The Portland Trail Blazers faced the Houston Rockets on Friday night without starting point guard Damian Lillard. Throughout the opening weeks of the season, Portland relied on Lillard’s 31.0 ppg scoring average to carry them through several close victories. Against the Rockets, they’d have to manufacture other points of attack and safety nets.
As it turned out, points of attack came abundantly and safety nets were not needed. Anfernee Simons filled Lillard’s shoes with aplomb. Rookie Shaedon Sharpe responded to his first-ever NBA start with 14 points, including a few that brought the Moda Center and everyone watching on broadcast feeds to their feet. Jusuf Nurkic dominated the middle. Josh Hart and Jerami Grant found openings and played defense. All of it together added up to a relatively easy 125-111 win over Houston.
If you missed the game, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. After that, here are other observations from the evening.
From the get-go, the Blazers made up for Lillard’s absence—and Houston’s generally poor defense—by sharing the ball willingly. 2-3 passes on a given play became the norm. They usually set up the action by penetrating with the dribble. Houston almost always called the cavalry for help and that’s when the fun started.
Counting assists is only half the battle in a game like this. (The Blazers had 30 out of 48 made buckets.) The infamous “hockey assist”, or pass that sets up the assist pass, made frequent appearances. The Blazers shooting 53.3% from the field stands testimony to the effectiveness of the offense as a whole. Add to that 125 total points while shooting only 20 free throws. The foul shot has been a staple of Portland’s point production this season. They’re averaging 30.6 attempts per game. They didn’t need the charity stripe tonight. Most of their looks ended up loosely-guarded.
Nurkic Plays Bully Ball
Jusuf Nurkic scored 27 points on 12-17 shooting. The low post was his bread and butter. He towered over opposing defenders. As a result, he was able to catch, lean his body against an opponent in a mass-based seal-off, then spin quickly and put up short shots unopposed, even though the other center was literally inches from him. Not having to dribble or hesitate made Nurkic great in the post.
When things weren’t going right for Nurkic, the turnovers and spotty play returned, but things went right for most of his 32 minutes on the floor.
Shaedon Sharpe got the first start of his NBA career tonight. He came out aggressively, hitting his first jump shot cleanly, then going to town. He scored 14 points on 7-12 shooting, but a couple of subtleties punctuated the spectacular effort. First, he was just as willing to pass the ball as his teammates. Second, on offense, he showed a good grasp of spacing, playing off of others when he didn’t have the ball. Both of those characteristics came in handy during the plays you’re going to see on SportsCenter Top 10 tonight:
The Blazers did well on three-pointers, hitting 13 of 35, 37.1%. See also…
Simons Leads the Way
Anfernee Simons stepped into the prime scoring role tonight with a combination of authority and restraint. He didn’t start out the game firing. He was near-seamless as part of the ball-movement offense. As the first half unwound, Ant picked his spots, finding more and more openings. At halftime, he had 7-11 three-pointers hit and 23 total points. He finished the game with 30. It was everything that could have been hoped for as Simons stepped in for Dame.
Staying even on the boards has been a secret weapon for the Blazers this season. Nurkic’s height and his teammates’ commitment helped that story continue against Houston. Portland had 45 total rebounds, 11 offensive against 39 and 13 for the Rockets.
Not everything went perfectly for the Blazers. We’ll whisper this, because the win was fun and boisterous, but Portland still didn’t close out well on threes and didn’t get back in transition either. The Rockets shot 36.8% from the arc (falling to that level towards the end of the game) and scored 21 fast break points against 18 for the Blazers. Easy points are the only kind Houston can score with regularity. Portland didn’t stop them tonight.
Despite that, the Blazers forced the young Rockets into 17 turnovers. Opponent miscues helped Portland open their lead early.
We mentioned Jusuf Nurkic above, but Drew Eubanks also provided energy and a surprisingly solid offensive attack playing behind Nurk. Eubanks was the bench player of the game, scoring 10 on 4-4 shooting. It was a good night to be a center.
The Blazers get to reflect on their incredible 5-1 start for a few days before taking on the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday, November 2nd at 7:00 PM, Pacific.
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