After an 0-3 start to the NBA season, the Portland Trail Blazers ripped off a three-game winning streak this week.
Over the course of those wins, Trail Blazers guard Shaedon Sharpe emerged as a legitimate star on the rise and Portland began to pencil in the etchings of a defensive identity, albeit against lower competition. We’ll get into those topics and more following an exciting week of Blazers basketball. Queue the lead-in music!
Weekly Record: 3-0 Overall — 99-91 Win at Toronto; 110-101 Win at Detroit; 115-113 OT win vs. Memphis (In-Season Tournament game)
1. Shaedon Sharpe and Patches O’Houlihan
If you lived under a rock this week — or you couldn’t watch any games because NBA League Pass was flashing technical difficulties — the first thing anybody would tell you about is the rapid rise of second-year Trail Blazer Shaedon Sharpe.
It was a remarkable progression for the 20-year-old. Sharpe began the week as a fringe NBA starter, inserted into the starting five the week before because of a thumb injury to Trail Blazers guard Anfernee Simons. By the end of Friday night’s overtime period against the Grizzlies, Sharpe was receiving “M-V-P” chants at the free throw line from the Moda Center crowd.
Sharpe put up 14 points against Toronto on Monday; then erupted for a 29-point, seven-rebound, five-assist performance against Detroit on Wednesday, including a 15-point third quarter; and scored 22 points against Memphis, saving the game in regulation with a soaring 3-point swat and playing hero with clutch buckets in overtime.
The shift in performance showed in Sharpe’s aggression, especially on offense, a development that’s more notable for a talent like Sharpe.
Sharpe is a chill, soft-spoken dude, and that personality shines through in his game, unless he’s murdering the rim on a dunk attempt. That relaxed vibe has sparked concern from some fans, at least in the comment section on this site, about if he had the right mentality to make good on his potential. I’ve always landed on the side that playing with a calm, steady demeanor is a great advantage in sports (between Sharpe, Simons and Jerami Grant, there seems to be a lot of those types in Portland). Still, there are stretches where you want Sharpe to be more assertive on offense and less of an observer with that great athleticism.
I feel like legendary coach Patches O’Houlihan in the comedy movie “Dodgeball” shouting at the good-natured Gordie, “You gotta get angry!” (At least, maybe that’s how Chauncey Billups feels, as you’ll see a little later).
Sure enough, with Simons’ absence putting more of an onus on Sharpe to be a scorer, he’s coming out of his shell with an increasing confidence to attack his defender. In the first three games of the season, Sharpe registered six drives per game and shot eight total free throws. In the three games this week, he more than doubled those numbers with 12.3 drives per game and 21 total free throws. We’re watching Sharpe realize in real-time that with his quick step and leaping ability on drives, he often either reaches the rim or gets fouled.
This doesn’t mean Sharpe stopped shooting the 3-ball. He shot 43.3% on 16 attempts during that same three-game span. However, the 3-pointer no longer feels like his primary weapon when he catches it on the perimeter. When he does launch from deep, it’s more in the rhythm of his attack, and he’s generally engaging his defender to create that space, whether it’s through a pump-fake, a hard jab or both.
3 in his home country pic.twitter.com/zM3VfI34Y9— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) October 30, 2023
Sharpe isn’t too sped up on the floor. He plays at his own pace in a very Brandon Roy-esque way and lets the game come to him. This has shone through not only in his recent shot selection, but in an impressive willingness and ability to pass, sometimes at the risk of being too willing. Despite the uptick in aggressiveness this week, stretches went on for too long without seeing Sharpe get an attempt or even a touch.
Following the Memphis game, Billups talked about moments in which Sharpe drove him “crazy” because he deferred to teammates too often.
“He kinda pick and chose when he wanted to handle the ball in pick-and-roll, I kind of had to force Shae sometimes because he’s just so nice. He can get lost out there sometimes, and I don’t like that,” Billups said. “We created some situations where we got a matchup that we liked with him and in his areas and he passed it, so of course I’m going crazy on him, and I’m saying, ‘What are you doing?’”
For about a decade, score-first guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum led the franchise. After that experience, it’s odd to see a player with franchise-cornerstone potential have to be coached into shooting more. It’s something I believe will be a positive in the end, even if it’s giving Billups some headaches in the short-term. It’s also odd to see the Blazers led by a player who plays so above the rim. It creates an entirely different type of gravity on the floor. That’s tantalizing. In just five days, Sharpe made a compelling argument he’s the primary piece the team should be building around.
WHAT A DAY FOR SHAE— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) November 2, 2023
29 PTS | 7 REB | 5 AST pic.twitter.com/1GVyEXIBEv
Shaedon. Sharpe.— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) November 4, 2023
22 PTS | 5 REB | 1 BLK pic.twitter.com/UVU6YgprBh
2. The Early Makings of an Identity
Don’t look now, but the Trail Blazers are fielding a solid defense to start the season. Portland ranks ninth in the NBA in defensive rating at 108.4. During this three-game stretch against sub-par competition, Portland ranked first in the category. The front office has repeatedly stated it wants to build a more athletic, long and defensive-minded roster. This week we saw the seeds of that vision begin to sprout.
The Trail Blazers are performing well in categories you’d expect from a young, athletic team with two mobile centers in Deandre Ayton and Robert Williams III. The Trail Blazers rank ninth in opponent turnovers per game with 15.8; ninth in deflections per game with 15.8; and tied for 10th in blocks per game with 5.8. Maybe most surprising, Portland ranks eighth in opponent 3-point percentage per game at 33.3%.
Portland mucked up games this week with effort and grit, locking down when its offense went missing or when opponents began to pull away. The Trail Blazers held Toronto to 17 points in a critical fourth quarter that saw the Blazers only score 19. Detroit led by as many as 18 before Portland tightened up for a comeback. Portland and Memphis teamed up for the grimiest of overtime periods until Sharpe and Grant mercifully came through with 3-pointers to create separation.
There are key cogs making this machine go. Ayton is cleaning up the paint with a second-best-in-the-NBA 13.7 rebounds per game. Toumani Camara and Jabari Walker are providing a jolt of hustle and attitude off the bench. And it seems at least once a game, a different player records a highlight block.
“It was what everyone was talking about when last season ended — are we gonna be able to figure out how to play defense?” Matisse Thybulle said in the locker room following the Memphis win. “So, I think the coaches have done a really good job of emphasizing it, and just the buy-in from all the players shows.”
There are caveats galore to this rosy picture. First, Portland is now a struggling offense, ranking 28th in offensive rating at 104.5. Secondly, the Trail Blazers played sputtering offenses this week (Memphis, Toronto and Detroit are 30th, 25th and 18th in offensive rating, respectively). We’ll have to see if they can maintain this level of defensive performance against better teams. The Trail Blazers are also a glaring second-worst in the NBA in opponent points in the paint, surrendering 56.3 points per game. Obviously, the defense is still a work in progress, but after years of infuriating ineptitude, the Trail Blazers are laying down important foundational blocks.
3. Tag Team of Hustle
Mentioned above, Walker and Camara firmly established themselves as fan favorites this week with their energy off the bench. I wrote about Walker at length in a piece earlier this week, so I’ll briefly highlight Camara, who is more firmly entrenched in the rotation after six games. If there was any indication Billups believed in Camara, it’s the fact he tasked the rookie with the toughest defensive assignment in each game this week: Scottie Barnes, Cade Cunningham and Desmond Bane.
My favorite Camara highlight from the week was the defensive-slide clinic he put on against Toronto. He consistently beat Barnes and OG Anunoby to the spot, forcing them to turn direction. Barnes got fed up with the physicality and finally let out his frustration in the fourth quarter by shoving Camara on a free throw box-out. Detroit’s Isaiah Stewart shoved Camara on a free throw box-out in the next game. It appears we have a new Trail Blazers provocateur in our midst.
Against Memphis, Camara started the second half in place of Thybulle. Billups said it was a single-game adjustment and wouldn’t affect lineups going forward. It’ll be an interesting storyline as the season progresses to see if Camara can encroach further on that starting small forward spot.
4. Scoot’s Sea Legs
After a brutal start to his rookie season, third overall pick Scoot Henderson got his sea legs this week with a solid performance in Toronto: 11 points, seven assists and five rebounds. There were still issues, such as turnovers and overzealous fouls. Henderson even fouled out in the closing minutes. But he consistently got into the lane with his change of pace and blazing speed. Henderson also established more pick-and-roll chemistry with Ayton, setting his center up with pocket passes for easy bunnies. The rookie went down with an ankle sprain in the next matchup, but the flashes he showed in Toronto helped fans — and I’m sure Scoot — breathe a slight sigh of relief.
5. A Wiley Vet
I would be doing you all and myself a disservice if I didn’t at least briefly highlight the play of veteran point guard Malcolm Brogdon. Brogdon averaged 19 points, five rebounds and over three assists per game over the weekly slate. He’s provided a much-needed steadiness on the floor that makes me quite happy the Trail Blazers didn’t immediately offload him for a future pick or two. Vets like Brogdon and Grant help provide a healthy floor for this young team.
- Highlight of the week: Shaedon Sharpe’s game-saving block against Memphis.
SHAEDON MF (MY FRIEND) SHARPE pic.twitter.com/Ga4FLHduel— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) November 4, 2023
- Funniest thing I saw this week: It’s a neck-and-neck race between the spunky words written on the Miami Heat’s home court to display “Heat Culture,” despite the team getting off to a 2-4 start; or the fact NBA League Pass had a special NBA In-Season Tournament graphic made for technical difficulties.
The week isn’t over for the Trail Blazers, despite a Sunday morning publish time for this piece. Portland will play the Memphis Grizzlies for the second matchup in a row later today at 6 p.m. PST.