Many Happy Returns For Trail Blazers In Win Versus Magic

by Casey Holdahl
Follow @chold

ORLANDO -- Monday’s game was all about returning for the Trail Blazers. Between CJ McCollum taking the court for the first in well over a month and both Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little playing and starting in their shared hometown, the Monday’s contest in Orlando was highlighted by familiar faces making triumphant returns. Coming away with a win assured as much.

The Trail Blazers lead for all but the first minute and a half of the game and went up by as many as 24 before coasting to a 98-88 victory versus the Orlando Magic in front of a crowd of 13,648 Monday night at Amway Center.

“I thought we played well,” said Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups. “The few things we really focused on, tried to take away, I thought we did a pretty good job. We just had so many guys that played well.”

The Trail Blazers are now 18-25 overall, 4-14 on the road and have won four of their last five. With the win, the Trail Blazers secured consecutive road victories for the first time this season and have taken the last 10 contests versus the Magic, their longest current winning streak versus any team.

With Damian Lillard out for at least the next six weeks after undergoing surgery and Norman Powell yet to return after a bout of COVID, McCollum’s return to the lineup Monday night after missing the last 18 games, initially because of a collapsed lung and then for the birth of his first child, was a welcomed sight. Despite missing so much time, the 6-3 guard out of Lehigh didn’t look like he missed a beat, though he was under a minutes restriction.

“It was good to see CJ back,” said Billups. “I was happy to have him back out there shotmaking, but he was really efficient, obviously. He didn’t force anything, right back like he never left.”

Little and Simons, both who prepped in the Orlando area, got warm welcomes playing in front of family and friends. Simons, one of the hottest players in the NBA in the month of January, was steady even if he didn’t match some of the performances he’s posted recently. But Little turned in one of his best games of the season, using his athleticism, energy and knack for offensive rebounding to spark a 12-0 run in the second quarter that gave Portland a 50-38 advantage.

“Once we got that lead, we never really lost it,” said Little. “I think that really the tone for the rest of the game, got us that lead and then we kind of extended that in the third quarter. I definitely think it set the tone, it was important for us tonight.”

Portland would take a 54-40 lead into the intermission, and would all but put the game away late in the third quarter with a 12-0 run that pushed the advantage to 74-51. Billups would play his starters for much of the fourth just in case -- you can’t leave anything to chance when you’ve only won three games on the road more than midway through the season -- but the Magic never got the deficit down to single digits.

“Ant couldn’t get the three-ball to go but his floor game was beautiful. He played good everywhere else,” said Billups. “Obviously Nurk had the big 21 (points), 22 (rebounds). I thought Nas was incredible, just the way he’s crashing the glass and getting us extra opportunities. He’s such a selfless player, he was really, really good. Ben (McLemore)’s shotmaking stood out... They executed just really good on both ends.”

While McCollum re-joining the team and Little and Simons returning to their childhood home got the headlines, Nurkic was the star of Portland’s show Monday night. The 7-0 Bosnian went 10-of-21 from the field for 21 points while grabbing 22 rebounds, just one short of his career high, in 36 minutes. The 7-0 center also logged four steals, two assists and two blocks in the yeoman effort.

“We’re going to (Nurkic) more,” said Billups. “Dame and CJ were out so you’ve got to go to a guy that you feel like can get double-teamed, you can see his confidence just continuing to surge. We’re just going to him more.”

McCollum played 28 minutes in his first game since suffering a collapsed lung in a loss to the Celtics on December 4 and finished with 16 points on 7-of-13 shooting from the field, two assists and a rebound.

Little went 4-of-9 from the field for 13 points and 10 rebounds for the double double while also adding four assists, a steal and a block in 35 minutes. Simons finished with 13 points and seven assists and Ben McLemore, after starting the last four games, came off the bench to put up 14 points in 21 minutes.

Both Franz and Moritz Wagner finished with 14 points for the Magic.

Next up, the Trail Blazers start the second half of a six-game trip with another game in Florida, this time versus the Heat in Miami. Tipoff is scheduled for Wednesday at 4:30 p.m.

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