January 19, 2018, 4:15 am
Good teams find ways to stay competitive when their identity is suddenly hard to find. The Portland Trail Blazers did just that on Thursday night, keeping pace with the Indiana Pacers until the lid finally came off for their jump-shooters late.
Portland beat Indiana 100-86 at Moda Center, winning the second of a three-game homestand after dispatching the Phoenix Suns with relative ease on Tuesday. Jusuf Nurkic was the star for the Blazers, finishing with 19 points (8-of-14), 17 rebounds (four offensive) two blocks and two steals just one game after being benched in the first half. Damian Lillard shook off early struggles to pour in a game-high 26 points, while Victor Oladipo and Darren Collison led Indiana with 23 points apiece.
It was clear Nurkic would be the story of Thursday’s game from the opening tip. He had six early points via a pair of post-ups and a mid-range jumper, and was noticeably more engaged on both ends of the floor. The mercurial, talented big man had a double-double by halftime, and used the game’s last 24 minutes to do the dirty work that he occasionally avoids.
By the time Nurkic authoritatively blocked a running layup attempt by Oladipo, stared him down, withstood a shove and got an and-1 layup on the next trip down late in the fourth quarter, Terry Stotts had already been planning his ceremonious exit. Just later, Zach Collins entered the game for Nurkic, setting him up for a standing ovation that a glowing Moda Center crowd happily gave him.
Nurkic wasn’t the only Blazers big man who kept his team afloat against the Pacers while Lillard and C.J. McCollum, who scored 16 points on 18 shots, labored. Ed Davis had three putback layups in the first half alone – Portland had a whopping 14 offensive rebounds for the game – and Al-Farouq Aminu made several splash defensive plays, in addition to scoring nine of his 12 points in the first half.
It briefly appeared as if the Pacers had control of the game in the third quarter, when Collison and Oladipo got hot from outside and the Blazers’ offense looked increasingly discombobulated. But back-to-back triples by Lillard and Shabazz Napier, the latter of which came after a steal in the backcourt as the third-quarter buzzer expired, completely erased a six-point Indiana lead in the final stanza – and gave Portland all the momentum it needed to run away with a quality win late.
The Pacers shot just 4-of-21 in the fourth quarter, and didn’t score their second basket until 4:32 remained in the game. The Blazers were hardly humming offensively – Lillard missed a pair of open layups on consecutive possessions, strangely – but shots finally started falling from the outside. Four of Portland’s 10 3-pointers came during the final quarter, when Indiana shot just 1-of-8 from beyond the arc.
If the Blazers go on a run of sorts to begin distancing themselves from the pack of Western Conference teams fighting for both a playoff appearance and the highest seed possible, this game will surely have marked a turning point of sorts. Beating a quality team at something much less than your best always breeds confidence and optimism, especially when the victory in question is led by a key player who was steps away from the dog house.
- Mo Harkless, Meyers Leonard, Noah Vonleh: DNP-CD. In case there was still any doubt remaining, Stotts’ rotation has been set.
- In addition to Napier’s game-changing buzzer-beater to end the third, McCollum and Lillard also beat the clock. The former drained a tough triple from the corner at the end of the first quarter to put the Blazers up one, and Lillard made his way through traffic for a tough layup one second before the halftime buzzer, extending his team’s lead to five. Momentum always, always matters, and Portland got it on several occasions Thursday night.
- Surprise! The three-guard lineup of Lillard, McCollum and Napier helped turn the game in the fourth quarter. That trio played the game’s final nine minutes and 33 seconds, a stretch the Blazers outscored the Pacers 21-12. It won’t always be so easy for Stotts to play that potential trump card, though. Indiana coach Nate McMillan countered with a similarly diminutive look of his own, ensuring the Blazers’ guards wouldn’t be overmatched by size. Three-guard looks are increasingly prevalent in the NBA, and Lillard, McCollum and Napier each play bigger than their height suggests when circumstances call for it. Against a team with high-caliber wings, though? Having to rely on that lineup to juice the offense will be a problem for Portland.
- The ceiling on Zach Collins remains mostly unknown. Every game, though, the rookie’s floor seems to raise higher and higher. Case in point: A second quarter possession on which he stymied a drive by Cory Joseph after a switch, then forced an air ball on the other side of the floor after Joseph got it back. Being able to hang with guards off the bounce is absolutely imperative for Collins’ future if Portland deems him a full-time power forward, which, admittedly, may not prove the case. The only reason why it might be difficult for him to play center down the line is a lack of length; the strength will undoubtedly come.
- It’s tough to gauge the positive value of Evan Turner when his jumper isn’t falling. He was signed as a player who could take some of the playmaking heat off Lillard and McCollum, but no one would know it by how he function in the Blazers’ offense. Napier has assumed that role, and it seems highly unlikely he’ll be letting go of it any time soon. Where does that leave Turner? Considering Pat Connaughton is a vastly superior 3-point shooter and Turner is no true stopper on defense, don’t be surprised if his minutes dwindle as the season wears and the games grow in importance night by night.
- Aminu hasn’t quite developed into the defender Neil Olshey hoped, but remains Portland’s most versatile player on that end of the floor. He contested several shots at the rim on Thursday night through timely rotations and near-perfect verticality, an impressive feat for a player who once struggled to grasp high-level defensive concepts.