The Portland Trail Blazers enjoyed a light week, only playing two games dating back to last Sunday. But, man, did the week still find a way to pack several sturdy gut punches.
The Trail Blazers fell late in two close matchups — including the best game of the early season against the Sacramento Kings. The team played solid basketball, especially in Sacramento, but couldn’t come away with wins. On the injury front, there were enough developments in a November week to put newsies back in business on the streets of Portland, shouting about the hamstring of Malcolm Brogdon or deep bone bruise of Scoot Henderson. Among those more minor injuries (assuming Brogdon’s injury is only a slight ding), the worst headline concerned backup center Robert Williams III, who requires season-ending right knee surgery. That one hurts.
Let’s discuss those topics and more on A Week in Rip City. Play this week’s intro music!
Record for the Week: 0 Wins, 2 Losses — 112-100 Loss vs. Memphis on Sunday; 121-118 Loss at Sacramento on Wednesday
1. Game of the Year in Sacramento
What a game, what a game, what a game in Sacramento on Wednesday! From an entertainment perspective, both teams thoroughly delivered, playing their respective hearts out in a physical, fast-paced claw-fight. The Trail Blazers came into the game already dealing with a host of injuries. Then they took another blow when Brogdon left the game in the first quarter with a hamstring strain. I thought that might’ve made one too many hurdles for a rebuilding team to overcome, but the Trail Blazers continued to make plays and maintain contact. Both teams did, as the momentum exchanged hands several times. Fittingly, the game came down to the final play in overtime: two missed Jerami Grant 3-point attempts to tie it.
What hurts most is the Trail Blazers should’ve won. Grant powered the team with 38 points; Skylar Mays stepped up big-time in Brogdon’s absence, dishing and scoring in an unexpected 37 minutes of play; and Deandre Ayton came through in the fourth quarter with an individual 8-0 run from the high post to put Portland up 109-104 with two minutes remaining in regulation. Ayton flashed high around the free throw line for opportune catch-and-shoots on two of the buckets, hit a face-up jumper on Domantas Sabonis for another and popped in a floater just inside the key. For Ayton, who has been struggling to integrate into the Trail Blazers offense early on, it was a huge sequence that felt like the nail in the coffin.
“There’s some games you win that you probably shouldn’t have won. There’s some games that you lose that you probably should’ve won,” Head Coach Chauncey Billups said in the postgame presser. “This was one of those games.”
Instead of Ayton walking away the hero, the Trail Blazers let that 5-point lead slip away. Shaedon Sharpe, who had another solid game, played a difficult final two minutes. The second-year pro fouled a 3-point shooter — which baffled Billups on the bench — stepped out of bounds on offense and then fouled out to set up Sacramento’s game-tying free throws. Facing an uphill battle without the offense of Sharpe in overtime, the Trail Blazers still had a shot to win it in the final minute, but just couldn’t get it done.
The 53-minute fight was commendable and what you would call a “good loss” in a season prioritizing development. The Trail Blazers played incredibly hard, were fun to watch and got to experience a high-intensity, tight game against a playoff team. Sharpe being in the position to commit those crunch-time turnovers is much better experience than rarely sniffing high-level games on the team’s way to first-place draft lottery odds. The Trail Blazers and fans would happily take 74 more games of that caliber this season, but if the players show that type of effort again, I hope they get rewarded with a win. And if I must stay up late for overtime again, despite an early wake-up call for work the next morning, I hope I’m also rewarded with a Trail Blazers win.
After reshaping the roster this offseason through the Damian Lillard deals, the Trail Blazers entered the season with considerable depth for the first time in years. Only eight games into the season, that depth is dwindling and the Trail Blazers’ injury list is growing.
As stated above, Williams is done for the season, putting an end to Portland’s elite defensive center rotation for now. Brogdon, who has been a vital source of offense, is out for at least Sunday’s game against L.A. Scoot Henderson missed the last three games with an ankle sprain. On Saturday, the team said he would be out at least an additional two-to-three weeks after upgrading the sprain to a deep bone bruise. These injuries stack atop the fact Anfernee Simons hasn’t played since the season-opener due to a thumb injury that’ll cause him to miss about another four weeks.
In a season where the main mission, and joy for fans, is player development, the bite of the injury bug feels especially unfortunate and frustrating. Henderson needs playing time to get acclimated to the NBA after entering the season not as ready as the lottery hype projected, at least through five games. The team needs the shotmaking and offensive creation of Brogdon and especially Simons. The latter came in eager to show his capabilities as a primary option. Until he returns, the team is badly stunted on offense.
In regards to the news about Williams, first of all, I feel for him. At just 26, the All-Defensive talent hasn’t been able to escape injury troubles. The Trail Blazers were trying to manage their new center cautiously, keeping him under 20 minutes per game and holding him out of the team’s second game of its first back-to-back of the season. The latest incident was a contact injury on his right knee, not even the knee that kept him out of so many games in Boston. Even with the injury history, the situation feels unlucky.
From an analytical standpoint, the injury likely means Williams is not leaving Portland any time soon. It was a live possibility the Trail Blazers dealt Williams to a contender looking for impactful front court depth at February’s trade deadline. That high value on the market is gone for now. Williams has two years left on his contract at a relatively inexpensive price. The team can wait until he’s back to full health with higher value once again, possibly dealing him in the offseason or at next season’s trade deadline. Or maybe, now that any sort of urgency to move Williams is gone and the return haul likely won’t be as great following a season-ending knee surgery, the Trail Blazers’ brass may decide to keep him deeper into his contract and hope he stays healthy upon his return. I think that’s a more likely possibility than it was two weeks ago.
On the court, backup big Moses Brown and forward/small-ball five Jabari Walker are likely to see a bump in minutes due to the injury. Maybe even Duop Reath, who continues to impress— whether it’s Summer League, preseason or the G League — will see the floor now.
3. Skylar Mays, a Feel-Good Story
Left as the lone healthy point guard in the rotation, Skylar Mays was given an opportunity and seized it this week. In Sacramento, Mays put up 18 points on 8-of-15 shooting, 11 assists and two rebounds. Mays’ consistency to perform, coupled with the recent roster misfortunes, earned him the upgrade from two-way contract to a standard NBA contract this week. The 26-year-old guard who the Trail Blazers picked up on a 10-day last season is officially a feel-good story and a more-than-capable NBA rotation player.
Mays plays with an assuredness on the court that keeps the Trail Blazers in order and in their sets. But he’s more than just a safe, dull game-manager, Mays can penetrate the paint to find teammates or finish at the rim. Mays showed that last season when he was given extended minutes during Portland’s tank job, and he showed it again on Wednesday. His finishing package of underhand scoop shots was a standout against Sacramento. This is just one example from the highlights.
4. Deandre Ayton’s Role in the Offense
Despite not showing the leap in offensive numbers some were hoping for in the early season, I’ve been very impressed with Deandre Ayton so far. He’s been playing incredibly hard, showing a great attitude and dominating the boards. I wrote about Ayton’s early leadership in a feature on Wednesday this week. Despite his solid attitude to do the dirty work though, the team could lean on him more on offense, or learn how to lean on him. Billups said as much after Ayton struggled from the floor against Memphis and took just nine shots.
“This is all a part of me and us just kinda getting to know what he is best at,” Billups said. “He’ll have some of these types of nights, and he’ll have nights where he looks incredible.”
The Trail Blazers need to incorporate their prized acquisition from the Damian Lillard trade more into the offense. That’ll take deliberate game-planning from Billups to set up Ayton with the ball in his spots. And it’ll take a more deliberate effort from Ayton’s teammates to locate him. Our Managing Editor Dave Deckard provided a great breakdown of this issue on Saturday, so I will turn you there for the bulk of this analysis. But one note I will glean from Dave’s article: Ayton so far is taking less shots per game, 9.5, than he ever did during a season in Phoenix, playing with the likes of Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul. Wednesday’s 18-point performance on 9-of-14 shooting was a good example of increasing Ayton’s role. It needs to continue moving forward.
- Highlight of the Week: Skylar Mays flies for a poster on Memphis (I didn’t know he was capable of this).
- This dunk attempt would’ve qualified for Highlight of the Century if Sharpe had pulled it off.
Shaedon Sharpe nearly ended Alex Len's career. pic.twitter.com/Jy0GGxYNen— Edilson J. Silva (@edilsonbuzz) November 9, 2023
- Quote of the Week: Chauncey Billups discussing rookie Toumani Camara’s ability to get under opponents’ skin after the game against Memphis.
“He doesn’t mind hitting you first. ...I think probably four or five of their guys were pissed at him tonight.”
- Funniest Thing I saw This Week: This fan expressed his dissatisfaction with Root Sports in a creative way.
- The Remix Debut: The Portland Trail Blazers’ new G League affiliate, the Rip City Remix, played their first two games in franchise history on Friday and Saturday, going 2-0. Duop Reath popped off for 37 points and 10 rebounds in the season-opener, a 133-105 blowout of the South Bay Lakers. This was the scene after the game when Head Coach Jim Moran entered the locker room. On Saturday, the Remix beat the Lakers again 114-110. Kris Murray and Rayan Rupert scored 16 points and 15 points, respectively, while Malachi Smith led the team with 33 points.
- Best Movie I Saw This Week: Go see “The Holdovers” directed by Alexander Payne and starring Paul Giamatti. I give it a rating of 4 out of 5 Pinwheels!