By Joe Freeman

The Oregonian

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BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Damian Lillard could not buy a bucket. C.J. McCollum initially looked like he was still enjoying the All-Star break.

But a funny thing happened Thursday night as the Portland Trail Blazers opened a 13-day, seven-game trip with a 113-99 victory over the Brooklyn Nets: It didn’t matter.

With Jusuf Nurkic owning the middle and Enes Kanter flourishing in his Blazers debut, the team known for its unstoppable backcourt unveiled a new and potentially lethal interior game that gives opposing teams something new to lose sleep about over the final two months of the season.

Kanter, who signed with the Blazers last week, had 18 points and nine rebounds in 20 minutes off the bench in his debut with Portland.

Nurkic punished the Nets to the tune of 27 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks, and Kanter added 18 points and nine rebounds in a near-perfect first impression with the Blazers.

A positionless league known for small-ball lineups and prolific 3-point shooting was given a first taste of the Blazers’ newest wrinkle, a pair of old-school big men who offer a one-two punch unlike any other.

“They’re going to change the dynamic for a lot of teams and how they guard us,” McCollum said. “They’re going to present some challenges for a lot of teams.”

Nurkic owned the middle against the Nets, bullying undersized center Jarrett Allen all night with a barrage of post-ups, hook shots and dunks. And when the Blazers’ starting center left the game for rest or because of foul trouble, Kanter essentially replicated his physical feats, pounding the Nets’ backup big men — including onetime Portland fan favorite Ed Davis — with a dominant back-to-the-basket arsenal.

Thirty-five seconds after stepping on the court, Kanter corralled his first offensive rebound. Thirty-four seconds after that he scored his first bucket, backing Davis down on the block and converting an easy spinning layup. At least three times Kanter beat Davis with one-on-one post-ups and he also owned the offensive glass, snaring a game-high five offensive rebounds to help the Blazers record 22 second-chance points.

It did not matter that, afterward, he admitted he did not know the Blazers’ plays. Or that he had played all of one practice with his new teammates.

Kanter’s blend of brawn and savvy overpowered the unfamiliarity. McCollum called Kanter a “monster” and he looked pretty darn good playing behind the Blazers’ “Beast.”

“Our two big guys really dominated inside,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “I don’t know if you could have asked for a better first game from (Kanter).”

It is a new luxury for the Blazers, who have not had a pair of Twin Towers with this much offensive skill and experience in ages. As Lillard contemplated this new reality Thursday, he not only salivated at the thought of how much it potentially could open up the offense strategically for him and McCollum, but also how it might physically wear down opposing defenses.

It is one thing to contend with Nurkic when he is engaged and playing well. It’s another thing altogether to contend with Nurkic and then with Kanter.

“There’s not a break for other teams,” Lillard said. “You come out with Nurk, who’s huge, who’s banging guys down low, who’s getting the ball in the paint. And then when he’s out of the game, you come in with Enes. And he’s the same. He’s strong, he’s banging, he’s in there making those guys works. They’ve got their work cut out for them in the paint.”

Stotts said he does not envision a scenario in which Nurkic and Kanter play together. He said he would rather “spread the wealth.”

Lillard struggled from the field all night against the Nets, making just 5 of 21 shots and scoring just 13 points, equaling his lowest output of the season. And McCollum opened the game by making just one of his first five shots. On most nights in the past this season, this would have spelled doom for the Blazers.

But they have a new 7-foot wrinkle and, if the first game was any indication, it could be formidable over the final two months of the season.

The Blazers center sealed the win with a thunderous dunk against the Brooklyn Nets.

“(Nurkic) is one of the biggest and toughest big men in the league,” Kanter said. “And I think he’s using his body and he kind of plays like I do. Physical game. Rebounding. Post-ups. Face-up shots. I think we’re just going to get better from now.”

Added Nurkic: “(Kanter) was tremendous. For us going forward, if we play that way, it’s going to be huge.”