It’s time, Portland Trail Blazers fans, for another Week in Rip City!
After some defensive letdowns and a seventh straight loss for the home team, the overall theme of today’s recap will be staying the course and pushing onward — even if the sea gets rocky and the compass is spinning and the lightning is striking.
On a more granular level, we’ll be chatting about defensive slippage, Deandre Ayton struggles, Scoot Henderson successes and Toumani Camara’s quietly successful week from downtown.
Keeping with the theme of moving forward, today’s intro music will be provided by Kris Kringle and the Winter Warlock! Take it away, fellas.
Record for the Week: 0 Wins, 4 Losses — 132-127 loss at Clippers on Monday (Dec. 11); 122-114 loss vs. Jazz on Thursday; 131-120 loss vs. Mavericks on Saturday; 118-114 loss vs. Warriors on Sunday
1. Critical Juncture Incoming...
Ever since Anfernee Simons went down on opening night in October, this season has been infected by the injury bug and the filter of: Wait until we get our guys back. Well, Thursday against the Utah Jazz, the Trail Blazers got all their main guys back — save for Robert Williams III who’s done for the season — and the team got absolutely embarrassed at home. Facing an 8-16 Jazz team that was missing All-Star Lauri Markkanen, John Collins, Jordan Clarkson and Keyonte George, the Trail Blazers fell behind by as much as 33 in the third quarter. Portland gave up 69 points in the first half to the Jazz and 122 for the game on 53.3% shooting, needing a 38-19 fourth quarter of garbage time to make the score appear respectable. In a season carrying the expectations of a rebuild, boo birds still rained down from the Moda Center rafters during that abysmal third quarter.
The game was a case of slippage in the feel-good storyline of the young Trail Blazers’ season: that spirited, scrappy play and improved defense. The Jazz game was the most emphatic case of the slip, but the trend showed when Portland gave up 74 points to the Dallas Mavericks in the first half and 65 points against the Golden State Warriors in the first half.
Portland coach Chauncey Billups said something that resonated after that slap-in-the-face loss to the Jazz:
“We start getting some of our offensive players back, and then it looks so sweet and cute out there when we’re making shots, but that’s not who we are,” said Billups, sounding like a usually proud parent hit by a bout of disappointment. “That’s not who we’re trying to be. We’re a defensive team. We gotta get stops in order for us to play well.”
I see a few reasons for the defensive regression: Yes, Portland’s best offensive players all returned to the lineup, likely removing that feeling of necessity to play with grit; perhaps, as the season progresses that elevated defense will show to be primarily fool’s gold, and Portland is destined to regress to a more average-to-below-average mean; or, maybe it’s just tough to maintain an intensity and fire for 82 games, especially in the midst of your second losing streak of five-plus games. It’s tough, but that’s the challenge in front of the Trail Blazers and what it will take to develop into a great team.
All of this is to say I think a critical juncture is coming up for Portland over the next few weeks in terms of defensive development. Last season, a more veteran Trail Blazers team played inspired defense for about a dozen games before it crumbled like putty. A tad over the first-quarter mark of this season, the Trail Blazers must hold onto the rope and not revert back to old ways. They need to keep adding to the building blocks embedded over the first 25 games and keep establishing that defensive identity. Success isn’t linear and some slippage is par for the course over 82 games. The great test will be to keep the overall trajectory slanted up.
2. Deandre Ayton Check-in
Speaking of important upcoming stretches, the second topic of today’s rundown is Portland starting center Deandre Ayton, who returned to the lineup against the Jazz after missing three games due to a knee issue.
Ayton’s return was a rocky one, amounting to his worst stretch of the season. In three games, Ayton averaged 9.7 points, 9 rebounds and 2 turnovers per game. Once again, his shot attempts were low at 8.7 attempts per game, but even when he did get the chance to operate, he wasn’t particularly aggressive. That midrange jump shot is near elite from Ayton, but he arguably settled for it too much, or with limited production from him elsewhere, maybe the misses just felt louder. When he put the ball on the deck, it got stripped from his hands multiple times in a recurring play that is becoming nearly as infuriating as the Jusuf Nurkic flippy shot.
There was also the play in the Mavs game he got chewed out by Billups for a lack of execution. The Trail Blazers entered the second half ready to blitz Luka Doncic out of the pick-and-roll, Billups said. Instead, on the first play, Ayton remained back in drop coverage resulting in a Doncic midrange jumper. Billups called a timeout 18 seconds into the quarter to address the issue.
“I was just upset at us,” said Billups after the game. “We come out, we say what we’re gonna do at the start of the quarter, end of a half, and right away we don’t do it.”
So it was a tough — though relatively short — stretch for Ayton. And coming out of it, how he responds over the next several games will be important for his arc. Early in the season, a rash of articles came out lampooning the former No. 1 overall pick as “overrated” and declaring his first impressions as a Trail Blazer a failure. I found the articles misguided, a result of casual box-score scouring. He wasn’t setting the net on fire by any means — partly because of teammates not finding him, partly because of him — but I respected how hard he was working and impacting the game in other ways, especially considering his lack of shots. I respected how he was talking in interviews and acting as a leader to his young teammates and how he appeared committed to the long process of figuring things out here. For the most part, excluding the most recent stretch, this is how I’ve felt about Ayton, but he needs to be more impactful than what he showed last week.
He may not grow into the 25-and-10 everyday dynamo people were hoping for in Portland, but he can most definitely be more of a factor on offense and invaluable as the team’s athletic, rebounding, defensive linchpin in the middle. In the offseason, Ayton talked about changing the narrative surrounding his reputation after an unhappy split from the Phoenix Suns. As the going gets a little tough, this is where Ayton can really make good on that intention. I hope he keeps course and stays engaged to the process.
3. Scoot Stretch
Scoot Henderson is a great example of remaining on your feet and fighting back after some bumps in the road. The rookie point guard strung together his best stretch of games last week, making everybody breathe a little easier after the touted lottery pick started the season slow.
It all began with an extended first shift against the Clippers. Henderson entered the game with 6:58 remaining in the first quarter. Since he had it going, he remained on the court all the way until halftime. In that 19-minute shift, Henderson put up 14 points on 6-of-11 shooting from the field, including 2-of-3 on 3s, along with three assists, four rebounds and two turnovers. Scoot wasn’t playing too differently, but the ball was dropping more and you could see him gain more confidence in real time over the extended run. The game was a foreshadowing of the week in store:
In four games, Scoot averaged 17.3 points, 5 assists, 2.5 rebounds, 0.8 blocks, 0.5 steals and 2.8 turnovers in 27.6 minutes per game; he did that on 46.4% shooting from the field and 43.8% from 3 (gasp!) on 4 attempts per game.
It’s a small sample size, but what an impressive few steps forward in just one week. They were the kind of Winter Warlock-sized steps that would make Kris Kringle proud.
The change in play was much ado about a change in pace, Henderson noted. He was using his burst and speed more strategically to exploit angles to the rim. Then, obviously, he was finishing better once he got there and from the outside. Overall, he was playing with more composure and intent.
Billups had also laid out an emphasis for the athletic rookie to dunk more, detailed in a piece by The Athletic’s Jason Quick (subscription required). Henderson made good on that challenge, finally adding some star-quality highlights to his rookie reel. (The slo-mo of highlight No. 2 looks even better).
SCOOT WITH AUTHORITY pic.twitter.com/NAD4z5GBDU— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) December 17, 2023
YESSUH SCOOT ‼️ pic.twitter.com/JLdINv1iVV— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) December 15, 2023
Henderson’s defense has been solid all season, minus the overzealous fouls. That defense again provided a jolt of energy off the bench last week, but the offensive elements are also starting to come together in an impactful way.
4. Camara for 3! Bang!
Quick trivia: After the usual suspects of Simons, Grant, Shaedon Sharpe and the breakout from Henderson, who was the Trail Blazers fifth-leading scorer last week? The answer ... Duop Reath, of course!
But after Reath, you guessed it, it was Toumani Camara. The rookie averaged 11 points on super solid shooting percentages through the four games: 59.3% from the field on 6.8 attempts per game and 50% from 3 on 3.5 attempts per game.
Those shooting numbers came after a painful performance against the Mavericks on Dec. 9 that saw Camara shoot 21 times, going 30% from the field and 20% on 10 3-point attempts.
“I feel like a lot of my shots were in rhythm, I feel I can make ‘em.” said Camara at media availability on Dec. 11. “ ... That was just one game. I’m not defining my whole offense based on that.”
True to his confidence, Camara shot 3-of-4 from 3 for 18 points against Utah, with most of that production coming before the game turned into a laugher. Then he shot 3-of-3 from deep against GSW for 11 points.
Camara is already so valuable on defense, giving the likes of Stephen Curry trouble on the perimeter. If Camara continues to improve that shot, his value will go through the roof.
Highlight of the Week: Shaedon Sharpe puts Daniel Theis on ice skates.
HOF ANKLE BREAKER pic.twitter.com/4QcAmgHXo2— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) December 12, 2023
Best Thing I Saw This Week: a standing O for Brandon Roy!
Always an honor ❤️ pic.twitter.com/t2xZwfZih1— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) December 18, 2023
Best Movie I Saw This Week (a category for me): 20 minutes of “Home Alone” on cable.