CJ McCollum scored 37 points on a 6-11 three-point shot as the Portland Trail Blazers mopped the floor with the Sacramento Kings tonight. McCollum boosted the Blazers early, late and everywhere in between, making sure his teammates could relax and enjoy the evening. Carmelo Anthony and Enes Kanter took full advantage of the bench, not only holding, but extending, the advantage that CJ deposited in their laps. The cumulative effort resulted in a 30-point lead in the third quarter and a final score of 125-99.
The Blazers quickly took a 16-8 lead behind McCollum’s quick 9 points. He scored inside and from a distance, confusing the Sacramento defense every round. Both teams seemed content to keep him in the midfield early, which suited the Portland guards perfectly. The pace picked up as the quarter progressed. At first it seemed to favor the Blazers, as Robert Covington and Derrick Jones, Jr. passed and dived, but at least four of the Kings’ players like to come out, while only a few Portland do. The Blazers’ defense has been a bit exposed, especially indoors. Their attack drifted into deep blows that missed. Carmelo Anthony came in with a mid-quarter correction, taking the offense inside (and further in isolation in the half-court, which turned out to be a good thing to protect a lead) . “Melo scored 8 points over the period. 50% shooting, a half-dozen assists and an incredible 10 free throws in the period – coupled with relatively poor shots from Sacramento – helped the Blazers lead the quarter. They led 38-24 after one.
Sacramento threw up a modified zone defense early in the second period. The Portland bench looked restless except for the few possessions when they found a shot from a distance. On the other hand, the Blazers had no answer for Hassan Whiteside and Sacramento’s inside play. The Kings started on the inside, then threw the ball out when Portland collapsed in the lane… a refrain that should sound familiar to anyone who has watched the Blazers defend themselves over the past two years. As soon as Whiteside sat down, Kanter pushed his way out the window. He and Anthony saved the Blazers midway through the second, as all three pointers stubbornly refused to fall. Despite all the problems, the Portland starters inherited a 50-38 lead when they checked in for their late-half shift. With the table set in front of him, Damian Lillard hit shots and passes to Jusuf Nurkic, tearing up the Kings’ defense. Sacramento was also hot to finish the half, but they made no progress. Portland led 66-49 at intermission.
Third and fourth trimesters
The Blazers picked up the defense to start the third, forcing the Kings to make some tough passes and shots. As Sacramento stumbled, Portland made streaks. Lillard centered the attack, penetrating and passing. McCollum became a favorite target, hitting three threes and a short shot, dropping 11 more points before the quarterback was five minutes old. Jones, Jr. and Nurkic also entered the scene. In reality, anyone who wanted to score could. They kept up the pressure and the pace until the Kings had to yell “Uncle”.
Terry Stotts kept McCollum until the second half of the fourth. In fact, he could have beaten the Kings on his own tonight. Throwing in decent center play and a good rebound kept the fight totally uneven. Tyrese Haliburton was the only Sacramento player to make noise in the second half. It looked great, but it wasn’t close enough. The Blazers opened up a 30-point lead and never looked back, ending Game 26.
Notes and analysis
CJ McCollum scores so easily right now, her highlight reel looks like ballet. Close or deep, on a leg or two, with the ball or the catch, everything is rhythmic and STRONG. McCollum even drew five free kicks tonight, taking his production from catchy to totally unfair. He scored 37 on 13-22 shooting, 6-11 from depth, with 3 assists and 2 steals in 29 minutes. If the Blazers can get up big and keep their starting guards under 30 minutes per game like this, they’ll look pretty good as the year progresses.
Damian Lillard scored 17, shooting just 1-7 from the arc, but seemed content to play in the flow and give punches to other players, especially McCollum. But Lillard also found Jusuf Nurkic with a few assists, putting the big man in action.
Nurkic responded with an effort of 4-8, 8 rebounds and 10 points in 23 minutes of play. He has been as active in defense as he has been all season, even running and diving to the floor afterwards. a lost ball in the third quarter when the match was already won. His passing was sketchy at first, but somewhere in the second quarter the timing kicked in and he started to look a bit like the Nurkic of old. It’s a positive sign for Portland.
Carmelo Anthony was efficient from the start, making sure the Kings couldn’t shake anything away from the Blazers’ lead in the first half. He ended up shooting just 4-12, perhaps giving himself a little too much permission in the attack, but by the time he started to miss the hardcore the game was won anyway. Even when effective, Carmelo slows down the attack. The more it rolls, the more the second unit stops. Flip a coin, whether good or bad; it depends on the situation and the opponent. On the positive side, Anthony defended vigilantly in the second half. Yet it is a walking puzzle. He’s at the center of one of the big philosophical questions of the season: is the Portland bench just meant to score or are they supposed to do more?
Enes Kanter joined Anthony on the bench patrol, clapping Sacramento’s hands whenever they tried to mount an efficient run. He came up with 15 rebounds in 19 minutes. He was pushed around by Hassan Whiteside and marked by everyone who came into the lane, but whenever someone missed a shot, Kanter was there. On the one hand, these are “just” rebounds, but on the other hand, not having to worry about who is looking at the glass keeps Portland defenders busy with their perimeter missions.
The 17-41 three-point shot (41.5%) was the biggest “Easy Button” factor for the Blazers in this game, especially with the Kings shooting just 8-30 (26.7%) from long range. But the sneaky-good statistic was that Portland forced 15 turnovers, centered around 10 interceptions. The flight made the attack faster and easier, turning a probable victory into a sure victory.
Portland’s passing offense is better than a few weeks ago. The Blazers had 26 assists out of 44 shots made. These numbers don’t tell the whole story. They didn’t miss each other or failed to read the opportunities as much as they did at the start of the season. Sacramento wasn’t defending very well, but Portland didn’t leave them on the defensive either. Aside from McCollum (who took shots correctly almost every time he got them), the Blazers collectively moved their feet and the ball well.
It was not all rosy. The Kings threw up an intermittent zonal defense in the second half that erased the Blazers for some time. Portland settled for three odd angles instead of breaking it down aggressively. Between their shooters and Nurkic’s passing ability down the center, an area should never catch Portland at a loss. They are practically made to break it. Let’s see if they evolve if other teams try to do the same.
Home defense also remains a matter of serious concern. The huge scoring margin masked it, but every time Sacramento drove or stationed inside, good things happened for them.
It’s small concerns in a huge victory. The Blazers weren’t just doing business tonight, they shut down the store early and took a mini-vacation. That’s all you could ask for in a regular season game against the Kings. Well done.
The score of the box
The Blazers host the Toronto Raptors at the Moda Center Monday night at 7 p.m.