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3 Trail Blazers takeaways from season-opening loss to Kings

C.J. McCollum, Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic, Blazers

PORTLAND, Ore. —The clock ran out on the Portland Trail Blazers’ spirited fourth-quarter comeback against the Sacramento Kings on Wednesday night, with Damian Lillard’s would-be game-tying triple as time expired landing just off the mark. The Blazers fell to the Kings 124-121, a final score that’s hardly an indication of just how much Chauncey Billups’ team struggled before the offense came alive late and Sacramento devolved on the other end.

Here are four takeaways from Portland’s season-opening loss to De’Aaron Fox, Harrison Barnes and the Kings.

Would’ve, Could’ve From Three

That last missed three was Lillard’s ninth of the night, a reality made all the uglier because he didn’t connect on a single long ball before then. After the game, he openly pondered—along with every restless, frustrated Blazers fan leaving Moda Center—what could have been if Lillard had even just a below-average shooting night rather than one of the worst of his career.

“It’s not my first time going 0-for-9 or 10. I’ve done it a few times in my career,” he said. “I don’t think opening night is the night you want it to happen, especially in a game you lose by three. I can’t help but think if I would’ve went 3-for-9 or 4-for-9, it’s a completely different because if those shots go in maybe I don’t miss the next ones. It’s a completely different night.”

Lillard didn’t have it quite right. Wednesday’s game was actually just the second time he’s ever missed all nine of his three-point attempts, per research at Stathead Basketball. He’s never missed at least 10 triples without making one.

Obviously, Lillard’s shooting night was a major anomaly. Harrison Barnes hitting six threes in the third quarter alone, as open and in rhythm as most of his looks were, is a complete statistical outlier as well. Had the ball bounced a bit differently, even just two or three times, the Blazers probably win this game. If only Portland’s two-way eye test provided half that much glass-half-full optimism.

Ugly All-Around Defense

The Blazers really did tighten up defensively in the fourth quarter, when the Kings scored 24 points, shot 36.4 percent from the floor and committed four turnovers. Aided by a crowd waiting all night for something to cheer for, their intensity kicked up a palpable notch. There were a handful of possessions where Portland pressed up at the point of attack, rotated quickly and precisely on the backline and didn’t give up when the ball began pinging around the floor. But Sacramento, clearly jittered trying to stave off a comeback, also divulged into rote straight-line drives and dribble-dribble isolations that made the Blazers’ job easier—and let them off the hook.

“We fought extremely hard,” Billups said. “I feel very happy about how hard we played.”

It’s easy to wonder if Billups would’ve felt the same had the Kings continued to indulge the relentless drive-kick, go-go offense that powered them to a 17-point lead on several occasions in the third and early fourth quarters.

Portland emphasized the importance of getting back in transition and multiple-effort defensive rotations throughout the preseason. Billups harped on those facets of defense as much as any other. You wouldn’t have known it against the Kings, not exactly the type of opponent a team can get away with playing a half-step and half-second slow.

Fox racing 90 feet for a layup off a made free throw is definitely in the scouting report.

Nance was visibly miffed after this three from Barnes, and rightfully so. He executed Portland’s scheme perfectly here, ‘X-ing’ to the corner from the wing as a weak-side defender, but no one helped the helper.

Barnes’ third-quarter barrage wasn’t the only reason Sacramento dominated at times offensively.

The Blazers’ starters looked small and slow on defense before the fourth quarter. Nance was a foul magnet, and got badly caught out of position enough on one possession to raise his hand in culpability. Lillard and C.J. McCollum really struggled to navigate ball screens set by their own man, a wrinkle Luke Walton went to more in the second half. It seemed like all of the Kings’ offense was coming early in the shot clock, yet Portland couldn’t bring itself sprint back—or even be aware!—and get the defense set.

Billups admitted after the preseason finale that his team still has a long way to do, and Lillard admitted during his pre-game address to Moda Center that the Blazers’ acclimation to their new playing style wouldn’t be perfect. Perhaps Portland’s troubling defensive struggles were the result of confusion and ongoing development instead of a lack of effort. On the court, the Blazers certainly didn’t seem happy with how they were playing.

But it’s still not encouraging that top-tier effort, like Billups insists his team gave, yielded this type of defensive performance.

The Kids Were Ready

Billups said after the game that he may regret only giving Anfernee Simons 17 minutes of playing time. That’s a lower number than was expected coming into the game, and indeed one that should have been higher given the poise Simons played with on both sides of the ball—not to mention the newfound penetrating and finishing ability he showed off.

Simons had a full-court take for a lefty layup as the third quarter neared its final buzzer, much like his dunk from the first quarter. He also found Nance and Zeller with slick dump-offs at the rim after creasing the paint. When was the last time Simons made a move off the dribble with this much confidence? It was his first shot of 2021-22, too.

Nassir Little played only 15 minutes, but was actually Portland’s first player off the bench. He helped jumpstart the Blazers’ late-game run when called upon in the third quarter, providing a sorely-needed jolt of energy when Barnes was raining triples. He skied for offensive and defensive rebounds, played aggressive on-ball defense and hit a pair of smooth jumpers—one a pull-up from the elbow and the other a corner three.

The Blazers’ theoretical ceiling obviously doesn’t warrant much discussion right now. But a key to it even existing was Simons and Little proving themselves as quality bench players, capable of changing the tenor of games with their athletic pop and budding skill. They did that on Wednesday, and should see bigger minutes going forward because of it.