The Portland Trail Blazers struggled through their recent home, but ended it strong Monday night in a COVID makeup game against Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. Brooklyn’s big stars both passed 20 (Durant in first half), but struggled with fatigue and a surprisingly active Portland defense all night long. The Blazers forced turnovers, rebounded and went beyond the arc, playing around the Nets defense instead of crossing it. Brooklyn, and frankly everyone in the crowd, continued to wait for a play-off led by Durant in the second half. He never came. The Blazers continued to make opportunistic plays until the final horn sounded. When he did, Portland had won a 114-108 victory.
Six Blazers scored in double digits in the win, led by Anfernee Simons with 23, Robert Covington with 21 and Ben McLemore with 20, including the three that sealed the game.
The Blazers’ plan to defeat the Nets early on was pretty clear. A bit of Nurkic, pushing his way inside to foul, and a lot of outside shots. On his own, Kevin Durant was twice as threatening as anyone the Blazers could field, but by shooting below and beyond the Brooklyn defense, Portland was hoping to match their production. It worked for a while. Forward Nic Claxton was scored 3 fouls in the first 5 minutes. Durant missed a couple. So ! Portland led 16-10. Their speed was as difficult to manage for Brooklyn as the size and talent of the Nets was for the Blazers. The Nets settled for a ton of shots when they couldn’t find the range accurately. That and a very good quarterback from Kyrie Irving (one of the talented veterans with as much speed as the young Portland players) served to keep them in the stadium, although turnovers put them back on the warning track. The Blazers led 33-26 after the first.
The not-so-sharp shot continued for Brooklyn early in the second period. A mini-burst from CJ Elleby got the Blazers rolling. The game started to look like the Nets were lurking, crossing just within screaming distance of the Blazers, neither too low nor too high, until they could strike. One wanted the Blazers to launch out like a marathon runner trying to escape the peloton earlier. Their filming could not support the desire. Instead, the Nets hit a few threes and the game was again nearly even. The scary thing for Portland was that Durant and Irving were on mute for most of the period, but Brooklyn’s shooting percentage kept climbing and climbing, especially beyond the arc. When Durant hit a couple, it was like the end of the world. Even more so when the Nets began to grab offensive rebounds as well. But the Blazers walked away, running when they could, scoring from the midrange when all else failed. Anfernee Simons pulled off a round or two and, along with Portland’s hard work, it helped the Blazers survive the storm. The Nets were leading 62-55 at halftime.
The third period did not come to bury the trends of the first half, but to celebrate them. The Nets made some turnovers, but got enough points from Durant and Irving, as well as enough offensive rebounds to make up for the misfires, that they stayed on track. The Blazers moved quickly and shot deep, their three punctuated by an occasional stunt play from Simons. Dropping the ball at Nurkic became less and less effective as the Nets grabbed it. The Blazers couldn’t shoot the same free throws they did in the first two quarters. These are about the only big changes.
Robert Covington woke up as the quarterback progressed. His triples made Portland formidable. The Nets were no longer free to devote their full attention to the strong side. Being tired, turning was not their strong point. Those extra points gave the Blazers even more lead, then, three minutes from time. Aggressive defense and a three-point shot kept Portland’s momentum going for the final few minutes as well. They took an 87-82 lead in the fourth.
The Portland bench entered the fourth period with bad intentions … that is, for the opponent, not for his own team. (It’s Portland, so you have to ask.) They fought off the turnovers, rebounded hard to eliminate that pesky leak on the defensive boards, and moved the ball quickly enough to find some open shooters. They have frequently given up on defensive play, which is both expected and understandable given the quality of the opposition. But they have not given up on their heads. This set up the game for an exciting finish.
The script asked Kevin Durant to check in and resume play. He checked in, but the control part got out of hand. He stayed most of the time on the perimeter. The only place the Nets scored was indoors. They did a ton of it, but it was just enough to keep pace with Portland. Additionally, Brooklyn couldn’t get over its chronic revenue problem. All the Blazers needed were a few buckets to stay ahead. Nurkic provided those against an extended defense and the home team were in business.
In the dying minutes of the game, Portland knew the offense was going through Durant and they knew he was likely going to win on the inside. They sat down, prayed, and threw everything they had at the Brooklyn Hall of-Famer. Covington undressed him and bumped into his body. Ben McLemore received a late assist block. It seemed like every possession the Blazers got without Durant hitting was another breath of fresh air. Their oxygen level remained high.
When the Nets had a furious run, it was too late. The lead was big enough that just one three-point shot from McLemore put the game out of reach. And then he hit another one. It was … time to party in Portland.
Stay tuned for further analysis to come1
The score of the box
The Blazers are now embarking on a long road trip, which begins Thursday night at 7:00 p.m. Pacific vs. the Denver Nuggets.