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The 0.9: Nine Things That Stood Out During the Blazers’ Thrilling Second Week

Portland proved that its red-hot open wasn’t merely a fluke in the second week. Here are a few trends worth considering from the 7-3 start.

Portland Trail Blazers v Miami Heat Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

A mere 10 games into the 2022-23 season, it hasn’t taken the Portland Trail Blazers much time to pick up speed during the rollercoaster ride that is the 82-game regular season. In short order, they’ve won games they probably shouldn’t have won — see the latest Miami game; see the Phoenix game; heck, take your pick at this point — whilst also losing games that slipped, literally, through their fingertips.

The No. 2 standing in the Western Conference is nothing to sneeze at, particularly with a 7-3 record that includes a blistering-hot, NBA-best 4-0 start in games decided by three points or less. On the contrary, of their +0.9 point differential is just the 11th-best out of 12 teams with a winning record. If nothing else, here are a few of the only definitives worth concluding about this year’s Blazers team: (1) they can’t be counted out of any game, and (2) their energy and cohesiveness will make them must-watch on a night-to-night basis.

But, since we’re here, how about nine more things we learned this week? For those who missed it, here’s a look at last week’s edition.

1. Serving Up “Justise”

Similar to the way that a professional wrestler might lead-up into his signature move, there are a few “you know it might be coming” situations nearby whenever Chauncey Billups and the Trail Blazers’ defense are in action. On the nightly bingo board, you can expect to see variations of zone defenses to take opponents out of rhythm; you can expect to see 6-foot-8 Jerami Grant and his 7-foot-3 wingspan in close proximity to the opposition’s best perimeter guard … and if all else fails, the Justise Winslow small-ball lineup is always a wild card play.

On a few occasions already, we’ve seen the Blazers utilize their versatile 6-foot-6 forward in a pseudo-center role alongside Grant. With evidence from last night’s come-from-behind win over Miami, the results have proved inspiring. Consider that last night, the Blazers had just a 4.9 percent chance of winning the game with six minutes to go — that is, until Justise was served.

The Blazers have had eight different four-man lineups play at least 50+ minutes together. Their most effective of those? The Grant-Winslow-Hart-Lillard quartet, at +21.2. With a perfect mix of athleticism, intensity, and pace, this lineup has dug Portland out a few holes in the early year. Winslow has also spent time in the “point guard role,” another feather in his versatility cap.

This season, the likes of Grant, Winslow, and on occasion, Hart, have taken on the onus of defending anything with a pulse and in opposite jersey color. In particular, here’s one statistic and a number that jumped out.

In the way he’s defended every position 1-through-5, one could say that it’s been Justise for all on the defensive end.

No. 2: Turning Over a New Leaf

Over their last six games, the Blazers have gone an even 3-3, so, not everything has gone precisely to plan. They haven’t left much on the table competitively, but if there were three areas worth improving upon, they would be as follows: turnovers, turnovers, and ... turnovers.

Part of their high turnover rates stem from the NBA’s refined emphasis on travels and carries. Though, this was a part of the team’s identity from a season ago too, so there’s some — no pun intended here — carryover from one year to the next.

The Blazers have discussed it internally, avoiding the urge to make the “home run play,” and instead, taking what the defense provides. Everything from making too many passes to not making enough passes were in play, as well as some accuracy issues on those go-to backdoor passes.

To their credit, they are forcing more turnovers, almost at a similar rate that they give them up. Two below-average defenses in Charlotte and New Orleans could, perhaps, be just what the doctor ordered as a way to get their numbers back to normalcy.

No. 3: Nas Is Like

On the flip side, adjusting to life temporarily without their six-time All-Star has forced some of the other Blazers into more shot creation and facilitating roles. Among those who’ve stood out recently: fourth-year forward Nassir Little.

The assists numbers aren’t gaudy; he topped out at three dimes across two different games over the last week. But, for those who’ve merely associated his game with ambition and intensity, it represents progression. He’s no longer a player capable of just soaring into the ether, making those hustle plays.

Those plays remain, but that he’s in a facilitating state of mind and thinking through these reads isn’t something we’ve always seen, and it’s showcasing itself on the box score as well: as it currently stands, he is on pace to produce an assist rate in the double-digits for the first time in his career.

And that doesn’t begin to mention how comfortable he’s looked on pull-up shots. He’s at times looked a tad bit slow in man-to-man defensive situations, but he’s been able to dish a little bit of that back with a refined offensive game:

Also of note within that clip are a few plays from Anfernee Simons, who, without the presence of Damian Lillard, temporarily became the recipient of those pick-and-roll traps and aggressive “shows” (see the Grizzlies game), and needed to find ways to walk the tightrope between scorer and passer. Across the week, he showcased some patience and IQ, helping the Blazers survive without their go-to weapon.

No. 4: The pick-and-roll war vs. Memphis

There were a couple of storylines surrounding that Blazers-Grizzlies primetime game worth taking away, even if only for one reason: if Portland truly is what they’ve shown the potential to be — a legitimate, higher-tier postseason contender — there are paths in which they likely have to go through Memphis again.

No team scored more transition points per game than the Grizzlies (17.4) in 2021-22, and they’re right around that same number this year. Thus, it makes sense that the Blazers’ defensive focus would be to limit fast break opportunities, something they did better than any opponent this season.

The consolation prize? An unstoppable dose of pick-and-rolls featuring Ja Morant and Steven Adams.

Those first two, which came in succession, stood out because of the third player that Memphis worked into the play design. Notice Santi Aldama lifting up the perimeter to occupy Morant’s previous space, and thus, forcing Shaedon Sharpe away from a potential help defense position.

On the very next possession, they ran a similar set with Dillon Brooks and Anfernee Simons, with the talented Blazers guard being hesitant to leave his man, thus creating an opening for Adams’ alley-oop.

On the year, the Blazers’ defensive screen-and-roll strategy has been much more sound; they’re allowing just 0.77 points per possession to pick-and-roll ball handlers, sixth-best in the NBA. Though, it could be something worth keeping eyes on in future matchups against a like-minded Western Conference foe in Memphis.

No. 5: A favorite set or play?

This week’s choices were tough, but here were a couple that stood out.

Lillard’s usage has stood out extensively in 2022-23. As noted last week, there has been much more off-ball work and opportunities to impact the game beyond scoring. Having this many players capable of playing “point” has proved helpful, allowing him, in this case to run “Horns” sets to back screens and quick, timing-based picks to get teammates open.

Solely because he’s literally Damian Lillard, defenses are more willing to surrender open buckets than allowing him any sort of airspace. Knowing the respect his presence commands is a luxury for this coaching staff as they design plays.

If not this, the design on Jerami Grant’s game-winner against Phoenix could also qualify. In these situations, it’s common to see teams in switch-everything mode as a way to keep defenders on players at all times. And in this case, it proved to be advantage: Portland.

No. 6: The low block party

As briefly noted in last week’s section, Jusuf Nurkic went through the NBA’s opening week with only 2.8 post-up touches per game.

Just one week later, take a wild guess at who the league’s No. 1 post-up touch recipient is?

Portland’s pace — which surprisingly was never very high — dipped to No. 24 out of 30 teams this week, largely due to the focus on getting the ball in to their longtime center. The results proved someone inconsistent, though spectacular when Nurkic was on his game, as he was against Houston. In that game, he and Drew Eubanks were a combined eight-of-eight in the first quarter alone, and Nurkic rode that momentum into the Memphis game.

Also of note is how the Blazers have looked to get him those post touches, with high-low looks from Grant. It remains to be seen how often Nurkic can get to those 20-point, 15-rebound games when both of his star backcourt teammates are healthy, but it will be something worth watching.

No. 7: Looking at Shaedon Sharpe’s second week

At the week’s outset, the Blazers were forced to, as the Suns’ commentators described it, “play with 53 points in street clothes,” with Lillard and Simons both sidelined. This meant that all eyes — including the defense’s — would be more focused on No. 17. All things considered, the Blazers’ talented rookie passed the test. Here are a few clips and thoughts that stood out regarding his play.

Sharpe extended his lead on the corner 3-pointer statistic, hitting a sixth during the win over Miami, bringing him to 6-of-10 on the year. Of every rookie to attempt at least 10 3-pointers from the corner, he is the only one to be shooting above 30 percent. On the flip side,’s tracking has him down for just 7-of-24 on “pull-up” shots, giving him an area worth improving upon.

Though, just by just the eye test, you notice that no shot feels uncomfortable or out of rhythm, even ten games into his career. Even the misses are narrow, in that they are makeable shots. If there’s a “Shaedon play” at this point in his career, odds are, it might be this sequence.

No. 8: A few statistics:

  • On top of what he’s doing in the halfcourt, Damian Lillard has also made his presence felt in transition. He currently ranks No. 1 in transition points (5.5) across the entire NBA.
  • On top of what he’s doing in transition, Damian Lillard has also made his presence felt in the halfcourt. He currently ranks No. 1 in points per possession in isolation (1.52) across the entire NBA. His field goal percentage in 1-on-1 situations this season? 78.6 percent, 11-of-14.
  • Within that same stat, Anfernee Simons ranks No. 14 (1.15 points per possession). Perhaps coolest of all: neither Simons nor Lillard rank among the top-25 in isolation frequency. They’ve only put in the cheat code when the going calls for it.
  • The Blazers rank third in the NBA in catch-and-shoot efficiency at 41.8 percent.
  • And, how about one statistic on the Blazers in the clutch? In the last three minutes of games with the score decided by three points or less, the Blazers are: No. 1 in points (50), 15-of-29 from the field, No. 1 in 3-pointers made (5), No. 1 in free throws (15), and tied for No. 1 in +/- (+10).

No. 9: The rotation going forward?

This started out as a note on Keon Johnson, particularly in looking at some of the heads up hustle plays he’s made this year. To illustrate:

Within that, it’s worth wondering how interesting the Blazers’ rotation becomes going forward. Over the past week, we’ve seen: Jabari Walker earn first quarter minutes — and impactful ones at that — Keon Johnson closing out a competitive game against Memphis, the return of Trendon Watford, and ultimately, increasing updates on Gary Payton II’s upcoming comeback.

It’s certainly an excellent problem, in rostering too much depth, unless of course, you’re the early-2000s Blazers. But, for all of the whispers and questions about if the Blazers can play this hard every night, Chauncey Billups will now have the luxury of substituting in energy at every whistle. The box score should tell quite the story, especially with the Blazers on a six-game road trip and another towards the end of November.