The Portland Trail Blazers pulled off a stunning comeback victory over the Miami Heat on Monday, capped off with a game-winning three by Josh Hart. It was the second game-winner for Portland in three outings. With the win, the Trail Blazers improve to 7-3 on the season, holding steady with the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference standings.
While heroics were once again front and center, they wouldn’t be enough without gritty defense – something Damian Lillard noted after the game, per the Trail Blazers’ own Casey Holdahl:
“I don’t want to jinx it or nothing like that but it feels special,” said Lillard. “We’ve had a history of come out and have a hot streak and we’ll make every shot and it’ll be like, this is a good game for us but the other team had 121 (points). But we haven’t been giving up a lot of points, we’ve struggled turning the ball over and teams capitalize on it, we’ve been giving up threes in stretches.
“But ultimately, at the end of the game, like tonight, we gave up 107 points and I think against Phoenix the other night I looked up there and it was like, 106 points. And tonight with a couple of minutes left they only had 98, I’m like ‘Man, this a low scoring game.’ I think we’re just giving the effort and energy defensively to stop teams and that’s been a major difference for us.”
Lillard was speaking off the cuff, but his assertion is supported not only on the court, but in the stat sheet as well.
The Trail Blazers are currently allowing just 108.9 points per game, good for the eighth-best mark in the league. This is wildly different from last season’s 115.1 points per game, which ranked 28th. In fact, if sustained for the course of the season, their points allowed per game would be their best since 2018 (103.0) when the team boasted a top-10 defensive rating.
This is something we all hoped to see but were perhaps not expecting so soon from the Chauncey Billups Trail Blazers. Hard-nosed defense has kept winnable games close on several occasions this season. And the Trail Blazers have, well, won them.
Billups made the same observation about the Heat contest post-game.
“Miami is just so dang good, they just make you play so ugly,” said Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups. “It’s really a compliment to who they are and how they’ve been, but if you want to have a chance to beat them you’ve just got to grind and keep grinding and keep grinding. And we did that tonight, that’s kind of who we are now. To have a fourth quarter the way we had, 37 points against this team is really one of the best quarters we’ve had all year.”
The transformation of the team has been nothing short of swift. Whether or not they continue winning at a high level in this young season is yet to be seen, but they’ve proven that a new identity is forming 10 games in.
Could this grit-and-grind philosophy carry Portland to the next level? Let us know what you think in the comments below.