The Portland Trail Blazers are off to a 10-4 start in their 2022-23 NBA schedule, a streak that—in honor of their new Portland Airport uniforms—has left them Blue Hot and Rollin’. We’ve talked about the basic reasons for their success: defense, rebounding, forcing opponent turnovers. Today we’ll look at another factor that’s more right-brained, but still important, courtesy of the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
I understand how we’re playing so far and I’m glad for the style change. But I don’t understand how we’re winning. We’ve had so many close games and come out of them near perfect. It’s one thing to say Dame is carrying all of them but that’s not true. What’s the cause of all this and do you think it can continue or will the law of averages catch up and turn close wins into losses?
That may happen? We should mutter something about playing with fire and getting burned here. But it doesn’t have to happen.
Obviously the Blazers would do well not to leave it up to chance. It’s hard to expect a team that’s never played together to be cohesive for 48 minutes or to take a season-long view instead of focusing on each week and each game. You can’t expect the Blazers to do what they’ve already done, let alone to approach the season like World Champions: establishing leads, sealing games in the third period, and cruising to victory. Close games are part of the growth process. Winning them should be accepted with joy, not over-analyzed.
In keeping with your question, though, I’d say the Blazers are winning because of, “Any Given Night” syndrome.
You cited the long-held practice of having Damian Lillard close out close games. He still does! It’s just not in the single-possession, miracle-three way we’re accustomed to. He’s driving and scoring, drawing defenses and passing. Lillard is still the captain down the stretch, but his crew matters more this year.
Jerami Grant and Anfernee Simons are twin first mates alongside Lillard. Grant has hit last-minute shots, but he’s also been a foundation guy, scoring 30 to keep his team alive in the middle quarters, setting up the big ending. Simons scores more in streaks, but you can’t turn your head to watch Dame and Jerami, lest Ant burn the nets down.
You can also trickle down to Josh Hart—who has pushed tempo, made big defensive plays, and hit a game-clinching buzzer-beater—and Jusuf Nurkic, who steps up as an offensive hub when the above players are injured. Those two are also symptoms of Portland’s Any Given Night-Itis.
To a much lesser extent, you have Shaedon Sharpe and Justise Winslow. Sharpe can score in droves. Winslow has defended and, upon occasion, keyed the offense. We’re halfway down the roster now, but you can still point to incidents where these two have saved games.
Who’s it going to be on a given night? It could be any of them. And that’s been the secret sauce for Portland.
The inverse is just as critical. It doesn’t have to be any of them on a given night. This is the magic holding team chemistry together. When Grant scores 30 and Simons is an afterthought, you still see Ant and the team celebrating the win together. Lillard can end up the third-leading scorer and still walk off the court smiling.
This was one of the major questions heading into the season, especially with Grant, who is both used to scoring and in a contract year. So far, it looks like he’s doing ok. Hart has been up and down, but we don’t know the exact reasons for that and we haven’t seen evidence of overt dissatisfaction. Winslow has been playing over his head. Nurkic seems fine. None of these players is insisting upon taking the final shot, or getting the most attempts per game. Willingness to step back has been as crucial as willingness to step up as the Blazers have established their new identity.
I’d argue that that phenomenon has been as important as the individual talents of the players. It’s the difference between a pristine corner three from Hart to win it and a contested, twisting floater by a guard, between the team winning 10 of 14 with one guaranteed All-Star and the team winning 6 while everybody is trying to look like one.
Is the traditional approach of centering a team around a transcendent superstar more reliable? Probably. But this year we can point to LeBron James and Kevin Durant slogging through losing records while Boston and Atlanta hover near the top of the standings. Portland is also doing well with that pattern. As long as they stay reasonably successful, I don’t see much reason to question their fitness, at least for the regular season. When they show who they are, it’s ok to believe it.
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