Lillard, Carmelo, Targeted Defense Lead Trail Blazers Over Magic – Blazers Edge

The Portland Trail Blazers downed the Orlando Magic 106-97 in the first game after returning from a six-game road trip. Damian Lillard scored 36 in the win, with Carmelo Anthony pouring in 23 off the bench to pass Oscar Robertson for 12th on the All-Time NBA Scoring List. Portland native Terrence Ross scored 22 for the Magic, while Nikola Vucevic notched 27 with 15 rebounds.

The Blazers and Magic both ran injured rosters onto the floor. Orlando got even more bad news when Cole Anthony and the just-returned Al-Farouq Aminu both left the game with further injury. At that point they couldn’t generate enough defense, let alone offense, to challenge. Portland’s mid-rotation players filleted them from distance in the first half. Lillard scored 18 in the third period to make sure the opponent couldn’t come back. Anthony took over that same role in the fourth. Three-pointers and one star scoring at a time was enough to earn the win.

Fortunately we had some foresight and recruited Marlow Ferguson, Jr. to join Dave Deckard for a different kind of recap tonight. They talked together throughout the game, not just about the progress on the floor, but the progress of the season. Sit back and enjoy this mega-recap, courtesy of Dave and Marlow!

First Quarter

SUMMARY

This game began with a contrast in focus points. The Magic tried to go through Nikola Vucevic mid-range and in. Unfortunately for them, he missed 4 of his first 5 shots. The Blazers, meanwhile, tried to pour in threes. Gary Trent, Jr. hit three of them early, but nobody else could connect. The Blazers spent most of the period playing Analytics Ball: everything was either a triple or a layup. They build an 11-point lead on the back of Trent and good interior defense by the starters. In defiance of their usual pattern, the second unit kept it up…or maybe the Magic are just that bad at scoring. Either way, the Blazers emerged from the first quarter with a 31-19 lead.

COMMENTARY

Dave: So, what are you looking forward to most in this game? For me, it’s definitely seeing how they handle Vucevic and Cole Anthony. Point guards and centers are difficult matchups for the Blazers and it feels like either one of them could go big tonight.

Marlow: Hey Dave! The most interesting subplot of this game for me, is seeing what new wrinkles, if any, that Terry Stotts adds to this defensive scheme. This will be the Blazers’ first game since Saturday, and they’ve had time to rest and scrape some players off of that lengthy depth chart. Players often talk about not having enough time to implement new stuff because of time; how they cover guards seems like a fun watch for me, personally.

Dave: They seem intent on shooting threes early, at least. Right now it’s Gary Trent and the Bricklayers, though. Trent, Jr. has been so important to them lately! I almost feel like when he’s hitting, they’re bound to win. If he’s not, it’s dicey. Do you get that feeling too?

Marlow: I do! It feels as though this team has an entirely different confidence when he’s hot. I like the load it takes off of Damian Lillard, too. If he can just be “average” over the first three quarters and take over later, I think it bodes well for the Blazers in the short term and the long term.

Dave: Looks like you’re getting your wish early. The Blazers have done a good job defending inside. They’re not letting Orlando get anything easy. We’ll need to see what happens if and when the Magic start shooting from deep, but so far, I like the effort.

Marlow: For sure. I might be looking at it through rose-colored glasses, but there aren’t as many lazy, long closeouts in comparison to earlier in the year.

Dave: I don’t think it’s rose-colored glasses, but it may be the starting lineup. The second unit still closes out like blindfolded tree sloths. But if the first unit can show crisp “D”, that’s a step forward. Right now that’s all I’m looking for: forward progress until the injured starters return.

Marlow: I’m on board with that. Other than rooting slightly for former Blazer Al-Farouq Aminu to have a little success in his first game back, their defensive effort has been fantastic across the board. This team sort of worries me though; I was studying the Blazers’ press pass, and it never dawned on me how rare it was for the Blazers to have a lead going into the second quarter. In 22 games, they’ve led just seven times, so this should be fun.

Dave: You know who doesn’t have trouble starting out aggressively? Anfernee Simons. He’s basically playing pop-a-shot out there nowadays. His quick-trigger three looks risky until it goes in. How do you feel about what you’re seeing from him so far this year?

Marlow: Oh, absolutely! In between he and Carmelo Anthony, there should never be any worry about a shot clock violation. It feels the Blazers can beat any opponent if they get hot. As for Simons, I’ve been impressed. He’s still a work in progress on defense, but his shot selection looks cleaner, and he stepped up to the plate as an actual floor general on Saturday vs. the Knicks. Part of me wonders how differently that game turns out if Stotts doesn’t take him out as soon as he started heating up. And game-for-game, he’s making an impact in some way.

Dave: Better defense and playmaking will probably lead to extended minutes for Simons.

Second Quarter

SUMMARY

Both teams came out cold to start the second. The Blazers kept bricking mid-range shots. The Magic did the Magic offense, which amounts to a lot of dribbling followed by a missed attempt. The Blazers continued to compete on the boards, which saved their rear ends and the lead. Orlando continued to struggle as the quarter wound on. Portland wasn’t much better, but many of their shots counted for three, so it worked. Unfortunately for the Blazers, they couldn’t contain Terrence Ross on the drive as the half dwindled to an end. The Portland native had 11 in the quarter, many off of sharp penetration. The Blazers led 50-43 at the half.

COMMENTARY

Dave: Here’s another thing we shouldn’t miss. The Magic feast on offensive rebounds and second-chance points. The Blazers have been good so far at containing that. Enes Kanter may not be the perfect center, but he plays with enthusiasm and dang, he does great work cleaning up the glass. He’s been a big deal this season.

Marlow: It’s amazing, too, because I can remember their being some skepticism about that signing when the news broke. I think he’s put himself right up there as one of, if not the best offensive rebounder in the NBA. No. 4 in offensive rebounds, and the three ahead of him are all starters.

Dave: LOL! Skepticism where you were, my friend. We liked that signing here. But here’s something that drives me crazy. One Magic dribbler goes past one…two…three…four Portland defenders on the way to the hoop. They might as well be passing him cups of water and applauding. He missed the layup, but that’s an Orlando thing. Teams with talent are going to smash that kind of defense. I know not everybody in that second unit is a good defender, but is moving feet a little too much to ask?

Marlow: That would be our Blazers! If we played bingo during the game, you could count on them playing that cardboard cutout defense at least a few times per game. That certainly won’t fly against the top teams in the NBA. Do you think it changes a ton when Portland gets Zach Collins and the rest of the team back, or not by much?

Dave: Will Collins come back? Right now the expectations are zero or a trade. Anything above that is gravy. That said, Collins is good with his feet. His point-of-attack stance and effectiveness are still developing, but that man has a nose for getting in the right place on the floor…one of the few Blazers who does. I wouldn’t mind seeing him try, especially if he takes some of Carmelo Anthony’s minutes. I understand who Anthony is and the role he plays as an offensive threat, but that defense… ouch.

Marlow: That’s a good point. Thinking on it now, the best case scenario would be a June return, and that’s if the Blazers go full 2019 and make a deep run without a key big. As for Anthony, he’s still so much fun to watch play. I think he does so much in terms of drawing doubles and putting fear in defenses, even at his age. We’ve got ourselves a CJ Elleby sighting now, though. I’m wondering if Stotts is beginning to trust him more. That could make for an interesting forward rotation down the line?

Dave: He and Trent, Jr. just hit back-to-back threes as we spoke! That shot is so powerful, especially in a game like this. The ball and the rim are social distancing on Orlando’s end. Three points is, like, four trips’ worth of offense for them. But I like Elleby’s confidence. He’s playing like he knows he’s going to get minutes. His shot is relaxed and free. That’s cool to see in a rookie.

Marlow: Here’s something I learned just yesterday: the Portland Trail Blazers are actually No. 1 in the NBA in 3-point attempts at 42.2. I knew we had guys changing their shot profiles to become more 3-pointer heavy (CJ McCollum for example), but it’s been interesting seeing a team that perennially sat atop the league in midrange shots embracing the 3. The only thing that scares me … they’ve lived by it, but they’ve also died by it. That first Bulls game comes to mind. Do you think they take too many? (Is that even possible in 2021?)

Dave: It’s not possible with this squad. They’ll also need every drop of it if they ever face the Lakers in the playoffs. If they had the 3 and D, it’d be amazing. Instead it’s more like 3 and Meh. But you wouldn’t know it from this game. Aside from a couple, isolated stretches, they’re bottling up the Magic. You’ve gotta love seeing it (and you hope it carries over to the second half…Orlando is starting to heat up a little now).

Marlow: Agreed on that. If this were boxing, the Magic would’ve probably won this round based on how they finished. And it’s going to take me a few decades to have trust in the words “Portland Trail Blazers” and “third quarter.” I’ve seen this movie too many times in my young life, Dave! Here’s to hoping the Magic play just a little more drop coverage in that second half, and Lillard and Trent Jr. get a little boost going for that second unit.

Dave: Agreed. They’ve got to force the Blazers off the arc, not just on the initial look, but on the reset. It’s funny the number of times this happens. A team will defend the opponent as if the opponent’s priorities were the same as their own. It’s the NBA equivalent of buying someone else the Christmas present you want yourself. It works about as well, too. The Magic are preventing Portland from driving and they’re covering fairly well in the mid-range, but they’re sacrificing exactly the shots—often to exactly the players—that the Blazers want. I assume they’ll try to adjust.

Portland hanging even on the glass sure is helping too. Orlando isn’t used to that.

Third Quarter

SUMMARY

Damian Lillard came out aggressively to start the second half, looking to deliver the knockout blow early. He scored 6 of Portland’s first 8 points in the third, including a pair of threes. Lillard was the hammer that broke Orlando’s defensive cornerstone. After his barrage, the Magic seemed to quit playing defense. Portland passed or drove right around them for easy, open looks. Lillard poured in 18 in the third, providing the cornerstone for an offense the Magic couldn’t exceed. Anfernee Simons hitting a pair of threes at the end of the period (three total in the frame) made it unfair. Even though Portland’s defense got droopy, the Magic couldn’t make up points. Portland led 84-73 after three.

COMMENTARY

Marlow: Interested to hear your thoughts on this. The more I watch this game, the more I wonder how much confidence the Blazers will be able to take from this game, should they win. The Blazers’ rotations have been sound, and they’ve contested well. But this Magic team is a bit sloppy with their passing and shot selection. They’ve been disorganized all night. Are you buying stock in what we’ve seen so far, or do you think it’s just a matter of the opponent?

Dave: I think it shows exactly what you mentioned at the outset: when the Blazers are rested and prepared, they take it to a higher level. The scheduled won’t allow that for any team, though, so it’s a bit of Fool’s Gold. Even so, better this kind of effort and lead than lackadaisical play. Orlando is playing into it for sure, but Portland is taking advantage.

How about the guy we haven’t talked about yet…Damian Lillard? He’s come out scoring in the third period. You have to love his sense of timing. He’s been lying in wait, getting a little rest, but when the team gives him a lead, he’s ready to take the pass and run it in. His veteran savvy is just off the charts nowadays. Gone are the days when he seems unsure when and how to take over. He moves through his environment seamlessly, making all the right reads in the micro- and macro senses.

Marlow: I’m smiling hard just reading that. Reminds me of how much praise he was getting over the summer — the Kobe, Iverson comparisons and all — and how he just knew when to take over games. It’s a welcome sight seeing other Blazers step up in the early goings, just knowing he’s “resting” and saving himself for those decisive moments later. It’s one of those things I don’t think is an easy catch for everyone watching the game.

Dave: Now IF they can back it up with a little defense, the Blazers can walk away with this one and Dame can get even more rest.

Marlow: A fan can only hope! They’ve got the lead up to 16, and I think it deserves to be mentioned: something tells me the Blazers feel pretty comfortable about this one. Did you see that random switch to a zone defense a few possessions ago? We’ve seen teams pull that out as a way to disrupt rhythms, even if only for a few sequences. But when they’re up double-figures and playing solid man-to-man defense? I thought that was both creative, and sort of odd.

Dave: This would be the kind of game you’d want to get some live practice in. Throw the zone, switch it up. You might need that later. But for all this, Portland still can’t keep the lead much above a dozen. It’s so frustrating. They’ll put teams on the ropes, but they can’t get the K.O. The door’s always open if you really want to take it from them. It’s like the team is in love with drama more than victory. Or, perhaps, they just don’t know what success really looks like. It’s not just winning, it’s knowing you’re going to win and making it easy. The more the Blazers show they’re good, the more you see the difference between good and really good.

Marlow: I feel like that’s been sort of a trend for as long as I’ve been a Blazers fan. There’s always been a tendency to play down to the competition a bit. I caught some flack on Twitter a few weeks ago, but I’ll say it again: I love the dramatics and game-winners as much as the next man. But I’d much rather have a boring, 20-point win. And on that note, are we sure Damian Lillard isn’t lurking on here right now, watching us speak? He seems intent on putting a cap on this game here in the third.

Dave: But now Vucevic is tearing them apart and, predictably, when they rotate and overreact to that, one pass gets the opponent a good look. This is also predictable Portland.

I was talking with Dia Miller about this last week on the podcast. I think this is partly an artifact of growing up in a franchise without powerful veterans with a history of winning. Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge grew up together, and without peers. Lillard and CJ McCollum did the same thing after the Roy-Aldridge era ended. They never had that Buck Williams or Scottie Pippen to inculcate toughness, meanness, and the things you need to take that next step.

Marlow: I think I remember hearing that part, when you guys were discussing the Lakers, and how they still have that Metta World Peace mentality? (Oh, the irony.) I would agree. The Blazers have walked the tightrope with those gritty, hard-nosed guys — think Aminu, Wesley Matthews, or even Gerald Wallace. But I do think an enforcer would serve this team well, even if he didn’t play much. Do you think that’s something that can be cultivated in today’s NBA? I feel like the NBA’s policing would make it tougher, unless they went out and got one of the Morris brothers, or someone to that degree.

Dave: I don’t need the bad guy in a karate movie. I need the guy who’s going to go high or low, whatever it takes to bring home that win. Wallace was mis-timed. Matthews did fine. Aminu wasn’t high enough in the hierarchy and wasn’t experienced enough himself. The Blazers need a guy who’s already developed his game, gotten paid, and won. Now he’s the sergeant to Damian’s floor general. He barks at the troops, helps them storm the hill and call in support. He’s down in the dirt more than dirty. Basically the modern Blazers can be described as all officers and corporals (or privates), no NCO’s. I want the Master Sergeant.

Fourth Quarter

SUMMARY

Carmelo Anthony carved apart the Magic at the start of the fourth. He played from the block, hit threes, and did anything he wanted to do. He passed Oscar Robertson for 12th on the All-Time NBA scoring list and made sure the lead stayed stout. And that, frankly, was enough for the Blazers. Vucevic and Ross continued to score, but no faster than the Blazers did. The ‘Melo attack made it impossible for Orlando to threaten seriously, and Portland walked away with the win.

COMMENTARY

Dave: Ok, call it now: easy win, close win, or loss?

Marlow: Close win, for sure. I think the Blazers keep the Magic at arm’s reach, sort of like in those movies where they’re swinging but not hitting anything. But based on a life’s worth of knowledge on these Blazers, I’m thinking single-digit victory, and a dagger from one of the clutch players.

Dave: I’m going to trust in them, and in Orlando’s offensive incompetence, and say easy win. But if Portland doesn’t get a handle on Ross, they’re going to make it tough!

Marlow: And he’s the type of guy that can heat up in a hurry. The Blazers appear intent on forcing the issue with Anthony on that right block. If there were ever a time for him to kill some clock with those jab steps, and get to his spots, now would be the time. He’s in a great rhythm this half too, so I’m steering towards confidence now.

Dave: He is killing it. But this is the thing with Carmelo. He knows what to do in order to be ‘Melo. I’m not sure he knows what to do to win. It seems like he’s going to do his thing until it works. If that takes two minutes or two weeks, it’s all the same.

Marlow: Yeah, if there’s one thing we know Carmelo Anthony is going to do, it’s getting to those spots. Miss or make. I like to think that his presence alone has some benefits. Maybe not as much this season, but I can remember time-and-time again in the bubble, help defenders were scared to leave Anthony, even if only because of his name. It’s not an every night thing, but I think what he offers should help Portland buy time until the reinforcements come and help out.

It reminds me of a statistic I wrote about last April. The Blazers were 18-7 when he shot over 40 percent, and 4-19 when he shot under. So much of Portland’s fate seems to live or die on his right shoulder. It’s a fun debate to have on either side.

Dave: I agree. That’s the joy and the blessing. You like knowing you can depend on him, but you don’t really want to. I think ‘Melo is good for the Blazers the way they are. I’m not sure he’d be right for the team they want to be.

Marlow: So let me put you on the spot: if you’re Coach Stotts, and you have close to a fully-healthy roster come Playoff time, does he crack the rotation or make a major on-court impact for you? I feel a bit too diplomatic for this one, but I love hearing what others think about it.

Dave: Depends on the opponent, right? The Clippers and Lakers would probably chew him up. But if you need the bench to score and buy minutes of rest for the starters, Carmelo can do that. As you say, opponents have to guard him. That’s not true of all Portland’s forwards.

Marlow: I can respect that. And on the note of postseason talk, I’ve liked some of the decisions the Blazers are making tonight against the Magic, and it should benefit them going forward. They’ve found a way to get Vucevic back under wraps when they can get him on the same side with Covington and Jones Jr., and just switch. Gives them a feasible matchup either way. I think that versatility with Portland being able to switch is going to serve them well. Is it a hot take to say that Derrick Jones Jr. is among the flat-out most versatile defenders in the league?

Dave: The key word there is “versatile”, and it matters for just the reason you stated: switching. The Blazers haven’t had that luxury since Jusuf Nurkic broke his leg. They might pull off a switch, but they can’t sustain it through the possession without getting okie-doked into a mismatch with a center or small guard. If they just had a third player (Trent?) who could quick-switch and defend most anybody and if they could get some speed back at the center position, they’d be formidable. I can’t help but think a Trent, Jr. and Healthy Nurkic lineup with Covington and Jones, Jr. would be super scary and effective.

Back to ‘Melo in the playoffs for a second… The other possibility is that he provides that one “Magic Game”. You know, when a veteran comes out and scores 28, turning Game 4 from defeat to victory, saving the series? I could see him doing that if he and the team get the chance.

Marlow: I could see that too. He’s not the perfect player by any stretch, but he’s a threat for 20+ on any given night in my eyes. I’ve appreciated his defense and aggression in those must-win games. I can remember him being fully locked in during that Dallas game on TNT when Lillard went for 61, and then playing Anthony Davis physical in the postseason. As for the team defense … I feel like a bad fan for saying this, but if this team ever becomes just average on that end, I feel like the sky is the limit. At full health, they can have a top-3 offense. In the bubble, they had a higher offensive rating than Dallas, and they had the No. 1 offense in NBA history. The top-3 offense and a mid-tier defense … that’s good for at least homecourt and a favorable matchup, one has to think right? (Or am I setting the bar too low?)

Dave: With the West packed so tight, the bar is firmly in the middle for almost everyone. As long as Portland doesn’t trip over it, they should have as good of a chance as anybody. Any last thoughts as the game closes?

Marlow: I just think this is one the Blazers might be able to build on. It was refreshing to see Damian Lillard in a t-shirt instead of a jersey down the stretch. Their schedule shakes out favorably too, over the next few games, and confidence is huge. Here’s to hoping the Blazers play with urgency.

Dave: Thanks for the help on the recap, Marlow! We only talked about the game itself in stretches, but it was that kind of evening. I enjoyed hearing your thoughts. Let’s do this again in another month or so and see where we think the team is!

Marlow: For sure, just say the word! I had a ton of fun with this myself. Always adds to the fun when the Blazers come out on top, too.

Final Thoughts

Carmelo Anthony’s scoring was on point tonight. He hit 5 of 9 threes and 4 of 5 free throws, coming just one make shy of shooting 50% from the floor.

Damian Lillard’s timing was impeccable. He poured in big points at the start of the third and the end of the fourth, queuing up and closing out the win. Going 13-13 from the foul line will lead to plenty of superstar stat lines too. The most understated part of Dame’s game tonight was one of the most decisive. (He went 5-10 from distance too.)

Derrick Jones, Jr. didn’t get in many cuts or drives, as he appeared to be favoring his leg. But he did grab 6(!) offensive rebounds. Robert Covington added 11 boards himself. That’s noteworthy forward rebounding production.

Gary Trent, Jr. torched the nets early but fell off late, finishing 6-18, 3-9 from distance for 15 points. Anfernee Simons inverted that, struggling early, then pouring it on in the third period. Simons shot 4-11, 3-8 from distance, scoring 11. The cumulative effect was someone being hot for Portland at any given time, more than enough to overcome Orlando’s anemic scoring.

Once the Blazers figured out the Magic weren’t going to hit threes, their swarming mid-range defense and rebounding prowess carried the game. Portland is formidable defensively as long as they can target a specific area. They just don’t help or move well enough to translate that into a full-coverage defense.

Boxscore

Instant Recap

The Blazers will face the Philadelphia 76’ers on Thursday night at 7:00 PM, Pacific.