The last time we talked, it felt like the sky was falling for your Portland Trail Blazers.
So much so, that I changed the format of this series. I threw out the usual list of observations in favor of a lengthy, soul-searching essay to try to pinpoint the gloomy state of the franchise and a suddenly wayward season.
Today, about two weeks later, the Trail Blazers have emerged from that dark abyss and tread on much calmer waters. The team still isn’t good, of course, but things are closer to the competitive basketball displayed early in the season rather than the unholy wreckage we saw to start January. We can all exhale some.
The team is 4-5 since that disastrous seven-game road trip, including 2-3 over the past five outings, but two of those losses came with asterisks. One L had what you might call...an unusual late-game situation with the refs, and the other in San Antonio was withered away by injuries.
So with the compass pointing more toward neutral, we get back to the basics on A Week in Rip City. In this edition, we’ll dive into Jabari Walker’s addition to the starting lineup, the curious case of Deandre Ayton, the ejection heard ‘round the world and the most inspirational story of the year. Play this week’s theme music!
Record for the Week (spilling a little into this week): 2 Wins, 3 Losses — 111-109 loss at Thunder on Tuesday, (Jan. 23); 137-131 OT win at Rockets on Wednesday; 116-100 loss at Spurs on Friday; 104-96 loss vs. Bulls on Sunday; 130-104 win vs. 76ers on Monday (Embiid was out).
1. The Minutes Monster
We start this week off with a section dedicated to the Minutes Monster, the one-armed rebound gobbler, the two-armed flexer: Jabari Walker. This season has been quite the journey for Walker. The 2022 second-round pick began the year outside of the rotation — much to his surprise — then worked his way firmly into consistent minutes before supplanting Toumani Camara in the starting lineup on Jan. 14. The move has paid off for Portland coach Chauncey Billups and the Trail Blazers, as Walker has injected some badly needed rebounding, finishing and all-around toughness into the starting five.
Walker’s insertion into the lineup slides Jerami Grant down to small forward and helps cover one of the largest weaknesses of the lanky veteran’s game: rebounding. Since joining the starting lineup, Walker has averaged 9.0 points and 8.9 rebounds through nine games, eclipsing the double-digit rebound mark three times and recording double-doubles twice. Walker’s positive impact on the glass has only been compounded by the return of Ayton, which largely coincided with the starting lineup change. The pair gives Portland a much more stout frontcourt, helping the Trail Blazers win the rebounding battle in five of their last seven games.
I dove into Walker’s strong prowess as a play finisher in a feature around New Year’s, highlighting his knack to consistently convert put-backs and deep passes into paint points. His moves aren’t flashy, but they are strong enough to frequently garner position for two points or two free throws. While Walker’s point production has been somewhat mooted in the last few games, the high points lately have been eye opening. The Trail Blazers have something here.
When comparing Walker and Camara directly, it’s understandable why Portland made the switch. Camara has only grabbed over 10 rebounds in a game twice this entire season. Walker is finishing 63% of his shots within five feet and 55.7% of his 2-pointers, while Camara is shooting 57% and 51%, respectively, on less attempts. The two are different player types — Walker is more power forward/big compared to Camara’s more traditional small forward frame — so Walker is naturally going to do better in these categories. But at the moment, Walker’s proficiency and impact in these areas outweighs the extra juice Camara provides as a disruptive, point-of-attack defender, explaining the promotion/demotion.
The best version of Walker was on display in Portland’s hard-fought, controversial loss to OKC last Tuesday. Walker finished with 14 points on 6-14 shooting from the field and 13 rebounds, including a whopping six on the offensive end. He endeared himself once more to Rip City as the newest role player hero. Perhaps the best part of Walker’s motor: Whether he’s locked in a dogfight with a Western Conference power or getting trounced in one of Portland’s many blowout losses this season, he always passes the give-a-damn test.
Just like Camara, Walker will have to improve his 3-point shot to really elevate his NBA ceiling (both are shooting below 30% on 3s). For now, even without the consistent 3-point shot, the Minutes Monster is hard to keep off the floor.
2. Ayton Comes Alive
Truthfully, at the start of last week, I was about ready to give up on Deandre Ayton as Portland’s long-term answer at the center position (no, it wasn’t the snow thing). Then his latest string of performances gave me pause. In his last four games, the dude put up 18 points and 6 rebounds; 22 points and 12 rebounds; 20 points and 12 rebounds; 18 points and 17 rebounds. He did it all on solid efficiency, too, knocking down midrange jumpers and rim-running for powerful dunks as the Trail Blazers turned up the lob plays to 11. As mentioned up above, Ayton back in the middle also provides Portland with a huge boon in the rebounding department, as well as on defense.
This was more the Ayton that Trail Blazers fans thought they would be getting from Phoenix at the start of the season — a double-double machine capable of semi-regular 20-point performances; a flawed player, but still someone who could dominate the floor for stretches. You know, DominAyton!
Only time will tell if this week’s sign of life is the beginning of more consistent performances from Ayton, or just the start of a toxic, choppy, love-hate relationship between Trail Blazers fans and their newest starting center. The beauty is in the not knowing, as somebody somewhere once said.
3. The Tech Heard ‘Round the World
This OKC timeout/no timeout fiasco happened a week ago, which in the NBA can feel like an eternity. It was covered and debated at length, fervently, I may add, at the time it occurred. Still, I can’t not mention it here. It was one of the biggest stories of the week and perhaps the most bizarre ending to a Portland game I’ve ever seen. So I will try to keep my thoughts brief and boil them down to a few main points.
- Billups could’ve been more visual with his timeout request to make it more clear to the officials, but he’s clearly yelling for time during the play and it should’ve been granted. This argument from the referees that the official nearest to the play was rightfully focused on the game action instead of Billups’ timeout call is funny because then how do timeouts ever get called? Somebody on the crew needed to anticipate that Portland probably would call for a timeout and look for it.
- The second tech was quick and usually not something you see at such a pivotal moment when an extra point means the world. NBA referees seem to make exceptions to avoid deciding outcomes (see Draymond Green’s clear flagrant foul that didn’t even get reviewed late against LA on Saturday).
- The Trail Blazers, especially the younger guys, showed a lot of mettle to duke it out with OKC after getting internationally embarrassed by 62 points in their last meeting. It would’ve been nice to see the young guys get rewarded with a win because they earned it.
- Forgive me, but was anybody else thoroughly entertained by the late-game drama? It made for some gripping Tuesday TV.
4. Duop Reath’s Journey to Rip City
We cleanse our palate once and for all of that situation with the best story of the year. I am, once again, encouraging all Trail Blazers fans to watch the in-depth profile on Duop Reath that debuted on Matisse Thybulle’s YouTube page over the weekend. Reath explains his incredible journey from South Sudan to the NBA and the many stops in between. There are second-round/undrafted underdog stories of players working their way into NBA careers, and then there’s the movie-like odyssey of Reath.
As I said in an earlier post, after listening to Reath tell his unique and improbable story, it’ll change how you watch him play on the floor. It’ll also make you proud he’s representing the Trail Blazers. (Also, shoutout Matisse Thybulle for his casual moonlighting as a superb content creator).
Highlight of the Week: Jerami Grant calls glass to save the day in Houston.
JERAMI GRANT BUZZER BEATER FORCES OT pic.twitter.com/8xxUUJQpaF— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 25, 2024
Quote of the Week: In the postgame locker room, Malcolm Brogdon didn’t shy away from referee criticism when discussing that fateful play against OKC.
Clearly the ref didn’t want us to have a timeout so we couldn’t get one. I get scratched in the face, I’m bleeding at the end. This one’s not on us.
Best Movie I Saw This Week (a category for me): The always dependable “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” takes the top spot this week, earning 4.5 Pinwheels out of 5. Honorable mentions go to “Dumb Money” and “Boys in the Boat.” It was a banner week for cinema at the Bergin household.