Rookie Shaedon Sharpe gave an enticing preview of just how special he could become as the Portland Trail Blazers staved off another late comeback attempt to defeat the Utah Jazz 127-115 on the road Wednesday night. The win snapped Portland’s 6-game losing streak.
Sharpe got the start in place of Anfernee Simons, who is the latest on Portland Mad Lab-like injury report with a sore right foot. The young guard made the most of it. Sharpe delivered easily the best performance of his professional tenure, with career-highs across the board in points (24), rebounds (9), steals (4), assists (3) and minutes played (39). While he didn’t shoot the ball especially great (9-19), Sharpe showed several flashes of what makes him one of the most intriguing young players in basketball. His special combination of athleticism and natural skill were on full display tonight.
Not to be outdone, Trendon Watford proved outstanding in his own right, finishing with a season-high 21 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks and a steal. When the Blazers needed a basket tonight, Watford was usually involved in the play some way or another.
It feels a little strange giving third billing to Damian Lillard’s near-triple-double of 30 points, 12 assists and 7 boards, but the game just seemed to belong to young guys.
Both sides were energetic out of the gates, but ended up with equally little to show for it. A brisk tempo led to good early looks, but none of them were falling. It took nearly two and half minutes, 7 missed field goals and 3 missed free throws before the scoreboard operator had to begin their night’s work.
It didn’t take long for things to turn around. Lauri Markkanen connected on a three, Jusuf Nurkic answered with an easy layup, and back and forth they went. Utah was surely aware of the 61 points Lillard hung on them the last time these teams met back on January 25. They appeared resolved to not let that happen again. Wherever Dame roamed in the frontcourt, at least two defenders would be waiting to greet him. Leaning into the decoy role, Lillard worked an effective two-man game with Nurkic, who had 8 points in the quarter. It proved difficult for the Jazz to both sell out on Lillard while simultaneously keeping the 260-pound Bosnian away from the basket. The result: a lot of easy looks and flailing body parts left in their wake.
Sharpe wasn’t bashful either, putting up 8 shot attempts in the quarter. He connected on three of them, including a pair of threes for 6 of his 8 points in the period.
The boost from the supporting cast meant that even though Lillard only scored 6 points, the Blazers were still able to keep pace even as the Jazz rode a wave of offense. After one, Portland trailed just 34-29.
For a moment, it looked as though the Blazers were about to throw that decent start straight into the bin. A second-chance opportunity layup for Utah, followed by a Portland turnover, then two more easy Jazz buckets at point blank range prompted Head Coach Chauncey Billups to call an emergency timeout. Whatever he said in that huddle must have been effective.
Over the next 10 minutes, the Blazers played some of their best - and best looking - basketball in weeks. With a lineup of Lillard, Nurkic, Sharpe, Watford and Matisse Thybulle, Portland went from exploiting to downright destroying Utah’s overplaying defense by overwhelming them with ball handlers.
The action would start with Dame, who would magnetically draw in a pair of defenders, and from there it’s just simple arithmetic. A single good pass out of a double-team can lead to an open shot, and the Blazers had 3-4 guys capable of making yet another good pass after that. Portland was routinely getting great shot after great shot while the Jazz remained almost dogmatically committed to not becoming another footnote on Lillard’s Wikipedia page.
Watford had maybe the best quarter of his career so far, finding himself in the middle of that action more often than not. He had 9 points and 2 assists in the period, including a fast-break lob that led to an awe-inducing Sharpe finish at the rim.
Portland dominated the quarter 39-24 and went into the break holding a 68-56 lead.
Although Lillard managed to slip through Utah’s net for a a cheeky layup and another triple early in the third, the supporting cast kept the defense honest. Sharpe continued to expand his offensive repertoire, showing more willingness to beat his man off the dribble. But a storm was brewing.
As few answers as the Jazz had for the Blazers’ ball movement, Portland had just as few for Markkanen. Markkanen completely took over the offense for Utah in the quarter, scoring 14 points. The lead started to dwindle. Portland once led by as much as 15 points, but saw their advantage nearly vanish behind the tall and outstretched hands of the lanky Finn.
The Blazers went the final two and half minutes without a score, heading into the final frame holding a suddenly-tenuous 91-88 lead.
It took the Jazz only 56 seconds in the fourth to complete the comeback, pulling even on an and-1 floater by Kelly Olynyk that made it 93-all. From there, recency bias would say Portland would falter and succumb to yet another disappointing late-game comeback. Tonight, that would not be the case.
It seemed as though Utah expended most of their energy battling back into the game. Once they stopped to take a breath, they fizzled. Without Markkanen eating up offensive possessions, the Jazz didn’t have anybody to respond to the Blazers’ inevitable counterpunch.
Utah’s short moment taking their foot off of the gas resulted in a Kevin Knox II 4-point play and a three from Ryan Arcidiacano - neither of whom had done much of anything up until that point. That gave Portland an 8-point cushion again...seemingly a kick in the gut to Utah. The Blazers never looked back.
Sharpe got to flex a few more highlights in front of the away crowd as he rounded out his box score line and Portland ran away with the welcome win.
Stay tuned for analysis from the game coming soon!
The Blazers will fly home and get a day off before hosting the Chicago Bulls on Friday night. Tip is set for 7 p.m. Pacific.