Damian Lillard recognized the obvious during the third quarter of the Trail Blazers’ 135-110 win Monday night at the Moda Center.
Teammate Anfernee Simons was in a zone.
So, Lillard, who has entered his fair share of zones, did what a good point guard does. He continued to feed Simons the ball. Over and over and over.
And Simons continued to hit shots. Over and over and over. Until, he finished the quarter with 22 points having made six consecutive threes (four assisted by Lillard) to help transform a 61-55 halftime deficit into a 99-86 lead entering the fourth quarter.
The entire time, Lillard watched in amazement, not only at Simons’ exploits but at how the 18,111 in attendance erupted with each basket he made.
“I was looking around the crowd like man this is crazy, he’s blowing the roof off this place,” Lillard said.
In many ways, Simons, who finished with 29 points on 11-of-17 shooting, needed a night like this. After tearing up the NBA for two months late last season, Simons, 23, earned a $100 million contract and a shot to start alongside Lillard.
Simons, who entered training camp knowing a lot was expected of him, got off to a rough start shooting the ball. He went 10 of 34 from the field for 28 points over the previous two games after starting the season with 22 points on 9-of-22 shooting in the opener against Sacramento. Even in that game, Simons went 3 of 10 on threes. Through three games, Simons had shot 5 of 24 (20.8%) from long distance. Horrible for any NBA player but perplexing for someone with a career 3-point percentage of 38.8%.
Even on Monday night, Simons began slowly. At halftime, he had seven points on 3-of-6 shooting but had made only 1 of 4 three-point attempts.
Then something clicked.
Simons hit two early two-point baskets and the Blazers trailed 70-68 in the third when Lillard passed to Simons on the left side of the arc. He connected from 30 feet to give his team a 71-70 lead.
The second three was set up when Josh Hart passed to Simons who then faked at Michael Porter Jr. to back him up before stepping back to hit a three that gave the Blazers (4-0) a 74-70 lead.
At that point, Lillard sensed something. After feeling like Simons hadn’t received enough opportunities in the first half to get going, Lillard began feeding him.
“A couple of times I called a play but most of the time I was just trying to find where he was or allow him to just keep it going,” Lillard said. “He didn’t need much space. There wasn’t really a need for us to make space for him. He was just raising up over dudes and making shots.”
The third three came a couple of possessions later. Lillard received a pass from center Jusuf Nurkic on the left side of the arc and immediately flipped the ball to Simons on the right side. He didn’t hesitate to shoot and made a three from 31 feet to extend the Blazers lead to 79-70 and caused Denver (2-2) to call a timeout.
On the play, Lillard held up his right hand and held out three fingers long before the ball reached the basket. He knew. And he would continue to keep passing his backcourt mate the ball.
“I thought Dame was incredible during that stretch of getting the ball, understanding that Ant was hot and he called every play for him,” Blazers coach Chauncey Billups said.
Denver’s timeout didn’t cool down Simons. A few possessions late, Simons curled around a Nurkic screen to receive a pass from Lillard and made his fourth consecutive three, this one from 29 feet.
The next time down the court, Simons cut behind a Nurkic screen beyond the three point line, received a pass from Lillard and launched from straight away. On the shot, Denver forward Bruce Bowen’s left leg bumped Simons’ right leg as he was in the air causing him to fall to the ground as the shot went in.
“That was when I was like, ‘Okay, I guess it’s one of those nights,’” Simons said. “I shot that one blindly. It was like a blur.”
The basket gave the Blazers an 87-75 lead with 4:40 remaining. Less than a minute later, Simons, facing Davon Reed, dribbled through his legs, then stepped back to his left for a 26-foot three to give the Blazers a 90-77 lead.
The basket gave Simons 22 points for the quarter.
Finally, he missed a three with three minutes remaining in the third.
The streak was over but not the impact.
After that miss, Simons didn’t continue to launch threes just because he had been hot. In the fourth quarter, he attempted only two shots, one three, and missed both. But he had three assists in the quarter. His final assist came after he passed up a shot attempt to find Lillard alone on the right side of the three-point line. Lillard’s shot pushed the Blazers’ lead to 124-102 with 4:07 remaining. Denver called a timeout and both teams cleared the court of their regulars.
“I was just using me being hot against the defense and trying to make plays from there,” he said. “The easy thing is to fall into the mode of just trying to get up shots. We was trying to expand the lead so I was trying to stay calm and continue to make the right plays.”
That was the same mentality his teammates had when they realized that Simons had the hot hand.
“It just speaks to how connected we are,” Simons said. “And everybody has one common goal and that’s to win and we’re going to do it by any means necessary. If somebody is hot, we’re going to find a way to get them the ball. And today, I guess I was hot, and they kept giving me the ball.”
Simons couldn’t recall ever being that on but did mention last season when he scored 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting during the third quarter of the Blazers’ 115-109 loss at home to Miami last Jan. 5. Simons finished with 28 on the night.
Monday, Simons said, was different.
“It’s fun,” he said. “Especially struggling last game shooting then coming in tonight. That’s the way the game works sometimes.”
Lillard said that Simons succeeds because he remains focused and driven regardless of how things are going. He simply goes through his daily routines like a professional.
“He is so humble, he works hard,” Lillard said. “He don’t think too high of himself. He’s just the right kind of person to have these types of moments,” Lillard said.
Simons said he never got down on himself during his struggles. He just kept believing.
“You’re going to run through adversity each and every year,” Simons said. “But coming out of it, it’s gonna make me a better player. I think this adversity, I was prepared for it. I knew what I had to do to get myself back on track and so I’m just gonna keep building from there.”
— Aaron Fentress | afentress@Oregonian.com | @AaronJFentress (Twitter), @AaronJFentress (Instagram), @AaronFentress (Facebook).
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