Portland’s many flaws and strengths were on full display: A new gritty and disruptive defense, exposed at stretches for porous perimeter coverage and shallow front court depth; A talented offense, flexing up-tempo weapons and aggression, but muddled by sloppiness and stagnancy; And a new injection of talent trying to jell with franchise star Damian Lillard, sometimes clumsily.
The oscillating quality reflected on the scoreboard. The Blazers got ahead big in the second quarter and fell behind double-digits in the third, before strapping in for a fourth quarter dogfight.
In the end, the strengths overcame the flaws. A versatile, small ball lineup boosted Portland over Sacramento 115-108. More importantly, the Blazers made good on a promise they sold at NBA Media Day on Sept. 27.
“I feel like we have a very talented, competitive, athletic, skilled group that is going to compete every night and be really fun to watch,” general manager Joe Cronin told reporters last month. “...We’re going to be a very entertaining and watchable product.”
Say what you will about Portland’s messy win over Sacramento, but for the first time in what felt like ages, the Blazers were “fun” again. The wire-to-wire action, featuring bodies flying on the floor and thunderous tip-slams, was certainly “entertaining.” At the bare minimum, it was “watchable.”
After last season’s 27-55 roster meltdown was followed by disheartening preseason blowouts last week, the competitive performance was a welcome sight — one the Blazers can build on.
“Just because we won with [defense] tonight doesn’t mean there won’t be growing pains.” Lillard said in the locker room after the game. “Every offense is different, every game is different, but tonight was definitely a step forward.”
Portland overcame adversity on a night Lillard’s glorious return to non-exhibition basketball was rather ho-hum. Playing in his first regular season game since Dec. 31, he shot 5-18 from the field and 1-8 on three-pointers. His 20-point stat line was buoyed by 9-9 shooting from the line and 8 assists.
While the franchise star struggled, Portland’s new crop of versatile forwards were there to save the day, headlined by Jerami Grant, Josh Hart, Justise Winslow and tantalizing rookie Shaedon Sharpe.
“We have a generational guy in Dame and he’s going to have his nights.” Billups said in the postgame presser. “But we gotta have other guys be there when it’s not his night and you can actually go win a game...That’s exactly what happened tonight.”
Grant and Hart were Portland’s best players Wednesday, embodying the aggressive style Billups wants to play on both sides. With active hands and pressure, they spearheaded a defense that forced 15 turnovers and 11 steals. On offense, Grant and Hart didn’t settle, pushing the pace and attacking the rim. It resulted in a different type of play than Portland’s usual half court, perimeter-happy attack.
The Blazers scored 20 transition points (2021-22 average: 12.4, 2020-21: 11.6), 56 points in the paint (2021-22 average: 43.8 points, 2020-21 average: a league-worst 39.3) and attempted 33 free throws (average from the previous two seasons: 21.6). Maybe most shocking, Portland only shot 28 three-pointers, a far cry from their average of 41 attempts two seasons ago.
Of course, it’s only one game, and the three-pointers will likely rise — and maybe the other stats will dip — but the team box score shows promise that some of Billups’ visions for this team may translate to reality. A lot of that had to do with Portland’s two newest starters.
When the offense went cold, falling behind by 10 in the third quarter, Hart and Grant willed Portland back. Hart forced the action as a one-man fast break, scoring 12 points in the third, on his way to 19 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists on 8-11 shooting. Grant scored 9 in the frame, finishing with a team-high 23 points, 7 rebounds and 3 triples. More evidence of their physicality: Grant shot 10/13 from the free throw line and Hart shot 3/3, all coming from and-1s.
Winslow matched his front court partners’ intensity with 11 points, 8 rebounds and stout defense off the bench. He finished the game with a plus-minus of 21, 13 points more than the next highest Blazer. He played well enough to bump a struggling Jusuf Nurkic (8 points, 4 turnovers) out of the closing lineup.
“We had dogs out there,” Lillard said. “We was deflecting the ball, we was getting stops, we was physical, we was running guys off the three, we was getting rebounds. We really went out there and took a game with our toughness and our defense.”
Then there was the play of Portland’s young studs. Sharpe looked worth every 30-point loss last season, setting Blazers Twitter ablaze. He finished with 12 points and a perfect 3/3 from downtown in his first NBA action. Anfernee Simons looked worth every penny of his new $100 million contract. He didn’t have a dazzling, ultra-efficient night (9/22 for 22 points), but he showed his next-level athleticism and refined finishing package. Both players looked comfortable. Sharpe, attacking closeouts and squaring up for three-pointers on the run, looked like he belonged on the court. Simons, with an isolation bucket to close the third and 10 points in the fourth, looked poised in a star’s role, even on an off-night.
“[Simons] showed that he had that mental fortitude to not be having a perfect game,” Lillard said. “But still be able to find those moments to bring to the table what we need.”
Just like Simons’ performance, the Blazers’ night wasn’t perfect. The beautiful basketball that launched an 11-0 run in the first quarter and a double-digit lead in the second quarter stalled. Then the same, old defensive issues reared their ugly heads. De’Aaron Fox (33 points, 5-9 3PT) and Kevin Huerter (23 points, 6-9 3PT) cascaded in triples, leading Sacramento to a 17-44 night from deep. Nurkic’s turnover issues and inconsistent finishing sent him to the bench, then the Kings feasted at the rim on the undersized Drew Eubanks, taking firm control of the game.
But give the Blazers credit, they didn’t fold and Eubanks tightened up the interior protection in his later shifts. Slowly, Hart, Grant and company swung the pendulum back.
“We kept grinding, kept fighting,” Hart said postgame.
In a one-possession game down the stretch, Billups elected to go small with the three veteran forwards who had stepped up all night. They each finished off the Kings with signature plays.
First it was Winslow, forcing the bigger Domantas Sabonis into a travel on the block with under two minutes to play and Portland trailing 106-105. Then it was Grant, sliding his feet to take a charge on Fox, before driving for a left-handed, 3-point play off glass to give Portland a 108-106 lead. Finally, on Portland’s next possession, Hart put the game on ice with a driving 3-point play of his own to give the Blazers a 5-point lead with 22 seconds left.
The Kings aren’t world beaters, and it was only opening night, but this same Blazers team dropped its season opener to Sacramento last October. Wednesday night, Portland passed its first test. The Blazers aren’t contenders yet, but through at least one game, they’re fun again.
Just like they promised.