I guess I just write these randomly now? I dunno. Depression is weird.
Well, I was going to write another Blazers thing after an impromptu invite to watch the Blazers take on the Denver Nuggets. Anfernee Simons busting that bunker with six three-point shots in a torrid third quarter just felt like too good a thing to pass up. But in the end, I did.
I also passed up an opportunity to write about the contrasting blowout against Miami. Then alternated with Blazers, enjoying a solid win against Houston and suffering the wrath of Desmond Bane and Memphis. I passed up an opportunity to wrap up the homestand, and I didn’t even bother trying to write about 5 games in 7 nights.
I’m not quite ready to write about every game of every season (although I am making a concerted effort to catch ‘em all). But while sorting out the various shit in my life, I still decided to purchase half-season tickets because it’s on my bucket list. Thus I went to their most recent game against the Spurs this past Tuesday and enjoyed it before writing this little ditty of (checks word count). Holy shit, that’s a lot of words.
Sporting their new Portland Airport Carpet Jerseys (the “City Edition”), the home game against the Spurs was the first after a long road-trip, also known as the classic trap game. Couch sports psychology dictates that teams are often confused that spectators would actually be cheering for them after multiple dates against hostile fans. Thus they struggle to bring the crowd into the game, allowing for the visiting team to snag an easy win against the fatigued home team.
It’s all very elementary but also very dubious. Dubious to the modern tune of sus, I say. Throw it in the same bin as the whole “every time a person watches, the favorite team loses” mojo.
I personally was hoping for a blowout, a square punch in the mouth delivered from the Blazers to the Spurs in their hipster travel jerseys after arriving home from that long road trip. What unfolded instead was an essay listicle that lays out all seven of my observations for this year’s Blazers.
Depth Off The Charts
There’s probably nobody who would have said Portland had depth before the start of the season. Too many question marks: is Damian Lillard healthy?; is Anfernee Simons ready to co-star with Damian Lillard?; how does Jerami Grant fit into the offense?; is Shaedon Sharpe fools gold?; why do they have so many guards?; can they stay healthy? All of these questions swirled around the Blazers’ roster.
And frankly, no one really considered the seeds planted after the trade deadline: the newfound synergy between Josh Hart and Justice Winslow, the ascendance of Simons, the steady improvement of Little, the team-wide change in attitude towards scrappy play and rangy, defensive players. The Blazers would not overpower with size but disrupt with length.
Perhaps the most important development happened with Shaedon Sharpe, the 7th pick in the 2022 draft. A mystery box no more, Sharpe’s a certified hooper, ready to cut and yam it every day of the week, providing a spark plug off the bench. His first half against the Spurs was a thing of beauty, resulting in 13 picture-perfect points.
Drew Eubanks has also played out of his mind; he took the monster share of the minutes against the Spurs. The man anchored the defense when Nurkic proved out-of-shape against the potent Jakob Poeltl and delivered the and-1 play which would give the Blazers the winning lead.
Winslow, who did not play against the Mavericks or Spurs, provides a calming presence sorely missed by the second unit. He may not be able to shoot beyond the arc, but the combination defensive versatility and primary ballhandling skills means he can generate stops and points in a pinch. Nassir Little has also become a near automatic shooter, using the road trip to showcase his improved form with clutch baskets against the Suns, Pelicans and Hornets.
But it’s perhaps Josh Hart who most makes this team’s engine go and has completely filled a void left on the team since Wesley Matthews. He averages the most impactful triple single during games, securing key rebounds, digging in for defensive stands, breaking up lob passes, muscling to the basket for layups and penetrating for a better shot.
The only flaw to Hart’s game is his reluctance to shoot; he’s not a bad shot, but if he continues to pass up open three-pointers, opponents aren’t going to fall for the shot fake. Then again, he is just the type of player to save his one three-point attempt for the most important part of the game.
His buzzer-beater against Miami was such a flashpoint. And it beheld a joy that all Blazermaniacs should run with: for once, Dame didn’t have to be the hero.
Jerami Grant Is An All-Star
Yeah, yeah, I know this could be considered an offshoot of my first point, but I think Grant’s play merits its own discussion. He’s not merely been an advanced roleplayer can who gives the Blazers an impactful 20 points per night, but he also fills a point-of-attack defender role unseen since the likes of Nicolas Batum, all the while providing a reliable emergency first-option during nights without Lillard, Simons or Nurkic in the game.
Indubitably, some are going to point to the Phoenix buzzer-beater or the New Orleans masterpiece as the quintessential Jerami Grant experience. But the Dallas shootout was more telling; Jerami Grant basically played Luka Doncic to a tie.
There’s an edge to Doncic if you go by the raw stats—Grant had 37 points/6 rebounds/2 assists/2 blocks; Doncic, meanwhile, poured in 42 points/13 rebounds/10 assists/2 steals/1 block—but the Blazers covered up these deficiencies with their own play. Lillard generated a 29-point, 12-assist double-double. Simons dropped in another 24 points and collected seven rebounds.
With Nurkic and Winslow out and Hart suffering from absolutely frigid shooting (0 for 9), Grant and the Blazers nearly nullified a vintage Doncic showing on the road. Had the Blazers made a couple more free throws, they might have exited the trip with a fifth win out of six.
And Grant did not stop being an automatic bucket against the Spurs, either. Six-of-eight from beyond the arc with some stealthy cuts and fleet-footed drives, Grant scored 29 points, collected 8 rebounds and had a fantastic block waved off for a foul. He pushed the pace and bailed the Blazers out with ease.
Grant is a revelation—the type of player the Blazers haven’t had since Jerome Kersey, and it is glorious to watch.
Turnovers Are The Greatest Opponent
Grant, however, still suffered from a teamwide affliction. One of the greatest nemeses of this Blazers team has been turnovers. Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers, count it sixteen times because that’s how many the squad averages a game.
The worst part of the turnovers is always the timing. Turnovers are never good, but when they happen at momentum-breaking junctures, it’s an absolute killer. The turnovers against Miami at home killed any potential for a comeback as Caleb Martin and crew continually picked pockets and intercepted top-of-the-key passes. Same story in Phoenix for game two of the road trip.
Of course, this is a natural byproduct of having a motion offense that tries to keep the ball hot and swing the defense from side to side, making daring drives into the key and not being afraid to push the pace. And the last two games of the road trip were marked by improvement in taking care of the ball. The Spurs game also saw the Blazers careful with the rock through the first half.
But then came a litany of errant drives and passing. Some of it was just stupid stuff, the kind of unwise mistakes that have you asking, “what were you thinking?” The Blazers took high-risk passes, jumping and throwing the ball at empty spaces or lobbing them far overhead. Not a single Blazer was spared, and the third quarter quickly turned into basketball hell.
Chauncey Can Coach
This one is probably the point I was most reserved on. Mainly because this is the first year team officials, journalists and fans can link together Chauncey Billups’ lineup decisions with the win-loss columns in a tangible way. Last year doesn’t really count—the team he intended to coach blew up before Christmas, and the team he coached afterward was a mixture of new additions, talent in development and some end-of-the-bench players. Purposed to lose out, and lose out, they did.
But now Billups has the players he’s always wanted; length, doggedness and versatility run up and down the roster and with improved wing depth, Billups himself has also improved at how he mixes and matches lineups, not being afraid to go small and force opponents to spread the floor, or using Winslow as a point forward anchor for the second unit.
He’s still figuring out, by his own admission, when to challenge a call, but the nature of the coach’s challenge also makes it generally unwise to use unless absolutely certain it will generate a possession. Against the Spurs, he made a solid early challenge against an obvious blocking foul which stymied the San Antonio run for a moment while saving Nurkic from another foul. But the resultant lack of a challenge still puts the successful team in a fearful spot during a tight game.
Regardless, Billups has proven himself adept at pushing the right buttons to generate winnable game conditions for his team. He solved the Miami defense with Winslow, cut up New Orleans with a small-ball lineup, and rolled with Drew Eubanks as closing-time center as the Blazers sealed the deal against the Spurs.
Defense That Lets the Dogs Out
One of the keys to creating these winnable conditions is a rock-solid defense. Portland is currently 6th in Defensive Rating (109.7) and 17th in Offensive Rating (111.6). That is a complete reversal of franchise trends. Every time Portland was among the top 10 defensive teams, they had a squad serious enough to challenge for the Western Conference. With those same rangy, dogged wings, Billups is able to pull off both man and zone defenses.
The Blazers throw the second-most zone at opponents in the league. But they use it as a scheme mix-up, shifting between zone and man defense on a play-by-play basis, constantly attempting to keep opponents confused with different looks. Traps are called on an audible basis, and the Blazers’ big men are showing on pick-and-roll actions to allow for the wings to go under the screen.
Billups and assistant Coach Roy Rodgers’ zone philosophy has also been a winner. Guards cover the corners as wings cover passing lanes around the top of the key. Near the basket awaits Nurkic or Eubanks to help. Or at least, that’s how the scheme should work. But a switchable roster means the Blazers aren’t afraid to allow for a big to be drawn to the top of the zone, a wing to seal the baseline or a guard to challenge down low.
More than the scheme, however, is buy-in. The Blazers are generating multiple steals, making several blocks and challenging shots. And at the six-minute mark of the fourth quarter against the Spurs, Blazers harnessed their inner Picard and declared, “the line must be drawn here!” And so the Blazers put the clamps on and clawed together a 17-point run, fueling their offense with the defensive effort. Damian Lillard emphasized the point by making a wily block and recovery before draining the longball on the other end to put the Blazers up 110-106.
The Spurs would only score on free throws, but after a scrappy offensive possession for the Blazers, Simons rose up with a three at the last second of the shot clock and buried it. A putback from Poeltl and subsequent stop kept San Antonio’s hopes alive with a minute and a half left, but then Josh Hart picked Keldon Johnson’s pocket, rocketed down the lane and laid in the dagger.
We Are Still Waiting For a Complete Game
These last-minute spurts are now a trademark from the Blazers, who have won multiple games within one or two possessions. They’ve yet to blow out a team, but they’ve suffered only two wide margin losses. Basically, the Blazers either lose by five, or 20. It might be too soon to call the Blazers a contender.
However, the facts are they have consistently won games, often in unorthodox or down-to-the-wire situations with solid bouts of effort. They’ve found ways to generate offense without star players and shown surprising defensive depth with a next man up philosophy. These are all traits of a solid basketball team. When the chips were down, the Blazers still came out swinging against the Suns, Pelicans, Hornets and Heat. Dallas only saved their asses with a three-point heater of their own, and they had to do it at home against a Blazer squad without its three best defensive players.
Against the Spurs, the Blazers only lost the third quarter. And even still, the Blazers were ahead by four points in total after three periods. The Blazers outscored the men in black and silver by another three points in the fourth quarter, adding up to the seven-point victory. Each quarter was almost its own comeback story. With the Blazers falling behind and storming back in the first two, then the Spurs doing the same thing over the next quarter-and-half. The men in teal never firmly shut the door until the ending minute.
So we’re still waiting for that game wherein the Blazers find basketball nirvana. A glorious 48-minute exhibition of Blazers basketball that leaves the opponent without an answer and with no reason for prayer. We know what the product is supposed to look like in stretches; the players just need to keep stretching that effort out minute-by-minute.
But The Blazers Are Surpassing Expectations
Nearly a quarter of the season is gone, and the Blazers have flown the early gauntlet of their first six-game road trip and played themselves into a formidable position in the west. However long they stay at the top is negligible, the important part is that they are not afraid to challenge for it. Currently, the Blazers are on a 58-win pace and have a lot of pundits debating whether the Blazers are now a Top 6 team in the Western Conference.
A hot start, however, does not a contender make. Plenty of Blazer teams have come out rolling, only to falter right out of the playoffs. And a 10-4 record has every chance to go sideways from there. But I’m not letting a hot start change how I approach expectations since the catastrophic end to the 2014-2015 campaign and the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge, a certified “ice-cold dick killer.”
I always go into every NBA season with varying levels of confidence and hype and interest. However, I take the lead from Jack Ramsay with my expectations: 45 wins and a playoff berth.
It could be the 8th seed, it could be the 1st. What matters is that the Blazers play consistent, all-effort basketball. What matters is that they have a roster of genuine and skilled people that fans can empathize with. What matters is that they give themselves a puncher’s chance to win every game.
Against the Spurs on Tuesday, the Blazers did what matters, 117 to 110.