It's been 58 days since the Portland Trail Blazers were eliminated from the playoffs at the hands of the now criminally despised Golden State Warriors, and while fans will still have to wait nearly four months to see Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and co. back in action, they will receive a small taste during the Las Vegas NBA Summer League, which began Friday and will run through July 18. The Blazers kicked off the "tournament" Saturday against the Phoenix Suns and highly-touted Croatian rookie Dragan Bender, who was the fourth overall pick in June's draft.
Less of a competition and more a showcase for young and overlooked talent to gain experience, impress coaches and GMs or even play their way onto a roster, summer league has gained popularity in recent years as a fun quench for the offseason thirst for pro basketball; even to the point where thousands of fans make the desert pilgrimage each year.
While Portland's squad may not feature many high lottery picks or future stars, it stands to be compelling, with five of its players currently on the Blazers regular season roster. Shabazz Napier, who was just acquired via trade with the Orlando Magic, is listed on the roster but did not play. Cliff Alexander, who was waived by the team Friday to clear space to sign Festus Ezeli but remains on the summer league squad, also did not play.
The downside of summer league an oft-sub par quality of play, which was on full display during much of the opening period. Portland looked to have energy, but struggled to convert it into anything positive, failing to score for nearly the opening six minutes before Chris Johnson (Yes, that Chris Johnson) buried a long top-of-the-key jumper. The Blazers missed its first 10 shots but the Suns didn't fare much better, going 0 for its first 8 and generally matching Portland's sloppiness in a half largely devoid of highlights.
Russ Smith of former Louisville glory checked in and managed to restore some order, but the Blazer regulars still were lagging behind. Pat Connaughton got off to a slow start, missing five his first six shots and committing some careless turnovers forcing the ball in transition, but found some rhythm later on driving to to hoop and drawing fouls.
Rookie Jake Layman checked in towards the end of the first but missed both of his attempts. He scored his first point of his pro career at the free throw line, splitting a pair during the second quarter.
The Suns held a 6-12 point lead for all of the first half and looked mostly in charge, though Portland did briefly strike within four on Pierre Jackson's layup off of a pretty touch pass in transition from Luis Montero, and then within five later on Noah Vonleh's angle three in the final minute.
Halftime: Portland 35, Phoenix 42
The starters showed a bit more focus to begin the third but Phoenix continued to add to its lead. Vonleh looked considerably more assertive, scoring on a putback dunk and off a nice drive in traffic, but the remainder of the Blazer offense could be effectively summed up as "bricks." Nothing outside the paint was going in.
Vonleh would later pick up a technical after getting into a brief scrum with the Suns' Devin Booker, who was fighting through a screen. The end result was little more than a shouting match, but it appeared to fire up Vonleh, who followed up the possession with two aggressive takes to the basket - both lead to turnovers, but it's hard not to appreciate the intent.
Booker would later get the best of the exchange, drilling back-to-back threes to extend the lead to 65-51, and then drawing free throws in the final minute to put Phoenix up by 15. Booker's 18 points in the third quarter matched Portland's total.
The Blazers trailed by as much as 18 during the fourth, but managed to make the most of it. Connaughton (finally) connected on an angle three, and Layman had perhaps the highlight of the afternoon, converting a steal into an impressive and-1 dunk in transition for his first and only bucket, which he will certainly feel tomorrow. It would help keep the score looking respectable, but never threatening.
All in all, the Suns firmly played the role of the team with multiple lottery picks on its roster.
Next on the docket for the Blazers will be the San Antonio Spurs Sunday at 7 p.m. Jason Quick reported today that Cliff Alexander has cleared waivers and will likely play, but reversed course afterwards to state that Alexander can't clear waivers until Sunday night.
Stay tuned to Blazer's Edge for ongoing Summer League coverage.
-- Ryan Rosback | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter