The Trail Blazers began the 2019-20 season Wednesday night against the Denver Nuggets with a thud. The Nuggets were a team on a mission, a collective bad taste remaining in their mouths from being ousted by Portland last postseason. They got their revenge in 108-100 win on opening night for both clubs, ending Portlands 18 game home opener winning streak.
It was a tale of two teams. Continuity vs unacquaintedness. A glove vs bumper cars. The Nuggets return this season, mostly untouched. They had the advantage of familiarity. The Blazers have only 7 returning players from last season. Only 5 of those players were in the rotation last night. 2 of those players, Simons and Labissiere, weren’t in the Blazers rotation last year. Add 5 news players into the mix and you get what we saw last night. Disunity.
The Blazers static offense was more disorganized than lackadaisical. They got lost in their sets, idled more so in confusion than in panic. They stalled instead of rotating, often allowing Denver’s defenders to get locked in position. They missed opportunities to get the ball to open teammates, and settled for contested low field goal percentage shots.
It is easy to overreact. Some concerns from preseason trickled over. The Blazers perimeter defense was atrocious. The turnover woes continued. The Nuggets were allowed to shoot 18/32(56%) from three, with 7 players shooting better than 50% on the night from afar. 5 shooting 60% or better.
Meanwhile, the Blazers shot an abysmal 7/28(25%) from the arc. The Blazers bench went 0-7 from distance. Shot 6/22(27%) from the field. Denver’s bench outscored them 36-19. 2nd year guard Anfernee Simons showed his youth, finishing with only 5 points on 2/7(28.6%) shooting, including 0-3 from afar. Hezonja and Tolliver disappointed, both missing everything they shot which wasn’t much.
The Blazers bench had bright spots though in Skal Labissiere and Kent Bazemore. Labissiere had several nice defensive plays as well as some opportune shots on offense. He finished with 8 points and 6 rebounds and shot 75% hitting three of his four baskets. Bazemore was a cold blooded thief, netting 5 steals on the night. He played exceptional defense, but lacked on the offensive end finishing with only 5 points.
CJ McCollum was abhorrent, finishing with 12 points and 5 turnovers on 5/18 (28%) from the field. He couldn’t get anything to fall. Even the shots that were halfway in the net came out. He forced his shot late, failing to find Whiteside inside. He was nowhere near the form of the CJ we saw against Denver in the playoffs. He might as well as had a DNP.
Lillard finished with 32, but struggled shooting from distance, often taking contested triples closer to half court than to the arc, ending with a 3/10(30%) night from three.
It wasn’t all bad though. The Blazers starters were near elite on defense to begin the game, getting out to a 19-7 lead. The combination of Hassan Whiteside and Zach Collins in the paint on defense was spectacular. Whiteside, who had fans worried in preseason was stunning. He ended with 16 points and 19 rebounds. He was everywhere, blocking shots, rebounding, putting back shots with emphatic dunks. He gave Jokic a hard a time, out maneuvering him most of the night. He was the Hassan everyone in Portland was hoping to see. The one Miami fans said he never was.
The Blazers dominated in the paint 54-22, which will be key for them this season. The NBA is on notice. There will be no waltzing into the paint with Whiteside and Collins patrolling. But, they couldn’t overcome Denver shooting unconsciously from three.
The Blazers were within 1 point with just over three and a half minutes left, but Jokic hit back-to back threes and put the game away. The Blazers tried to battle back with Stotts using a coach’s challenge( Stotts should have used it earlier in the first half to combat a wrong call against Collins, in order to keep momentum.) late to dispute a foul against Rodney Hood, who stripped the ball from Will Barton. No go. Barton hit free throws to bring the lead back to 8, before stealing the ball on the next possession off a clumsy play by Tolliver, and dribbled the clock out.
The story of the night was growing pains. This Blazer team is going to be good, but it is going to take time. The Blazers will need more experience together to mesh. They need to continue to dominate the paint, but they also need to emphasize perimeter defense, (Maybe they are going to miss Harkless and Aminu more than they thought) as well as fluidity on offense. They were able to hedge screens with both Whiteside and Collins beautifully, and should continue to use that. The Blazers will get better with more games under their belts. The upcoming road trip will be good for them. It’s just a matter of getting acquainted.