The Portland Trail Blazers played 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 average to lead them through several narrow wins. Against the Rockets, they should fabricate more attack points and backstops.
It turned out that the points of attack were plentiful and the safety nets were not necessary. 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 anyone watching on the broadcast streams to their feet. Jusuf Nurkic dominated the middle. Josh Hart and Jerami Grant found openings and played defense. It all 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 some more observations from the evening.
Right off the bat, the Blazers made up for Lillard’s absence — and Houston’s generally poor defense — by willingly splitting the ball. 2-3 passes on a given play have become the norm. They usually set up the action by penetrating with the dribble. Houston almost always called the cavalry for help and that’s where the fun started.
Counting assists is only half the battle in a game like this. (The Blazers had 30 of 48 buckets.) The infamous “hockey assist,” or pass that sets up the assist pass, made frequent appearances. The Blazers shooting 53.3% from the field speaks to the effectiveness of the offense as a whole. Add to that 125 total points shooting just 20 free throws. The free kick has been a staple of Portland’s point production this season. They average 30.6 attempts per game. They didn’t need the charity band tonight. Most of their looks ended up being loosely guarded.
Nurkic plays Bully Ball
Jusuf Nurkic scored 27 points on a 12-17 shot. The low post was his bread and butter. He dominated opposing defenders. As a result, he was able to catch, press his body against an opponent in a mass-based seal, then spin quickly and make unopposed short shots, even though the other cross was literally inches away from him. Not having to dribble or hesitate made Nurkic great in the position.
When things weren’t going well for Nurkic, the turnovers and erratic play returned, but things were fine for most of his 32 minutes on the pitch.
Shaedon Sharpe got the first start of his NBA career tonight. He came out aggressively, hitting his first jump shot cleanly, then heading to town. He scored 14 points on 7-12 shooting, but a few niceties punctuated the spectacular effort. First, he was just as willing to pass the ball as his teammates. Secondly, in attack, he showed a good mastery of spacing, playing against others when he didn’t have the ball. These two features have proven useful in the games you’ll see on SportsCenter Top 10 tonight:
The Blazers did well on three-point range, hitting 13 of 35, 37.1 percent. See also…
Simons leads the way
Anfernee Simons stepped into the lead scoring role tonight with a combination of authority and restraint. He didn’t start the game shooting. He was nearly seamless as part of the ball movement offense. As the first half unfolded, Ant picked his places, finding more and more openings. At halftime, he had 7-11 three-pointers and 23 points overall. He finished the game with 30. That was all one could hope for as Simons replaced Dame.
Staying even on the boards has been a secret weapon for the Blazers this season. Nurkic’s size and the commitment of his teammates helped this story continue against Houston. Portland had 45 total rebounds, 11 offensive to 39 and 13 for the Rockets.
Not everything went perfectly for the Blazers. We’ll whisper this, because the win was fun and loud, but Portland still didn’t close well on three, nor did it resume transition. The Rockets shot 36.8% from the arc (falling back to that level late in the game) and scored 21 quick break points to the Blazers’ 18. Easy runs are the only type Houston can score with consistency. Portland didn’t stop them tonight.
Despite that, the Blazers harassed the young Rockets in 17 turnovers. Opponent errors helped Portland open their lead early.
We mentioned Jusuf Nurkic above, but Drew Eubanks also provided energy and a surprisingly solid offensive attack behind Nurk. Eubanks was the bench player of the game, scoring 10 on a 4-4 shot. It was a good night to be a center.
The score of the box
The Blazers can reflect on their incredible 5-1 start for a few days before facing the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday, November 2 at 7:00 p.m. Pacific.
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