After a week off for Turkey Day and family time, everybody’s favorite Portland Trail Blazers’ series they never knew existed is back! That’s right, although a day later than we usually like it around here, it’s time for a Week in Rip City.
This week, we’ll discuss the hard-to-beat Trail Blazers, long-overdue love for Jerami Grant and tough decisions coming to Drexler Drive soon after the New Year. Of course, there’ll be the other trinkets and tip-ins as well. In honor of the start of December, and in an effort to cash in on that sweet, sweet SEO sugar, this week’s intro music will be provided by Taylor Swift. Take it away, Tay!
Record for the Week: 2 Wins, 2 Losses — 108-102 Loss at Bucks on Sunday; 114-110 Win at Pacers on Monday; 103-95 Win at Cavaliers on Thursday; 118-113 OT loss at Jazz on Saturday
1. Trail Blazers are a Tough Beat
If the Trail Blazers established — or rather, continued — one trend this past week, it’s the fact they’re a tough beat for any opponent when everybody’s healthy. Portland plays hard enough on defense and fields enough talent that opponents can’t just waltz in and leave with a win; they’ll have to earn it.
After the Pacers game, Indiana Head Coach Rick Carlisle showed a great deal of respect for how Portland competes, pointing out it was no fluke the Trail Blazers pulled out a win.
They had a game in Milwaukee yesterday that they should’ve won, and they came in here with some resolve, and we just were not up to the task, didn’t compete well enough, so, [it’s] disappointing. They’ve got some very good players on that team — when you talk about Ayton and Brogdon and Grant who had 34 [points] and Sharpe who’s having a great year. They got a bunch of role players that are hard-playing, defensive-minded guys. They earned it. We didn’t give to ‘em. They earned it.
The praise, from an opposing coach as respected as Carlisle no less, reinforced what many of us who watch the Trail Blazers closely already knew. Portland’s hanging with teams because of their persistence on defense and intensity. Six games into the season, I wrote about defense on this series because Portland was posting some favorable stats, including a ninth-best defensive rating of 108.4. But that was early and the team had played three weak offenses in a row; many wondered if that level of play was sustainable. Well, 13 games later, things are sustaining. The defensive rating rose a little, but Portland is still locked in with a 10th-best rating of 112.1. To prove the point in a further and satisfyingly sequential way: Portland is No. 3 in steals per game, No. 2 in opponent 3-point percentage and No. 1 in turnovers forced per game. Points in the paint are still a big problem — a third-worst-in-the-NBA-type problem — but Portland is grinding teams down.
The Pacers flaunt the best offense in the NBA at 128.2 points per game. Portland held Tyrese Haliburton and Co. to 110 points on the second night of a back-to-back.
Despite Carlisle’s awareness of Portland’s stubbornness, and our own, it appears many scoreboard watchers around the league haven’t caught on yet. My friend, a die-hard Pacers fan, told me Pacers Twitter suffered a melodramatic meltdown after the loss. Following the Cavs win, I stumbled upon the Locked on Cavs podcast and listened to one of the hosts experience a crisis of character as he bemoaned the loss as Cleveland’s worst of the season. The reactions are funny and misguided. Save for one forgettable, embarrassing, horrific 43-point beatdown against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Trail Blazers have been competitive in about every other game this season, even the double-digit losses.
Portland is closer to the mixed bag of .500 play displayed this week, rather than the eight-game losing streak the team endured when Malcolm Brogdon and Scoot Henderson missed a chunk of games. Losing to Portland shouldn’t turn opposing fanbases down a dark, desperate spiral of midnight soul-searching. As Carlisle said, Portland’s veterans are good and the role players get after it. Sprinkle into the mix a few Duop Reath 3s and Matisse Thybulle steals, and the Trail Blazers just might leave your town with a W.
2. Overdue Jerami Grant Praise
As I pondered possible section ideas for this week, I noticed I had still yet to mention the great play of Jerami Grant so far this season. It’s not that I didn’t notice Grant or that I dislike his game; I just expected Grant to play well, while I found developments involving Shaedon Sharpe, Deandre Ayton and Scoot Henderson much more compelling. But I decided I couldn’t go any longer without mentioning the veteran forward’s contributions, so I established on Saturday afternoon that Grant would get his flowers.
Then two hours later Grant played his worst game of the season before leaving early in the fourth quarter with a head injury. Not great timing. Still, this series is called “A Week in Rip City,” not “A Day Rip City,” and I’m not going into mid-December without discussing Grant. So, we move onto the giving of flowers undeterred!
Grant has arguably been Portland’s best player this season. He’s kept Portland’s dead-last offense from crashing completely off the rails with his ability to make 3s and generate buckets in isolation. As my colleague and only Australian friend Adrian Bernecich discussed in Adrian’s Angles on Saturday, Grant’s numbers this season are right around All-Star level: 22.1 points (a career-high), 3.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 0.8 blocks, while shooting 41.2% on 3s.
Monday against the Pacers was Grant’s best performance of the season and the go-to example of how he’s carried this team for stretches. Grant scored 34 points on 12-of-18 shooting, including 17 points in the game-deciding fourth quarter. It was an emphatic display of shotmaking, or as Carlisle put it: “hellacious.”
But aside from the shotmaking, I’ve been maybe most impressed by Grant’s buy-in and effort. Grant got his big payday in July, securing a lucrative long-term contract. He’s a veteran on a rebuilding team far, far away from contention. Still, he’s not just going through the motions until a trade swoops him away; Grant has carried a large burden for this team and done it admirably. His playing time has dropped slightly to 35 minutes per game, 25th-most in the NBA. However, a few weeks back, when Portland was dealing with so many injuries, Grant was right up there around the top five in the NBA with Shaedon Sharpe.
Grant likes his midrange jumpers, but he’s still attacked the rim hard this season and taken some hard hits in the process. And I can’t imagine Portland’s defense would be making these positive strides if Grant wasn’t playing his part. Yes, Grant isn’t a great rebounder, and sometimes the ball stops in his hands in an unaesthetic fashion, but he’s a good player. Hopefully he’s able to make a speedy recovery.
3. Drexler Drive Decisions
The above sections form a nice lead-in to our third section of the day: Portland’s impending decision about what to do with Grant and fellow veteran Malcolm Brogdon at February’s NBA Trade Deadline. The Trail Blazers’ competitive, “tough beat” identity would likely melt away fast during the second half of the season if Portland dealt the vets, but common rebuild strategy probably indicates to trade one or both of them away. Their high level of performance must be increasing their stock on the trade market, too. I’m not trying to rain on the parade by bringing up trade talk, but this an interesting, important storyline to track as the season goes on.
If you want to dive into this topic more, I explored it at length in a feature yesterday that you can read here. There’s also a lot of great debate and perspectives from Blazer’s Edge readers in the comments below that piece. I was a little shocked to see the variance in opinion.
Scoot Steps: To keep it very brief, the rookie point guard made some great strides this past week.
Highlight of the Week: Duh...
Best Thing I Saw This Week: I saw this a few weeks ago, but with the holiday season kicking into gear, I gotta show some love to the Duop (W)reath!!