The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Phoenix Suns 108-106 tonight in a display of blue-collar, team-wide commitment. Their effort was enough to counter 25 points and a whole lot of shot making from Devin Booker. They also overcame the absence of starting guards Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons, a duo normally good for 50+ points on a given evening. It took a buzzer-beating jumper from Jerami Grant, who led all scorers with 30, to seal the deal, but the game still goes in Portland’s win column, and thrillingly so.
If you missed the game...shame on you! Stop doing that! But you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. After that, here are a dozen or so other observations from the evening.
Jerami Grant, Offensive Star
With the first and second options for the Blazers in street clothes, Jerami Grant left no doubt who would become Option 3. Grant played it cool in the first period, converting only one bucket. He absolutely lit up the second period, though, amassing 18 points at the half. Phoenix single-covered him and he beat defenders into the lane repeatedly.
The Suns started doubling Grant in the third. He only converted a pair of buckets, but he still hit enough foul shots to register 9 in the quarter. Even more impressively, he set up teammates for threes and easy looks. Devin Booker was trying to do the same for Phoenix on the other end. Grant matched him blow for blow for most of the period. It was one HECK of a show.
That Grant also hit the game-winner was totally apropos. But that may have been one of his least remarkable moves of the evening.
Grant finished the game with those 30 points on 10-17 shooting, 9-11 from the foul line, and 5 assists.
Three and Easy
The three-pointer was an effective weapon for both teams tonight. Phoenix forced Portland to chase them around the perimeter, particularly baiting Jusuf Nurkic to come out deep. He did, with some effectiveness too. But he couldn’t move much after he got there. The Suns moved the ball with skill and speed, setting up shooters against a Blazers lineup that was larger than normal, but not quite as fast.
Portland didn’t let them get away with it, however. Even though the Blazers had pretty much zero players who could work free for a triple with the ball in their hands, they penetrated the lane with regularity, drawing the defense inside, then kicked out to shooters the Suns probably weren’t worried about. They should have been. All of Portland’s wings shot with confidence.
Six players hit at least one three-pointer for the Blazers tonight. Nobody hit more than two. Still, the team shot 10-23, 43.5% from the arc. Phoenix countered with 14-34, 41.2% shooting from distance, including 3-7 from Booker and 3-5 from Damion Lee.
Physicality and Defense
What the Blazers lacked in skill this evening, they made up for in drive, energy, and just plain physicality. Especially on defense, their motto seemed to be, “If you can’t beat them, beat them up.” Justise Winslow, Keon Johnson, even Josh Hart and Shaedon Sharpe...they were all banging into Suns players, trying for strips, ripping rebounds.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the second period, where Portland held the Suns to just 21 points. Phoenix had a three-point lead going into that quarter. They seemed to think that expanding it would be automatic. It wasn’t. They ran into a wall of eager, committed, connected defenders, guys who populate the second and third units but apparently have bought into the philosophy that Head Coach Chauncey Billups is trying to inculcate. The Blazers left their hearts, bodies, and a few opposing players on the floor during that period, and throughout most of the night.
The effort might not have brought Portland the win, but it definitely provided the platform from which they could reach for it.
No One-on-One Players
Throughout the evening, it was evident that Portland had no natural off-the-dribble scorers. Even Grant had trouble under pressure against the clock or charging defenders. When Phoenix kept the ball on the perimeter and covered, Portland was all but helpless.
This was a mixed blessing. On one hand, it made the offense comparatively easy to stop on targeted possessions. On the other, it forced the Blazers to play fast, with motion, and unselfishly. It was almost like the game was a video game tutorial challenge, with the computer taking away the normal scoring option in order to teach the player how to run plays and win with defense. If so, the Blazers passed.
Justise Winslow started at forward and wasted no time in doing a little bit of everything. He’s really taken a prime place in Portland’s defensive hierarchy this year. He’s not afraid to stand in against anyone. His rebounding was strong tonight too. Add in a little playmaking (a heretofore hidden talent) and you’ve got a complete player. And he does it all without dominating the ball or taking up more space than his position dictates.
Most organizations boast of a quiet “fix it” guy, the person you call when a ceiling tile cracks or a faucet is leaking. He’s not the head of the office. He’s not even in the hierarchy. But at that moment when you’re trying to decide if this is an instant repair or call-a-plumber time, he’s there with his knowledge, effort, and blue-collar know-how. Justise Winslow is filling that role for the Trail Blazers right now.
Tonight there were leaks all over the lineup because of injuries. Winslow proved his worth repeatedly. Well done.
If Winslow was the guy carrying the toolbox tonight, Keon Johnson was the eager young apprentice running errands and yelling out results from the next room. Johnson had an ultra-impressive finish to the first quarter, where he hit a three, forced a turnover, caused a miss or two, and converted a layup, all in the last couple minutes.
Johnson is starting to look like a significant spark off Portland’s bench. He finished with 11 points and 2 steals. He shot only 4-13 from the floor, but that stat doesn’t cover the energy he put into the game or how much it annoyed the opponent.
It seems like the Blazers have the Midas touch with shooting guards. Everything they touch is turning to gold.
Shaedon Sharpe’s Education
Shaedon Sharpe didn’t do badly in the starting lineup, scoring 10 on 4-8 shooting. But he was going up against a pure platinum guard in Devin Booker. Sharpe collected fouls like candy as Booker scored repeatedly. Just when Shaedon was moving to guard the first move, Devin was on his third. Someday that might be a closer battle. Someday.
A Little Help
Like most of his teammates Nassir Little acquitted himself well tonight. He played hard on defense and crashed the boards. The most remarkable part of his game right now is probably his confidence taking opportunity jumpers. The Blazers don’t run plays for him, but he’ll often end up as the bail-out option on the weak side. Instead of just lofting a three as he would have in years past, he waits for the defender to close, dribbles past, and pulls up for a mid-range jumper that is becoming increasingly bankable.
Oh. And he hit a couple of threes too. 4-7 from the field, 12 points, 4 rebounds, 2-4 from the arc. Noice.
Jusuf Nurkic had a rough night...right until he didn’t.
It was a game for forwards and wings, not centers and the point guards who usually set them up. Nurk struggled early, but became the focal point for the offense late in the fourth. When Phoenix overplayed the passing lanes and tried to crowd dribblers, the Blazers calmed things down by feeding Nurkic in the post and letting him set up shots or passes.
The Bosnian Beast hit a three in the final minute. He followed that up with an offensive rebound put-back to tie the score on Portland’s penultimate possession, which made Grant’s final attempt decisive. Nurkic’s defense improved late in the fourth as well. Despite the rough start, he became the game-saver.
Drew Eubanks didn’t change the tone when Nurkic sat, but it’s pretty amazing how few steps the Blazers lose when he comes in. Realistically, Eubanks is a third-string center on most squads, an afterthought. But the Blazers ask their bench for energy, smart play, picks, and rebounds. Eubanks can provide all of that. He fits like a glove as a result.
Points in the Paint
Whatever else went right or wrong, the Blazers’ commitment to probing the paint never wavered. The ended up with 52 points inside tonight, a steady flow that kept them in a contest they otherwise might have been run out of.
The Blazers now own any tiebreaker against the Suns for seeding in the 2023 NBA Playoffs. That’s not usually sentence you utter in November, but hey...well done!
The Blazers draw these same Suns again tomorrow night with the game beginning at 7:00 PM, Pacific. It’ll be interesting to see how Phoenix comes out.