Caleb Swanigan made his first career start Monday night as the Blazers beat the Nuggets 99-82 at the Moda Center.(
After the Moda Center lights dimmed and the pregame video montage finished, Jusuf Nurkic looked over at his teammates on the Portland Trail Blazers’ bench and spotted a surprise.
Rookie Caleb Swanigan, not Noah Vonleh, was sitting near him, preparing to be introduced with the rest of the Blazers’ starting lineup.
"I was expecting Noah (Vonleh) out there," Nurkic said. "And I see Caleb."
With his team sputtering on offense, playing wildly inconsistent overall and staring at a three-game losing streak, coach Terry Stotts shook things up against the Denver Nuggets Monday night, giving Swanigan his first career start and featuring a 10-man rotation that included extended stretches with stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum watching from the bench.
The series of surprise coaching adjustments helped jolt the Blazers out of their funk and breeze to their best victory of the season, 99-82, over the sizzling Nuggets.
Rarely over the last two-plus seasons have the Blazers played without one of Lillard and McCollum on the court at all times, as Stotts grew comfortable leaning on the dependable scoring and playmaking of his best players. But against the Nuggets, the Blazers played without their stars for 15 minutes, as Stotts rode a traditional "second unit" of five backups against the Nuggets.
Portland opened the second and fourth quarters with a lineup featuring Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton, Evan Turner, Noah Vonleh and Ed Davis, and it was particularly effective at the beginning of the second, when the group pushed a four-point lead to 43-32 midway through the quarter.
By the end of the night, the Blazers had outscored the Nuggets by 14 points in the stretches Lillard and McCollum rested on the bench.
Vonleh (eight points, 10 rebounds, two steals, one block) played perhaps his best game of the season, Turner (14 points, five assists, three rebounds) did a little bit of everything and Napier (eight points, three assists) continued his recent solid play as the Blazers’ bench outscored the Nuggets’ bench 42-14. It helped Portland (7-6) cruise to a convincing victory over a red-hot team that had won seven of the last nine.
Stotts said he had been toying with the idea of using a traditional backup group since before the season started and decided Monday was a good time to "give it a look." The curveball no doubt caught the Nuggets (8-6) off guard — and they were not alone.
"When you start losing games, you expect the unexpected," McCollum said. "Our second unit, they’ve been doing a great job. Even in practices, they compete every day and they’ve been very competitive and Coach has been on us in practice to continue to get better. They’ve been pushing us."
Swanigan pushed his way all the way to the starting lineup. The rookie big man, whose hard-nosed style and no-nonsense demeanor have made him an instant fan favorite, had an up-and-down first start. He opened hot, recording a monster block on a Will Barton fast break layup, converting a layup off a pump fake and snatching a steal in the lane in the first few minutes, all while finishing his first shift with six points, two blocks and one assist.
But a few rebounds slipped out of his hands, he was a touch too aggressive on a couple possessions and hampered by foul trouble all night. Swanigan said he learned he would start Sunday afternoon, when Stotts told him at the Blazers’ practice, and the unflappable, always-stoic rookie encountered an unexpected issue in the moments leading up to Monday night’s game.
He was too amped.
"You’ve got so much anticipation in you," Swanigan said, "you do some things that are uncharacteristic."
The exuberance led to excessive fouling. He had to sit after collecting two fouls in the game’s first seven minutes, picked up his fourth and fifth fouls less than three minutes into the third quarter and saw his first start end with 4:13 left when he fouled out.
But Swanigan, who had played in eight of the Blazers’ first 12 games, finished with six points, five rebounds, two blocks and universal praise from teammates.
"I thought he played well," McCollum said. "We’ve been trying to tell him in practice that the whistle is not going to be very good to him in games. I think you saw that tonight. But I thought he battled, he rebounded well, he made the right plays (and) was in the right spots for the most part."
Afterward, Swanigan downplayed his promotion, saying he was simply happy the Blazers avoided falling below .500 for the first time this season. But his presence in the starting lineup, at the very least, helped Stotts employ the two-lineup, 10-man rotation that catapulted the Blazers to an important victory.
"These moments, these opportunities, are very important to his progression as a player," Turner said of Swanigan. "I think he prepares well and I think he’ll get better and better with this type of opportunity."
Will he get another opportunity in the starting lineup?
"Most likely," Stotts said. "He’s 1-0, so most likely."
Golden State Warriors forward Jordan Bell dunks the basketball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Monday, Oct. 30, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)