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A Week in Rip City: Trying and Losing

Your one-stop shop for Blazers news of the week — think Fred Meyers.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Amanda Loman/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers are continuing down the long and treacherous road of the rebuild. This past week that road brought four losses, including two to the Sauron-like Los Angeles Lakers, and zero wins.

The path also brought lots of minutes and turnovers, dashed NBA In-Season Tournament hopes, a revitalized Matisse Thybulle and oh-so-many Duop Reath 3-pointers. Grab that Sunday morning coffee, sit back and lets discuss it all. Play that smooth intro music, please.

Record for the Week: 0 Wins, 4 Losses — 116-110 Loss at Lakers on Sunday; 115-99 Loss at Jazz on Tuesday; 109-95 Loss vs. Cavaliers on Wednesday; 107-95 loss vs. Lakers on Friday

1. The Trials and Tribulations (and Minutes) of Shaedon Sharpe

With young talents Scoot Henderson and Anfernee Simons missing extended time, the Trail Blazers are zeroing in on the development of second-year guard Shaedon Sharpe. The team is asking Sharpe to do a lot right now: share lead-guard duties with Skylar Mays and initiate the offense, attack and score, be a playmaker, run pick-and-roll, hit 3s, play a ton of minutes. Sharpe is the NBA leader in minutes per game at 38.4 minutes through 12 games. That’s a lot of minutes, even for a 20-year-old. This week, the Trail Blazers seemed to realize they were playing one of their prized young players too much and dialed it back. Sharpe still clocked 37 minutes per game, good enough for 12th-most in the last four games. The burst in workload has been a remarkable transition for a player who wasn’t even a starter a few weeks ago and showed a tendency to disappear within the offense.

This week we really saw the growing pains of that stark transition, as Sharpe dealt with expanded duties, tired legs and no-longer-naive defenses adjusting to key in on him. It manifested most in Sharpe’s turnovers. Sharpe had just three turnovers total in the middle two games of the week, but put up seven in the first meeting with the Lakers on Sunday and a glaring 10 in the rematch on Friday. His field goal efficiency also took a hit. Sharpe was solid through the first eight games of the season at 44.3% from the field, but that dropped to 33.3% over the last four games. Head Coach Chauncey Billups acknowledged after the Lakers game on Friday he was putting too much on the shoulders of Sharpe, primarily out of necessity.

“I’m asking too much of him right now, and he’s not a natural playmaker yet, we’re asking him to do that, too, and then he’s playing against some good defenders out there,” Billups said at the postgame press conference. “... I don’t have a choice right now. When my roster is full, I don’t have to put too much on him.”

Considering all the turnovers and that Billups called him “not a natural playmaker,” I’m still impressed with Sharpe’s passing abilities this season and even this week. Sharpe registered assist totals of two, five, seven and four in the games this week. Several of the passes were pretty, too. Last season, when Sharpe was primarily a leaper, cutter and spot-up shooter who hadn’t played in competitive games since high school, I didn’t realize he had any of this feel to his game.

Out of the pick-and-roll, he’s shown a knack for making the opposing center step up to engage him, then delivering a quick pass to a rolling Ayton in space for easy 2s. This recipe has included an occasional lob pass to Ayton that Sharpe has been surprisingly adept at. Sharpe has also shown flashes of manipulating defenders toward him on drives, only to dump it off for open dunks. With his elite athleticism and solid shooting, Sharpe commands a gravity on the floor that’s going to leave defenses vulnerable. As he gains more comfort as a playmaker and more offensive weapons return healthy, he’ll only get better at exploiting defenses...and hopefully the TO numbers will come back to Earth.

2. Happy Trails, In-Season Tournament Hopes! (We Barely Knew Ya)

Like sand through the hourglass, so are the days of the Trail Blazers’ In-Season Tournament hopes. After starting off hot with a Group Stage win over the Memphis Grizzlies last week, the Trail Blazers dropped two tournament games in a row this week to the Jazz and Lakers, putting them at 1-2 in West Group A, a kiss of death in this format. The Trail Blazers play one more group game against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, but they’re already eliminated from the quarterfinals. No prize money. No Las Vegas. No slot machines for Trail Blazers fans feeling dangerous this winter.

As a reminder, there are three groups in each conference and the top team from each group advances, plus two wild-card spots. In Portland’s group, the Lakers are the frontrunners at 3-0. The Jazz and Suns at 2-1 and 1-1, respectively, still have a chance of catching LA. But the 1-2 Trail Blazers and 0-3 Grizzlies are done for. The Trail Blazers are also all but mathematically eliminated from a wild-card spot, especially considering their awful point differential of minus-26.

Reflecting on the first In-Season Tournament experience, I can safely say I’ve enjoyed it; I even enjoyed the sea of purple Portland played on in Salt Lake City. With the tournament games baked into the regular season count, I entered seeing no real downside to the tournament. At worst, I thought I’d feel indifferent toward the whole jamboree. But at each Trail Blazers loss this week, I found myself calmly — but with a tinge of sorrow — thinking, ahh, shoot, that’ll hurt their tournament standing. And I chalk up that type of emotional reaction as a big W for Adam Silver and the NBA.

3. Tou vs. Tisse

It happened. Scrappy, upstart rookie Toumani Camara overtook veteran Matisse Thybulle for the starting small forward spot this week. Camara moved into the starting five against the Jazz on Tuesday and has held the spot since.

Camara played like his usual self for the most part after the switch. His best skill is relentlessness, shining through on the offensive glass and defensive pressure. Camara does this thing where he seemingly gets a hand, at the very least, on every possible offensive rebound, even if he doesn’t come down with it. Seriously, pay attention during the next game to this aspect. By the law of large numbers (shoutout Mr. Harsman, Sellwood math class), getting that many cracks at offensive rebounds means Camara or his nearby teammates are going to come down with a few. Camara posted his season-high mark of four offensive rebounds against the Lakers on Sunday. Through 12 games, Camara is tied for 12th among all forwards, with at least five games played, in offensive rebounds per game at 1.9. If you want to really make him look good with a Mike Rice-like stat, that puts him at second-best among all rookie forwards. As a team, the Trail Blazers put up an absurd 19 offensive rebounds on Friday.

Camara’s biggest display of value came in that Lakers game when he hounded the Lakers ball-handler 94 feet up the floor for practically his entire 36 minutes of action. Most times that ball-handler was veteran point guard D’Angelo Russell, who couldn’t get past Camara and had to initiate the offense slowly from high above the 3-point arc. It changed the flow of the game and opens up tantalizing possibilities for Camara’s deployment going forward.

Now to Matisse. After Thybulle’s demotion to the bench — even going back to a few games before, maybe when he realized the writing was on the wall — he has responded with his best stretch as a Trail Blazer. My biggest critique toward Thybulle early in the season was he didn’t pop out much on the floor...not bad by any means, but not a big factor, either. He provided solid defense and some deflections, but that was about it. Through the first seven games of the season, Thybulle averaged 4.3 points on 3.6 field goal attempts and 0.6 steals per game, while shooting 36.4% on 3s. In the five games since, Thybulle has upped it all: 10.2 points on 6.2 field goal attempts, 2.0 steals, a blistering-hot 47.8% shooting on 3s. His best game this week was a 13-point, three-steal, three-assist, three-rebound, one-block performance against Cleveland in which he shot 5-6 from the field.

This is the most aggressive we’ve ever seen Thybulle. He’s shooting 3s with loads of confidence and even attacking closeouts occasionally with good results. He’s still getting those deflections, but more have turned into steals lately, and they feel louder when taking into account all the other things Thybulle’s doing. He’s forcing his imprint on the game. Who would’ve thought after Thybulle’s reputation in Philly that he’d be Portland’s most dependable 3-point shooter?

4. Q4 Fades

I’m trying to make this work-in-progress column less of a summary of events and more of a grab-bag of interesting Trail Blazers’ developments, quotes and stats you can parse through from throughout the week. But jumping into heavy summary mode just for a moment, three out of four games this week were decided by the same affliction: fourth quarter fades into blowouts.

Against the Lakers on Friday, Portland entered the fourth quarter trailing by nine before falling behind by as many as 17. Against Cleveland, it was a 10-point deficit that quickly ballooned to 18. And against Utah, Portland trailed by just two at the 11:00 mark of the fourth. Then the Jazz effectively ended the game with a 13-2 run over the next six minutes. The fourth quarter fades are part of a common trend in recent Portland games, the final resting point of an up-and-down parabola (shoutout Harsman!). The Trail Blazers go down double-digits, rally back, go down double-digits again, rally back before the fourth quarter and then get put away relatively easily. It’s a tough pattern to watch.

5. The Never-Bashful Duop Reath

This week started for me with the quiet realization that Trail Blazers two-way contract center Duop Reath has a 3-point shot in his bag. The week concluded with the loud confirmation that, Oh, that’s his MAIN thing. I’m not even mad at it. I’m a long-time Reath fan dating back to his play at NBA Summer League in June, and I love a big man who lets it fly. Plus, the Basketball Lords know the Trail Blazers need some extra shooting at the moment.

In his first-ever NBA game on Sunday, Reath launched eight 3s, knocking down three. He followed that up with three attempts on Tuesday, five on Wednesday and four on Friday. His five attempts per game this week were third-most on the team, trailing only Jerami Grant and Sharpe. The early returns aren’t magnificent, as he’s connecting on only 25% of the attempts, but I expect as the sample size grows that number will creep up into the 30s. Until then, don’t be shy Duop. Let it fly, let it fly!

Tip-ins (This Might as well be Sharpe’s Category This Week)

  • Highlight of the Week: Sharpe pins NBA Top 75 Player Anthony Davis’ shot high on the backboard.

Close runner-up: this set-up from Skylar Mays.

  • Quote of the Week: This entire exchange between Sharpe and reporters in which Sharpe learns just how tall Victor Wembanyama is. Thanks to KOIN 6 News reporter Brenna Greene for producing a clean clip.
  • Funniest Thing I Saw This Week: Going back to Sharpe once more, I enjoyed listening to this exchange between him and Thybulle while Sharpe was mic’d up for the Friday Lakers game.
  • Best Movie I Saw This Week (a category for me): Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 sci-fi film “Arrival,” starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner. It comfortably beat out 2009’s “Up in the Air,” and it’s leaving Netflix before the end of the month. Go see it before it’s gone. I give it 4.5 Pinwheels out of 5!