Following two postponed games against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers took up action again at home against the New York Knicks on January 24.
It was a hard-fought battle, but the Blazers got the early edge. Damian Lillard and Derrick Jones Jr. combined for 25 points on a perfect 8-8 shooting and 6-6 from the free-throw line in the first quarter, outscoring the entire Knicks lineup by their own merit. Heading into the second quarter up 37-24, the action was relegated to mostly bench members. Third-year guard Anfernee Simons came up big, scoring 13 of the team’s 33 points in the second quarter. Gary Trent also dropped nine points on a trio of three-pointers, giving Portland a 70-50 halftime lead.
The Knicks were stronger coming out of the half and held the Blazers to just 19 points in the third quarter, 14 of which were scored by Lillard. Alec Burks led the effort from the Knicks as they sought to close the gap, although he was nonexistent in the final quarter. The name to remember from the final 12 minutes of action is rookie guard Immanuel Quickley. Picked 25th overall by the Thunder and traded to the Knicks last November, Quickley put up 21 points in the fourth quarter alone, giving him a grand total of 31 on the game, a career high. Despite his heroic efforts, however, the Knicks would fall short 116-113 thanks to Lillard’s 39 points.
Their other game of the last week was less impressive. The Oklahoma City Thunder outscored them 34-24 in the first quarter, in large part due to sophomore guard Darius Bazley’s 10 points. Lillard and Carmelo Anthony were flat all quarter, shooting 1-9 from the field. The latter would redeem himself in the second quarter, dropping 13 of his team’s 36 points. Big man Enes Kanter had just one point that quarter but did pick up seven rebounds in just six minutes on the court. He would end the game with a whopping 23 rebounds, just shy of his career high of 26. Portland ended up closing the gap by one point, leading to a 69-60 halftime lead for the Thunder.
Simons showed up once again in the third, scoring 12 of his team’s 31 as Portland closed the gap by another six points, making it a three-point game heading into the final quarter. Buckets by Gary Trent Jr. and Carmelo put the Blazers up 95-94 just 90 seconds in. Aleksej Pokusevski answered with a three-pointer to put them up 97-95 seconds later and the Thunder never looked back. The lead grew as high as 122-111 with 2:30 on the clock, but the Blazers still fought back. By the end of the game, Lillard’s seven points in that time frame just weren’t enough as Portland would fall 125-122.
It’s getting harder to feel optimistic about the Blazers with recent developments. On January 19, CJ McCollum was announced to miss at least four weeks with a foot injury. The star guard was having a career year and was a big part of the Portland offense which they so desperately needed to compensate for the defensive struggles.
Still, it’s not all for naught. Simons stepped up big and is making a strong argument for a starting rotation spot, putting up 42 points over his last two games. Without McCollum, the last consistent scoring threat was Lillard, who can’t be expected to lead his team to victory every game. Anthony has the potential to put up big points, but he shoots the ball far too much to be considered a net positive. Trent is really promising but needs to be more reliable as an option and the wing combo of Jones and Robert Covington was never supposed to be an offensive powerhouse.
The defense is still greatly lacking, and the offense lost a key member. They will have to figure something out for the next four weeks until CJ can make his way back and even then, there’s no promises that the offensive explosiveness can mask the terrible defense. This week they’re staring down the barrel of a six-game road streak against the 7-10 Chicago Bulls, the 11-6 Milwaukee Bucks, 3-11 Washington Wizards, 13-6 Philadelphia 76ers and a rematch with the Knicks. All we can hope for is that they have some answers to the questions facing them as a team and an organization.