January 12, 2019, 1:16 am
The Portland Trail Blazers beat the Charlotte Hornets 127-96 at Moda Center on Friday night, their second largest victory of the season. They shot 55.9 percent from the field and drained 15 three-pointers. Portland doled out a season-high with 31 assists, too, an impressive number made all the more notable because it committed only nine turnovers – over half of which came in the fourth quarter, when Terry Stotts put four of his five starters on ice. C.J. McCollum scored 30 points on 12-of-20 shooting, including 5-of-11 from three, despite playing just 29 minutes. Damian Lillard stuffed the stat sheet with 20 points, four rebounds, five assists, three steals, and a career-best four blocks. Jusuf Nurkic was the Blazers’ only starter to play in the final stanza, chasing a triple-double he couldn’t quite catch before Stotts took him out for good, finishing another strong performance with 11 points, 11 rebounds, and a career-high eight assists. He also notched six of the Blazers’ 16 blocks, a season-high total that just missed the team record for blocked shots in a game, and was instrumental in holding the Hornets, quietly ranked 10th in offensive rating this season, to 40 percent from the field.
Obviously, there are many individual and team-wide stats that indicate just how well Stotts’ team played on Friday, in what could be considered their most encouraging game of the season. It’s not like the eye test was any less telling. Portland flat-out dominated Charlotte, flying all over the floor in transition and the halfcourt en route to highlight after highlight after highlight. One innocuous sequence, though, that didn’t even result in the Blazers scoring, forcing a turnover, or producing any single box-score statistic whatsoever, perhaps serves as a better encapsulation of their play against the Hornets than anything else.
It came midway through the third quarter, as Portland’s starters extended their team’s seemingly insurmountable halftime lead with surgical precision on both ends of the court. Kemba Walker, following a corner three by Jake Layman off a cross-court bullet from Nurkic, calmly crossed halfcourt with a lefty dribble as Lillard waited for him beyond the arc. Charlotte’s franchise player crossed over between his legs then back to the left, preparing to use a high screen from Bismack Biyombo attacking the middle. Lillard went below Biyombo, quickly scooting back into position, as Nurkic met Walker just above the free throw line, allowing one of the game’s craftiest ball handlers a sliver of space between he and the recovering Lillard. After Walker successfully split the defense, veering back the other direction with a slick crossover, he leapt off his left foot in one swell motion, ostensibly to attempt what amounts to a fadeaway floater – exactly the type of difficult, acrobatic shot that’s helped propel him to stardom.
Instead of jumping to shoot, Walker decided to leave his feet for a pass back to the rolling Biyombo, unaware that he’d finally found enough space in the paint to get a clean look at the basket. It’s not often you see a player of Walker’s skill, smarts, ingenuity, and confidence get spooked into shot-putting the ball off the glass, anticipating a block that was never going to come and forcing a pass that was never there in the first place.
It’s hard to blame Walker for his gaffe. After all, he needed 19 shots to put up 18 points against the Blazers, and all five of his buckets came at least 15 feet away from the rim. Lillard, locked in from the opening tip, had already blocked his jumper twice via rear-view contest in the third quarter, and the Hornets shot a dismal 14-of-30 from the restricted area overall. Portland was as active, engaged, and disruptive defensively as its been all season. Even Meyers Leonard, who didn’t record a single blocked shot in 2017-18, matched his season-long total and set a new career-high with three blocked shots of his own. If Charlotte wasn’t hot from three-point range, going 13-of-30, its offensive performance would have ranked as one of the most anemic of the entire NBA season to date, a hypothetical scenario the Blazers didn’t need to prove their defensive mettle on Sunday.
A far bigger test comes Sunday, when Portland visits the conference-leading Denver Nuggets at 5,280 feet. In easily dispatching of another inferior Eastern Conference foe, though, the Blazers, who have won six of their last seven, showed again just how good they can be when clicking at something close to all cylinders. And as striking as the statistics and awe-inducing as the highlights were, it’s those factors combined with doing all the little things that has this team playing its best basketball of the season – by far.