 minutes, and some solid play from Jake Layman, Evan Turner, and Meyers Leonard, this one would have been a laugher. As is, Portland should feel lucky it had a long-shot’s chance to win this game late in the fourth quarter.

    According to Blazers beat writer Casey Holdahl, Stotts began making his way to the locker room before the first half was finished. What probably sparked his disgust was Al-Farouq Aminu, who caught a bounce pass in traffic from Nurkic, wasting an opportunity to get the last shot of the half by throwing up an awkward, flailing floater over Willie Cauley-Stein. Buddy Hield, on the other hand, played the clock to perfection, draining a pull-up 20-footer over the outstretched arms of McCollum and Nurkic just prior to the buzzer sounding.

    Aminu, to be fair, doesn’t deserve all the blame for that gaffe, and neither does Nurkic. Lillard owns some of it, too, for his confounding decision to pitch the ball ahead to a posting-up Nurkic with 20 seconds on the game clock. It’s incumbent on all players to always maintain full awareness time and score, of course, but Portland’s floor general is tasked with managing that aspect of the game first and foremost. It was an odd end to a similarly odd first half on offense from both Lillard and his teammates.

    Speaking of Stotts, his angst nearly boiled over early in the third quarter, when the notoriously mild-mannered coach was assessed a technical foul for arguing a non-call on a drive by McCollum. Moments later, Kings wing Iman Shumpert exchanged heated words with Stotts, furthering bad blood between he and the Blazers that first dripped early, when he took exception to a screen from Nurkic. Shumpert got into it with Lillard later in the third quarter, and was reportedly waiting for Nurkic outside Portland’s locker room following this discussion with Lillard and Turner on-court after the game.

    Cooler heads prevailed, thankfully, but these antics are an escalation of tension stemming from Portland’s dramatic come-from-behind win in Sacramento earlier this month. Just imagine how intense it will be when these teams at Moda Center for the regular season finale, perhaps with major playoff implications on the line. Mark your calendar for April 10th.

    Layman, more than any Blazer other than Lillard, deserves mention for his performance. Starting again for Moe Harkless, still battling left knee soreness, Layman scored 13 points for the second consecutive game, going 6-of-9 from the field to do it. The biggest difference between he and Harkless is supposed to be consistent three-point shooting, but Layman has yet to show off that side of his game since being re-inserted into the rotation and playing the best basketball of his career.

    He did all of his damage at the rim on Monday instead, feasting on back cuts and designed sets for an array of highlight-reel finishes. While the majority of Layman’s buckets came without a dribble, his most impressive one showed just how dynamic he can be with the ball in his hands when making quick decisions despite that utter lack of functional handle. Other than Lillard and sometimes Nurkic, the Blazers don’t have a player who consistently puts pressure on the rim, either by finishing or creating the defensive vacuum effect that leads to scoring opportunities elsewhere. Will Layman always be able to find so much success as a cutter? No, but the mere threat of his speed and explosion in the halfcourt adds a dimension to Portland’s offense that even Harkless can’t match.

    Breaking news: De’Aaron Fox is an absolute jet. He might be the fastest player in the league end to end, and the Kings’ renaissance this season is a direct result of Dave Joerger embracing his young point guard’s natural gifts, overhauling his offensive philosophy to push the pace first and foremost. The Blazers know that, of course, but were still unable to contain Sacramento’s transition attack after made baskets. Fox created efficient offense for his team on five or six occasions in the first half courtesy of those straight-line sprints alone, often taking advantage of an unbalanced following attacks to the rim by Lillard.

    Fox is one of the most explosive athletes in basketball; his tools will always be his greatest asset. But it’s his increased understanding of the mental side of the game – along with rapid skill progression – that’s made him an All-Star candidate at 21 years old, and has the Kings thinking they finally found their new franchise player. It’s truly frightening not only how good he is already, but how much he’s improved from year one to year two. Fox will be a thorn in Portland’s side for years to come.

    Marvin Bagley III will be, too. The rookie missed the last meeting between these two teams, but made up for it in a big way on Monday, scoring 13 points and grabbing 11 rebounds off the bench. Frontcourt mate Harry Giles III was just as if not more impressive, making six of his seven shot attempts en route to 12 points and four rebounds in just 19 minutes of play. Bojan Bogdanovic scored 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting, getting wherever he wanted with the dribble and taking advantage when Portland dared defend him with a guard.

    Those guys combined for 43 of Sacramento’s whopping 58 bench points, thoroughly out-shining their teammates in the starting lineup. Bogdanovic is getting closer and closer to a known commodity at this point – a big, playmaking guard with the chops to make tough shots from all over the floor and the confidence to take the last one with the game on the line. Bagley and Giles are comparative unknowns, which says more about their youth and potential than any damning long-term shortcoming that will keep them from becoming impact players. Both were fantastic against the Blazers, exhibiting the speed, quick-twitch leaping ability, and ball skills – often simultaneously, a good sign for a tandem that came into Monday’s action sporting a -17.7 net rating – that once made each of them presumptive number one overall draft picks.

    One more Portland note: Stotts, with his team down seven and the fourth-quarter clock reading 1:14, brought in Layman for Aminu, creating a closing five of Lillard, McCollum, Turner, Layman, and Nurkic. It was a smart move. Portland needed points in a hurry, and getting them in a timely manner would have been made extra difficult by playing two non-shooters and a streaky one next to Lillard and McCollum. Keep an eye on this as the season progresses, assuming Layman continues playing well. Lillard’s frequent late-game heroics could come even more often if he’s afforded the presence of another shooter defenses must respect late in games.

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