Every time it appears the Blazers land on an answer, they toy with our hearts and minds by displaying beautiful basketball.
The Grizzlies came into Wednesday’s affair riding a six-game winning streak. All-Star starter Ja Morant tied a career-high with 44 points. The Memphis home crowd was rocking.
None of it mattered.
The supposed-to-be-tanking Blazers punched back all game long, before throwing the decisive haymaker late in a win over the NBA’s third-best team. After overhauling their roster at the February trade deadline, the Blazers have now ripped off four wins in a row, sending them into the All-Star break with their longest winning streak of the season.
“The way we’re connected right now,” Blazers forward Justise Winslow said in the postgame press conference, “all eyes are kind of pointing towards that play-in and trying to make the playoffs.”
But here is where I have to hit the brakes and rain on the good vibes parade. Don’t get it twisted: surging into the postseason as lovable underdogs for an inevitable first round departure would be a mistake for the franchise’s future. It would be one that Portland has made multiple times in the last decade.
While this reality is true, that doesn’t mean this four-game winning streak is meaningless. The recent run isn’t going to save this season, but it’s pumping hope into a franchise and a fanbase that had seen uninspired basketball for so long. It’s showing there’s a legitimate foundation to build from already in place.
Most importantly, it’s showing — with the return of franchise superstar Damian Lillard — that there’s a possible pathway to contention during the next two seasons that wasn’t visible two weeks ago.
That new pathway starts with the emergence of Anfernee Simons. Monday night, he dropped 31 points on Jrue Holiday, the best guard defender in the league. Wednesday night, Simons torched the Grizzlies and Morant for his third straight 30-point outing, registering 31 points and 6 assists on 11-18 shooting. He did it on a barrage of triples, mid-range jumpers, and acrobatic finishes. Then he sealed the game with the nastiest side-step three-pointer to give Portland a five-point advantage with 44 seconds left.
Simons, 22, is raising his ceiling every time he steps on the floor and doing so at a rapid pace. He’s no longer a secret who teams aren’t prepared for or a player enjoying a hot streak. He looks like a legitimate NBA star. Compared to McCollum, Simons — with his size, athleticism, and passing acumen at 6’4” — is a more complimentary fit next to Lillard in Portland’s future backcourt.
But Simons isn’t the only sign of promise. Five Blazers reached double figures in scoring against Memphis. Jusuf Nurkic dominated with a team-high 32 points. New acquisitions Josh Hart (22 points) and Justise Winslow (16 points) were vital to winning basketball yet again. The ending box score looked like poetry high school coaches everywhere should print out and frame on their locker room wall.
The on-court product looked like poetry too. Every Blazer in the rotation was zipping the ball around like one nucleus, playing the role of aggressors all night. They attacked downhill in the half court and on the break, resulting in finishes at the rack, kick-outs to open shooters, or passes to Johnny-on-the-spot cutters. Five players each recorded three or more assists, leading to a team-total of 23 and 50.6% shooting from the field.
It was the inside-out, team basketball Billups sold to this fanbase at his introductory press conference. It’s finally coming to fruition because Billups finally has the correct personnel to get it done. With Swiss-Army knife guys like Winslow and Hart, the Blazers looked athletic, physical, and dangerous. It’s a far cry from the low-energy, iso-heavy slogfest the Blazers were producing the last two seasons. It’s as beautiful as it is effective.
Yes, people can’t get overreactionary. This has only been four wins in the dog days of February, two of them coming against struggling teams. That’s why it would be a mistake for Portland to push for the playoffs. This roster is incomplete, featuring one budding star, two good veterans, castaways, and second round picks. They don’t have the talent to seriously contend.
Interim general manager Joe Cronin gutted this roster and loaded up on cap space and flexibility at the trade deadline for a reason: to try to assemble a more complete team for Lillard and Billups to work with next season. The team needs to stick to this mission. Owning two lottery picks would give them great assets to ensure they can make it happen.
Still, what has been happening with the Blazers lately is nothing to scoff at. Simons’ ascension is for real. Billups’ brand of basketball is suited for more sustainable, high-level success. And the team has energy again.
If Cronin can hit right on a few moves this offseason, the Blazers are more dangerous than anybody realized.