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Justise Winslow on Defense: ‘One Through Five, It Doesn’t Matter Who It Is’

Portland’s reserve forward is eager to lock down opponents.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Brooklyn Nets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers pulled off a big win on the road against the Sacramento Kings to open their 2022-23 campaign on Wednesday. The box score will tell you that Damian Lillard struggled from the field and that both Jerami Grant and Josh Hart contributed offensively, but what you won’t see in the stats comes from head coach Chauncey Billups’ primary late-game adjustment.

Trailing by one with 5:55 remaining in the fourth quarter, Portland went small. Really small. The court was held by Lillard, Anfernee Simons, Hart, Grant, and Justise Winslow – not one of them an inch above 6-8. But the crew built and sustained a lead in the final minutes, outscoring the Kings 18-10.

Perhaps the most beneficial impact came from Winslow, who, at 6-6, drew the task of defending 6-11 Sacramento center Domantas Sabonis. He did so admirably, proving for any skeptics that he can indeed guard positions one through five.

Neither Billups nor Winslow, nor anyone else for that matter was particularly nonplussed. They knew it was a bold move that could pay big (H/T: Aaron Fentress, The Oregonian):

“Justise, he’s a bulldog,” Billups said. “He’s strong. You’re not just going to back him down and throw him around. And then having them out there to play-make as well, I thought would be good for us and it worked out tonight.”

Winslow finished with 11 points, including five in the fourth quarter, and eight rebounds. His plus/minus of plus-21 easily led the team.

“That’s just what I do,” Winslow said. “I take pride in my defense, of course. One through five, it doesn’t matter who it is. Just go out and do my job. Tonight it was Sabonis and I was able to get it done and help the team.”

A point-forward who can come in off the bench and guard any position is a massively useful tool for the Trail Blazers to have in their utility belt – especially on nights when starting center Jusuf Nurkic is struggling. The tradeoff will, of course, be rebounding when Portland goes that small again. But the Winslow-Grant frontcourt in action is at least viable.

This means that one of Portland’s biggest weaknesses (size) could be turned advantage in the right circumstances because they have the right pieces to make it work. It also ostensibly justifies Billups’ decision to start Hart at small forward and use Winslow as more of a Swiss Army Knife.

Will we see the Lillard-Simons-Hart-Grant-Winslow lineup again soon? Time, and Nurkic, will tell. But bear in mind that Winslow is not only a strong option at small-ball center. He can fit into just about any unit Billups comes up with. At least defensively. What we saw on Wednesday is only a taste.