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3 observations from short-handed Trail Blazers’ preseason loss to Kings

Marquese Chriss, Jusuf Nurkic, Anfernee Simons, Trail Blazers

PORTLAND — The Portland Trail Blazers tipoff the regular season against the Sacramento Kings back at Moda Center next week, but don’t expect Monday’s game—fortunately for Chauncey Billups’ team—to prove a barbinger for the 2021-22 opener.

Here are four observations from the short-handed Blazers’ 107-93 loss to the Kings.

Anfernee Simons (Kind Of) Looked The Part

Playing without not just Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum but also Norman Powell, Portland handed Simons the keys to the car for what will hopefully be the only game this season. Not that the fourth-year guard looked completely out of place while moonlighting as the Blazers’ full-time alpha dog, though.

Simons scored 24 points on 8-of-20 shooting against the Kings, showing comfort handling the ball under pressure and finishing around the rim in myriad ways that have largely eluded him throughout his career. That middling efficiency is more impressive than it seems given the context of his game, too. Simons went 8-of-12 on two-pointers overall and 5-of-6 from the paint, key for a long-range marksman who labored to 40.3 percent shooting inside the arc a season ago.

Simons was spooked by Kings rookie Davion Mitchell, nicknamed “Off Night” for a very real ability to lock down his man from start to finish, far less frequently than you’d expect given his occasional troubles last season simply bringing the ball up the floor. He even broke off a designed play to isolate on Mitchell early in the first quarter, creasing the paint with footwork and strength before finishing through the reigning NCAA Defensive Player of the Year’s body.

Simons was smothered by Mitchell—something the latter will do to plenty of veteran guards this season—after a baseline out-of-bounds play devolved into a ball screen late in the shot clock, yielding an ugly traveling violation. De’Aaron Fox easily swiped his step-back dribble for a steal. Despite sprinkling in a handful of solid passes operating in pick-and-roll, the box score accurately conveys that Simons, who finished with one assist, failed to build on the overall playmaking progress he showed in Portland’s exhibition debut. Simons threw an inexplicable pass in traffic to Marquese Chriss that resulted in a turnover.

Mistakes of commission and omission were to be expected with Simons occupying this role. He looked fully capable of playing offensive initiator with C.J. McCollum and the Blazers’ second unit, as Billups plans. The finishing craft Simons put on display also hinted at a dose of additional dynamism as a scorer. For now, that’s more than enough to register as another encouraging sign of his growth.

Marquese Chriss > Patrick Patterson

Go ahead and add a couple “greater thans” to the above, at least if Monday’s game is somewhat telling of what Chriss and Patterson could give Portland during the regular season.

Both got rotation minutes against Sacramento with Robert Covington sitting out and Jusuf Nurkic taking the second half off, even entering together late in the first quarter. But it was Patterson who was actually on the floor longer, playing 20 minutes to Chriss’ 15. Don’t read into that too much. Far more important is how the veteran bigs—of an eight-year age difference, it bears reminding—acquitted themselves in whatever time they had.

Patterson was a complete bystander offensively if not shooting, and missing, clean catch-and-shoot threes. He finally made his final attempt after erring on his first six, at least one of which was a horrible air-ball. Patterson didn’t look at all comfortable trying to quicken his release with a defender flying at him, either. If he’s not making defenders think twice about letting him launch standstill threes, it’s unclear what abject positive Patterson offers the Blazers other than talking on defense and his locker-room influence.

Maybe those attributes would be enough for him to get Portland’s “final” roster spot—Neil Olshey, though he hasn’t admitted the real reason why, is going with a 14-player roster to save Jody Allen a few million dollars in luxury tax payments— if this team had any depth up front, or even if their three real bigs in the rotation weren’t so injury-prone. Alas, Cody Zeller already has a broken nose and will be out until at least the regular-season opener. Covington is just too lithe to give the Blazers an interior presence, and Greg Brown III is years away.

Pencil in Chriss as Portland’s 14th player. He was a dangerous pick-and-roll partner for Simons and Dennis Smith, putting consistent vertical pressure on the rim, and also looked solid at times working the dribble hand-off game and finding cutters backdoor. Chriss went 6-of-8 from the line, too. Though definitely a step behind Patterson in terms of execution and understanding defensively, he’s quicker and more of a shot-blocking threat on the backline—key for a team that already needs another real center behind Nurkic and Zeller.

Chriss, frankly, didn’t stand out all that much on Monday given the preseason stakes and quality of competition. Still, if Portland’s last roster spot is going to a big, he still managed to separate himself from Patterson.

Post-Ups Aren’t Coming For Jusuf Nurkic

Billups insisted his team wouldn’t play any differently sans Lillard and McCollum. That proved the case for the most part, with Simons and Smith even providing reasonable facsimiles of the Blazers’ star backcourt. Still, given so much offseason talk of Nurkic playing a bigger role in Portland’s offense, it was fair to assume he’d receive a few more planned post touches than normal with Lillard and McCollum sitting.

Wrong. And more damning of Nurkic actually becoming a legitimate back-to-the-basket threat this season was what happened the couple times he caught the ball in that position and tried to score. Richaun Holmes is theoretically the smaller type of center the Bosnian Beast is supposed to be able to maul.

Nurkic just isn’t a good post scorer in any scenario other than mashing a small switch. A years-long eye test and last season’s ugly efficiency numbers on the block made that obvious, and there’s been nothing to change it in the preseason so far despite chatter he’d be a regular fixture of Portland’s offense down low.

Of course, none of that criticism takes away from the layers Nurkic adds for the Blazers as a passer. Portland’s improved commitment to spacing under Billups has further unlocked Nurkic’s playmaking ability from the high post. He could average three or four assists per game alone this season just finding guards backdoor in quick hand-offs at the elbow and secondary offense from the top of the key.

There’s clearly an optimized increased role for Nurkic offensively, and it involves him being a true secondary playmaker for the Blazers while casually threatening defenses from three—not more post-ups.