Felt cute, might sportswriter later. Can’t say this will be a regular thing, but it did help me breakout of a seeming writer’s block, and sometimes that’s all you need.
Chauncey Billups just Tyronn Lue’d us.
Well, it might be too early to tell that, but for most, a sigh of relief was heard around Portland’s many sports bars and television sets. The exhibition showings were a disaster of confidence, showcasing every Blazermaniac’s worst fear: a complete and utter flubbing of Damian Lillard’s latter-day career by an inexperienced head coach and a poorly-constructed roster.
Goodwill among Rip Citizens had already become as scant as rain this October, but as I exited the bar, the smell of wildfires could not take away the fact that the team had pulled off a gutty performance against the Sacramento Kings.
Yes, those Sacramento Kings.
Now, no one should discount the feelings a season opener can induce for fans, players, coaches and referees. And the feeling in Sacramento was electric. Even without their newest addition, Keegan Murray, Sacramentans could taste a team ready to compete for the first time in years. And compete De’Aaron Fox, Domantas Sabonis and Kevin Huerter did all night.
The Kings built an early lead before the Blazers attuned themselves to the flow of the game. Anfernee Simons attempted to make a big first impression with a tomahawk that rung off the back iron. It rebounded and found its way to Lillard who passed it back to a wide-open Simons. He splashed in a three to make up for it. From there the team started to exert their will on the defensive end.
Yes, you did just read that.
While the performance wasn’t perfect and the early choice of the center was caught between Jusuf Nurkic’s cement shoes and Drew Eubanks’ unfortunate turnstile footwork, the Blazers managed to build a 9-point lead after the first frame behind excellent two-way efforts by Jerami Grant, Josh Hart, and even Lillard.
Not wanting to be shown up on their opening night, Huerter and Fox played out of their freaking minds beyond the arc early, seemingly draining everything they touched. Normally, you want a career 29% like Fox to take those shots, but when they started falling, it put pressure on the Blazers to close out leaving the middle open for Sabonis to begin playing bully ball. Sabonis muscled whoever was between him and the basket early, opening up opportunities for kick outs for more threes. Behind the hot hands, Sacramento transformed what was a 13-point deficit into a 10-point lead eight minutes into the 3rd quarter.
It was about there when Billup’s blueprint started to kick back in: Grant and Winslow would shore up Nurkic’s shortcomings with more swarming defense, forcing poor looks, taking charges and providing stout challenges to Sabonis’ inside game. If watching the first quarter was to catch a glimmer of how Chauncey Billup intends his team to play, watching the third and fourth quarters was to see it come to fruition.
The fourth quarter itself was tighter than Sacramento games past but the Blazers effected Billup’s vision for a swarming, switchable defense that clogs up the paint and ensures every interior pass risked a takeaway. By the end of the night, the Blazers had racked up 11 steals as Grant, Nurkic, Lillard and Simons registered two apiece, and the Blazers registered 20 points off turnovers.
For the old heads in the crowd, this is a classic Blazer’s basketball flashback and it was glorious to watch. The Blazers absolutely punished their opponent’s mistakes, with Josh Hart steamrolling opponents off the dribble. Even if the Blazers dueled the Kings to a standstill on fast break points (Blazers, 20; Kings, 19), it was still a stand for something different. Something we haven’t seen since time immemorial. Not even the Brandon Roy-LaMarcus Aldrige era ran breakaways with this level of intent.
With under five minutes to go, De’Aaron Fox made his last three-pointer of the night to put the Kings up by five. Anfernee Simons—a bright spot all game—responded with a driving dunk through a wide-open lane and then a searingly hot catch-and-shoot to tie it up at 104. Terence Davis would serve up a monster dunk to put the Kings up by two but he received a technical for taunting, and Lillard sunk the subsequent technical free throw.
From there the Kings would fail to score until a late Kevin Huerter jump shot kept the score respectable between consecutive driving-and-one plays from Hart and Grant.
Grant, who has been raved about by Joe Cronin’s front office since his acquisition, came out to play despite some early inefficiencies. With 23 points and eight rebounds, Grant kept the Blazers in the game at crucial moments. Perfect from deep, instigating the fast break or sinking his late free throws, the man is exactly the type of player this team has been missing since former general manager Neil Olshey traded away Nicolas Batum for a sputtering Noah Vonleh in 2015. His contract situation will be one to watch next summer, as he has been one of the few consistent bright spots from the exhibition season into the regular. For now, he has transformed the McCollum-for-Hart trade into a seeming net win.
Another bright spot was the play of Shaedon Sharpe, who has gone from a tantalizing mystery box to a young 3-and-D wing who increasingly shows more and more flashes of playmaking brilliance. Usually, a rookie is a net negative on defense, but even when Sharpe was seemingly beaten to a position, his ability to bounce right back into a play meant Fox and Davion Mitchell had a tougher go of it as he became increasingly more comfortable in the game. Even more impressive? Sharpe was nailing threes all over the place. Catch-and-shoot, step-back, on the inbound play, the kid was a stud and his shooting stroke is as pure as they come. Already he’s catching national attention.
Conversely, Nassir Little was a non-factor on the scoring tonight, missing both outside shots and seeming skittish to use his natural gifts. He only played for 10 minutes, but he did provide some rebounds, an assist and a steal. It seems the Blazers will have to wait for the player Little looked to be before a torn labrum sidelined him in late January.
And while Lillard may not be the automatic 30-point machine before his core injury, let this win show that he doesn’t have to be when Cronin and Billup’s pieces are clicking around him. If you watched a Blazer game in the last eight years, it seemed like Dame Time had become a curse; the Blazers would mosey on down to the last five minutes before Lillard would either put the ballgame away or not. Despite a frigid shooting night in his normal spots, Lillard tallied eight assists and drew contact regularly for a cool 20 points.
Finally, Chauncey Billups should be credited with a gutsy decision to bench Nurkic in favor of Justise Winslow at the center position. Winslow, who is built like an absolute truck, managed to stop the bleeding from Sabonis’ bullyball antics inside while turning offensive breakdowns into baskets. His shot received the friendly shooter’s bounce and his ability to transform turnovers into breakaway opportunities made him an indispensable part of a small ball lineup that included Lillard, Simons, Hart and Grant.
It felt like a closing lineup with the Bosnian Beast was inevitable given years of precedence. But Billups surprised with a switch-up gambit on the season opener. It may be only one game, and it might not mean anything, but with a first-half schedule that is undeniably tough (Portland will play only 14 games at home before the New Year) for any team, much less one still working out the kinks, it was exciting to watch a team that is far more in touch with Billup’s vision than last year’s.
So did Billups manage to befuddle us all? Only time will tell. For now, enjoy the thought that this year could be different.