Game 2 Win Validates Decisions By Kanter, Hood To Join Trail Blazers
With Damian Lillard struggling from the field, at least relative to his lofty standards, the Trail Blazers got important offensive production from CJ McCollum (20 points, six rebounds, six assists), Al-Farouq Aminu (11 points, 10 rebounds) and Zach Collins (10 points, six assists) and stout defensive effort from the entire roster to come away with a 97-90 victory versus the Nuggets in Game 2 of the Western Conference Semifinals Wednesday night in Denver. With the win, the Blazers have taken home-court advantage away from the Nuggets with the next two games to be played in Portland.
But while Wednesday’s win was a quintessential team effort, it wouldn’t have been possible without the efforts of two players, Enes Kanter and Rodney Hood, who have only been Trail Blazers for less than three months. What’s more, both players had to agree to come to Portland, something that has been an issue for the Trail Blazers during the course of their nearly 50-year history, so playing integral roles in evening the series served as validation for their respective decisions.
For Kanter, who had options after being waived by the New York Knicks in the final year of his contract, the decision to join the Trail Blazers came down to opportunity and familiarity, as Portland had tried to sign the 6-11 center as a restricted free agent before the Thunder opted to match the contract. He had interest from other teams, but decided to sign with Portland due to that previous interest and the team’s status as a lock to make the postseason. His addition initially gave the Blazers a powerful one-two punch at the center position, and when Jusuf Nurkic was lost for the season to a broken left leg, Kanter’s decision to sign with Portland is the main reason they were able to make it to the Western Conference Semifinals.
And now that they’re there, Kanter’s play, despite a bum left shoulder, is one of the main reasons the Blazers were able to tie the series. Between finishing with 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting, nine rebounds, two blocks and two steals and playing a role in slowing Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, Kanter showed just how beneficial his decision to sign a midseason, veteran minimum contract was for both he and the Blazers.
“Portland, this team, not just this team, this organization, this city, the whole state, even (Oregon senator Ron Wyden), probably the best thing that happen to me in my basketball career,” said Kanter. “I cannot thank them enough. That’s why every day I wake up, I look in the mirror and say I should be blessed.”
That blessing obviously goes both ways, as it’s hard to envision a scenario in which Portland would have secured the three-seed in the West, a first-round series victory versus the Thunder or a Game 2 win Wednesday night in Denver if Kanter had chosen to ply his trade somewhere else.
And while Portland probably would have still secured the three-seed had Hood not agreed to being traded from Cleveland at the deadline — as a player on a one-year contract, Hood had to consent to the move — there’s little double they would have won Game 2 Wednesday night without the 6-6 wing out of Duke.
After not having the chance to impact the series versus the Thunder as much as he would have liked, Hood has upped his production, especially on the offensive end, precipitously in the series versus the Nuggets. Hood followed up a 17-point night in Game 1 by going 5-of-11 from the field for 15 points in Game 2, the same number of points that he scored in the entire series versus the Thunder.
“Just trying to play hard, give effort, give energy,” said Hood. “First series I was doing that, I wasn't worried about offense. This series, it's more matchup friendly, I guess you could say, just taking advantage of it. Playing confident, making or missing shots don't really matter as long as i'm playing confident, shots will start to fall. And they're starting to. I feel good about it, just got to continue to keep the energy on the defensive end.”
Denver shot better than 50 percent to win Game 1, so turning in a better defensive effort was necessary in order to take Game 2. Hood was up to the task in that area as well, along with the entirety of Portland’s forward rotation.
“We just tried to wear them down, picked them up full court a lot,” said Hood. “Me, Jake Layman and Moe before he got hurt, we're picking up full court, picking Jokic up, just making them work so they don't have such a free flowing offense. I think it worked tonight, we've got to keep that going.”
Like Kanter, Hood’s decision to join the Trail Blazers has payed dividends for both parties. After spending the first half of the season playing for a Cavaliers team more concerned with developing young talent than winning basketball games, Hood is now playing important minutes on a team with a chance of making the Western Conference Finals. Both he and Kanter have answered their critics during their time with the Trail Blazers, and both will be unrestricted free agents this offseason, so a deep playoff run could very well make both players more desirable once the market opens on July 1.
But for both Kanter and Hood, their motivations for joining the Trail Blazers were far more about getting back to playing winning basketball than the chance to improve their earning power, even if that’s undoubtably a nice ancillary benefit.
“I always admired this group from afar,” said Hood. “Everything I've experienced since I've been here is validation. Great group of guys, great leadership, great vibe. Everybody in this locker room just wants to win and that's what I wanted to be a part of. And we all believe in each other, so it's going to take us a long way.”