The Portland Trail Blazers won their third straight game of the young 2022-23 season Sunday afternoon, defeating the Los Angeles Lakers 106-104 after trailing heading into the game’s final minute. You probably already know that Blazers forward Jerami Grant hit the game-winning layup with three seconds remaining. You also watched LeBron James miss a turn-around 18-footer over Damian Lillard at the horn. Maybe, if you were paying attention, you noticed Russell Westbrook miss a shot early in the clock the possession prior. Having seen all that, you’d be forgiven for thinking you understood the difference between the two teams. One made shots at the end, the other didn’t, right?
Well, yes, but that’s not the whole story here.
Portland’s final play did show something about how the team is working right now, but not because Grant’s layup went in. Instead underline the fact that he was the one taking it,
The Lakers were overplaying Lillard on the possession. That certainly had something to do with it. Dame had frosted their cookies just nine seconds earlier. canning a step-back three to preserve Portland’s chance to win. L.A. wasn’t going to let Dame Time strike twice.
That doesn’t mean Grant was the go-to guy, though. Just one game ago, Anfernee Simons carried Portland’s fate in his hands on the critical possession, hitting a swooping hook shot over Mikal Bridges to vanquish the Phoenix Suns.
Lillard was option one on the critical bucket, because he always is. Simons was presumably option two. But Grant ended up receiving the ball and converting, no better than the third choice, but still trusted and engaged.
That, rather than the ball dropping through the twine, typifies Portland’s approach to the season so far.
You can rewind the game through the second half and find Justise Winslow, of all people, initiating offensive plays, finishing them as well. If you had THAT on your Blazers Bingo Card at the beginning of the season, you would have thrown it down and marched home in defeat before the balls were even drawn, figuring it for a lost cause.
You’ll also find Josh Hart spearheading fast breaks and Nassir Little making decisive cuts into the middle of the floor, area cleared for him, to pull up for isolation jumpers.
Everything the Blazers touch right now is turning to gold. That’s not because they’re uber-talented, or flawless in execution. They’re actually making plenty of mistakes. Even so, they’re giving each other the rock—and full permission to use it—in places they can succeed. It’s paying off.
If you want to contrast Portland’s approach with the Lakers’, don’t look at LeBron’s last shot or even at Westbrook’s. Those are the easy targets. Instead swipe back to the 1:00 mark in the fourth period.
L.A. had the ball, up three. One more make probably would have sealed the game for them.
On this possession, James and Anthony Davis ran action out high, near the top of the three-point arc. James had the ball, ending up with Grant on him. He stayed out at the arc, moving towards the right-hand side of the floor. Davis went right as well, crossing in front of James. Davis had Josh Hart as a defender, standing all of 6’5.
The two Lakers superstars looked at each other, assessing their options. James’ body language made it clear. He was prepping for the shot. Davis acquiesced and went to the right-hand coffin corner, on the same side of the floor as the ball, buried deep near the baseline, as far away from the bucket as possible.
One could argue that Davis was being a good teammate, clearing out for James. If so, James didn’t make much use of the gift. With half the shot clock remaining, he sidestepped into a drifting three which didn’t even come close to going in. Grant was still firmly attached to him. It wasn’t just an isolation play, it was the lowest-denominator, least-effective move possible.
James wasn’t good to Davis in the same way Davis was to him. LeBron was staring straight at one of the 76 best NBA players of all time, a teammate whose talent and accomplishments dwarfed anyone on the court outside of himself and perhaps Lillard. What did he do with him?
Had James motioned Davis to post up the much-smaller Hart, the world would have opened up for the Lakers. If Grant stayed home, Davis would have had Hart one-on-one with his back to the basket, an overwhelming mismatch. If Grant went down to help Hart, Davis could have flipped the ball back to LeBron for the same three he eventually ended up taking, just without the sidestep and with no defender in sight. Either way, more seconds would have drifted off the clock, a benefit to the Lakers with their scoreboard edge in the last minute.
As it was, Davis got stuck in the corner with a quicker man in front of him. He couldn’t cut baseline unimpeded. If LeBron drove and Hart moved to help, Davis would be left with only a three-pointer as consolation. He’s shooting 28.6% on distance attempts in the young season, up from the 18.6% he shot last year. Nor would Davis have any prayer of helping with an offensive rebound off a miss from that position. He was all but erased in favor of King James.
Instead of creating a nearly-impossible situation for the Blazers, the Lakers made defending ludicrously easy, with the asterisk that LeBron is never a simple opponent to stop. But that asterisk remains no matter what he does. He added nothing to it. He turned his All-NBA teammate into a walking paperweight in the process.
And that’s the difference between Portland and L.A. right now. The Blazers are allowing Jerami Grant and Anfernee Simons to be game-closers, with Justise Winslow, Josh Hart, and Nassir Little as key pieces. The Lakers can’t even make use of Anthony freakin’ Davis when it counts.
Even more than the 3-0 record versus 0-3, that’s why it’s better to be part of what Portland’s doing right now than whatever the Lakers are putting out there.