Notes, analysis, observations, clips and more from the Trail Blazers 129-119 win over the Boston Celtics on Sunday at TD Garden.
- This was the best Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Norman Powell have played together all season, and it's not particularly close. The 82 combined points on stellar efficiency pretty much speaks for itself, but each of the Blazers' three starting guards left their own singular imprint on Sunday's game, too. Lillard played quarterback, manipulating the defense with equal threats of pull-up jumpers and hard-charging drives en route to 13 assists. McCollum, feeling it all game, was also Portland's closer, scoring 10 huge fourth-quarter points on an array of tough jump-shots. Powell was a transition engine from the opening tip, mixing in confident off-dribble triples and straight-line drives in the halfcourt. The final verdict on the trade for Powell won't come until free agency. Any notion that the Blazers would have been better off keeping Gary Trent, Jr., purely from a basketball perspective, is being forcefully refuted on a nightly basis now – no matter what happens in the playoffs.
- The Blazers' rotation, finally, is set. If there was ever a time when Stotts would quickly beckon Derrick Jones Jr. or Nassir Little from the bench to put out a hot hand, it would have been Sunday. Portland clearly had no answer for Jayson Tatum in the first half, a reality Stotts was apparently more comfortable living with than giving Jones or Little the chance to cool Boston's budding superstar off. Maybe that's different in the playoffs, when the margins tighten and teams scheme more acutely for the opposition. But it sure doesn't seem like Jones or Little are anywhere near the Blazers' plans right now.
- At least Portland adjusted instead of letting Tatum continue to abuse its guards pretty much however he wanted. The Blazers amped up their aggression defensively after intermission, blitzing Tatum ball screens, sending more pointed weak-side help in the post and flat-out double-teaming if he caught at the nail. Portland obviously won't win a title with Lillard as the primary defender of guys like Tatum, even switching across four positions. But the Blazers' second-half defense was still a blueprint of how they can make life hard on some wing superstars – with hyper-active, well-timed help and all-out commitment. Their defense at and behind the point of attack in the third and fourth quarters was as good as its been all season. Selling out to stop Tatum wouldn't have been such an easy call if Kemba Walker was available. Portland might have been forced out of it if Jayen brown went better than 1-of-9 from three. The Blazers have talked so much of late about flipping the switch defensively, though, and the second half is another example of them backing it up in winning fashion. As for limiting playmaking geniuses like LeBron James and Luka Doncic? That's an impossible problem Portland can try to fix when the time comes.
- Jusuf Nurkic, it's abundantly clear by now, is rounding into near-peak form. He finished with decisiveness and touch around the rim, and even stepped behind the arc – on the left wing, another subtle sign of his real shooting progress – for a triple. But Nurkic's biggest impact was still felt on defense, where his team-leading +24 plus-minus was confirmed by the eye test over and over again. Enes Kanter would provide a lot centers quite the contrast in terms of foot speed and rim-protection. Just the same, there aren't many players Nurkic's size who can slide their feet to all angles and both sides of the floor at a moment's notice with the ease he shows on the possession below. The Blazers, it's safe to say now, really are turning their season around, and Nurkic continues to be the biggest reason why.