Notes, analysis, observations, clips and more from the Trail Blazers' massive 106-101 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday at Moda Center.
- Kyle Kuzma, the depleted Lakers' top offensive threat on Friday outside Anthony Davis, scored four points on 2-of-11 shooting in 33 minutes. He also missed all six of his three-point attempts, none more important than a semi-open look in transition that would have tied the game with just over 40 seconds left. Los Angeles squandered another possible opportunity to even the score a couple possessions later, Alex Caruso intentionally fouling C.J. McCollum with 27 seconds left and Portland up three despite there being a 10-second difference between the shot and game clocks. The Blazers were in the bonus, too. There's no denying the importance of this victory. Portland not only won the head-to-head tie-breaker and moved a full ahead of Los Angeles in the standings, but it already owned the season series versus the Dallas Mavericks. Barely two weeks after nearly falling to eighth place in the West, facing the prospect of an opening play-in tournament game on the road, the Blazers suddenly have a realistic chance to finish fifth. They won the biggest game of the season on Friday night. But Portland, full-strength, also came pretty damn close to losing to one of the most short-handed foes it's faced in 2020-21.
- Needless to say, Davis doesn't exactly look like a player still recovering from a nagging right calf strain on the ridiculous, potentially game-saving recovery block above. Any lingering concerns about the back spasms that caused him to exit Thursday's loss to the LA Clippers early were forcefully shut down, too. Davis played like an MVP when Los Angeles needed him most, abusing the Blazers en route to 36 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. He enjoyed a fair amount of success posting up and moonlighting as a ball-screen operator, but did his most efficient damage rolling to the rim and popping for jumpers after setting picks. Davis' personal 7-0 run in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter, capped by that awesome block on Jusuf Nurkic, even gave the Lakers more than a puncher's chance at victory. The loss was as significant for Los Angeles as the win was for Portland, obviously. The difference is that the defending champions know they have another level to reach – not just when they're healthy, but when James flips his switch for the playoffs. Davis' performance, in a valiant losing effort, went a long way toward quieting concerns his physical wear and tear might prevent the Lakers from getting there.
- It's an awesome testament to Damian Lillard's brilliance that Davis still might not have been the best player on the floor. The Blazers superstar dissected the league's top-ranked defense on Friday, picking his spots at will as a scorer and passer to finish with 38 points and seven assists on 12-of-18 shooting. He stopped on a dime for deep pull-up triples, accelerated in a flash off hesitation bounces for quick finishes at the rim and got behind the defense multiple times for easy scores via back cuts. Lillard was in complete control again, exhibiting the dominant form that pulled Portland out of its recent slump and kept his team alive earlier this season when Nurkic and McCollum were sidelined. This version of Lillard will always give the Blazers a shot to win, no matter the stakes nor opponent.
- Portland would've been in huge trouble offensively if Lillard wasn't quite so awesome. The Blazers' 106.0 offensive rating was their lowest since April 25, when the Memphis Grizzlies took a second straight to push Terry Stotts' team to a season-defining nadir. There's a case to be made, though, that defense was just as big an issue for Portland – especially considering Los Angeles' horrid start offensively. The Lakers coughed up the ball eight times in the first quarter alone, still getting used to the uncomfortable norm of playing without James, Dennis Schroder and Talen Horton-Tucker. Related: The Blazers led 34-22 after the opening stanza. The edge and intensity was there for Portland on Friday, but its defensive execution was sorely lacking at times after an impressive start. Los Angeles' comeback came most courtesy of transition, an x-factor in our pregame preview, and the Blazers' defensive approach on Davis post-ups was maddeningly inconsistent. The Lakers are professionals; they were never going to lay down in a game of this magnitude. But allowing a 111.3 offensive rating over the last three quarters to this Los Angeles group just isn't good enough, even more so when it goes 7-of-23 from beyond the arc.
- Nurkic is playing with confidence we haven't seen since March 2019, a reality most reflected on Friday when he worked as a high-post playmaker. He found backdoor cutters on a handful of possessions with pinpoint bounce passes and perfectly-timed lobs, and even threw an underhanded alley-oop to Robert Covington while rolling to the rim in crunch-time. Covington, not quite a high-flier, got hung on the rim, unsurprisingly, but that Nurkic had the gumption to throw that pass at all is indicative of the verve and comfort he's currently feeling as a playmaker. Just as significant? He finished with touch, creativity and accuracy around the rim, too.