“I thought overall, it was a great trip to go 4-2 against all these really good teams on the road,” head coach Chauncey Billups said after the Dallas loss. “It was awesome. I thought we built a lot of character on this trip and I”m proud of our guys.”
Billups called the gauntlet a “beast of a trip.” Beginning on Nov. 4, the six-games-in-nine-nights trip featured a murderer’s row of five games against projected playoff teams, including a back-to-back with the red-hot Phoenix Suns, a showdown with the Miami Heat who blew out Portland earlier this season and battles against fully healthy New Orleans and Dallas teams.
To make the load harder, Portland dealt with injuries throughout the six games. Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons missed the first two games, Lillard also missed the fifth. In the front-court, Jerami Grant and Justise Winslow each missed one game, while Nurkic sat out the final three.
Still, Portland leaned on its newfound depth and found ways to piece together wins.
In Game One against Phoenix, it was Grant hitting his second game-winner of the season to secure a 108-106 win. After dropping the second of the back-to-back, Game Three’s hero was Josh Hart, nailing a buzzer-beating triple from the corner to dispatch the Heat 110-107. Then Lillard willed Portland to a win against pedestrian Charlotte with 26 points and a total team effort vanquished New Orleans 106-95. In three of those four wins, Portland trailed by double-digits before rallying back.
“We had a lot of opportunities on this trip to go our separate ways,” Lillard said after the Dallas game. “...The main thing I’ve learned is that we are [actually] together — through the good, the bad, the struggles, the ups and downs, especially over the course of a game and that’s a good sign.”
Alongside the team’s togetherness, another major storyline of the trip was the play of Grant. Many have wondered whether Simons could evolve into that elusive second All-Star Portland has been searching for since LaMarcus Aldridge left — and he still might — but Grant has thrown his hat into the ring. The ninth-year pro averaged 26.2 points on 54.8 percent shooting in five games on the trip, including that tone-setting buzzer-beater and a season-high 37 points last night in Dallas.
Following Portland’s second game of the season (a 113-111 overtime win over Phoenix), Nurkic told reporters Grant needed to be more aggressive. Grant didn’t attempt a single field goal in the first half and only took seven shots in 40 minutes. Nurkic’s statement wasn’t a public barb at his teammate, but a vote of confidence. Since then, Grant hasn’t attempted less than 10 shots in a game again. Fresh off a 20-shot outing against the Pelicans, he took a season-high 22 shots against Dallas last night. Maybe most important, the big performance and assertiveness came with Lillard and Simons on the court. He’s expanding his game beyond catch-and-shoot threes and post-ups — adding more dribble-drives and midrange jumpers — to carve out a sizable chunk of Portland’s offensive pie chart, while maintaining his efficiency. If he doesn’t find the bottom of the net, he’s drawing fouls. It’s a versatile scoring punch this franchise has been waiting on for almost a decade.
In the postgame locker room in Dallas, Lillard described the trip as “good.” It would’ve leapt to “great” if Portland could’ve held on against the Mavericks for one more victory, but even in that loss, he was happy with how the team fought. For what he learned about his teammates and the above .500 result against quality opponents, Lillard, all in all, was pleased.
“Obviously if you told us we was gonna go 4-2 when we left Portland, we would’ve said, ‘we’ll take it.’”