Justise Winslow had a feeling early in Friday night’s game against the Phoenix Suns that the Portland Trail Blazers had something in the works.
With 5:58 remaining in the first quarter and the Blazers trailing 17-11, coach Chauncey Billups replaced Keon Johnson for Winslow, who had started the game at point guard.
As he walked to the Blazers bench, Winslow looked at Damian Lillard, whose position Winslow was playing, and said: “We have a real chance of winning this game.
“Yeah, I know,” Lillard replied.
That the two felt such confidence with Lillard in street clothes sitting next to Anfernee Simons, also in street clothes, and Portland trailing one of the NBA’s top teams on their home court might have seem reckless to most.
But to say you have a chance is one thing. Proving it is another. And the fact that the Blazers ultimately won 108-106 on a Jerami Grant buzzer-beater says a lot about this team from top to bottom.
The Blazers (6-2) locked up one of the best offensive teams in the NBA. A team that finished last season with the best record in the NBA. And a team that had its best players all in uniform.
Defensively, the Blazers have been tenacious. Physical. Tirelessly. Offensively, they managed to create enough offense to more than offset the 53 points per game provided by Simons and Lillard.
In the end, while most of the 17,071 people in attendance at the Footprint Center were left in shock, the Blazers felt like they had simply executed their game plan well enough to win, which they expected.
And it’s the product, several players said, of a team working in unison and discovering that connectedness that their coach has been clamoring for since training camp began.
“I tried to build a culture here of being competitive and tough and playing together,” Billups said. “And it doesn’t matter who is playing in the game at that time, we have to play that way. And when you play that way, you give yourself a chance to win. Sometimes you won’t win. But you can live and die playing this way. I’m proud of us for trying to do it every night.
The key to the night started with Winslow, a 6-foot-6 forward who has legit playmaking feel.
He finished the game with 12 points, nine rebounds and nine assists and also led the way for the physical defense of the Blazers which completely disrupted the Suns (6-2).
“There’s a calm he gives the team when he has the ball in his hands,” Billups said. “He knows the games from all positions. We obviously put it on those tough matchups. But you feel safe when he has the ball in his hands.
Winslow said his reaction to Billups informing him he would start if Simons didn’t play due to foot inflammation was to simply go out and figure it out well enough to get the win.
And he felt ready to do it. Billups, Winslow said, had eased him into his point guard duties since training camp. Having Billups, a former NBA championship point guard, the coach made Winslow feel up to the challenge.
“He believes in me,” Winslow said. “I think it’s crucial for my success.”
With Winslow in charge, the Blazers shot 50.9% from the field and 43.5% from three while producing 30 assists. The Blazers entered the game averaging 21.9 assists per game.
“I’m a guy who, I just try to make my teammates better,” Winslow said. “If there’s an open guy, I’m going to play the right basketball game.”
Others made up for the score lost to injury. Jerami Grant had 30 points. Rookie Shaedon Sharpe scored 10. Nassir Little came off the bench for 12. Keon Johnson contributed 11.
And they did it effectively, thanks in large part to powerful ball movement.
“When you miss guys like Dame and Ant, you become less predictable,” Billups said. “You never know where the ball is going and it’s hard to keep it.”
It’s also tough to defend a team loaded with offensive weapons and led by one of the greatest court orchestrators of all time, Chris Paul.
The Blazers didn’t exactly stop the Suns, but they proved disruptive enough to slow them down. The Suns are averaging 118.3 points per game. Part of their staying 12 points below their average could be attributed to not having the 6-2 Lillard and 6-3 Simons in the lineup.
The Blazers were simply bigger and longer and used that to their advantage.
“It was great for our defense,” Billups said. “We were able to change a lot of things defensively throughout the game. I just felt like we were physical from the start of the game. Not only did the other team know who wasn’t playing, we knew who wasn’t playing. So I said to our guys before the game, ‘Go hoop. Enjoy. Play together. Be physical. We will live with the results.
It was just one night. It’s hard to believe this Blazers roster would win a series against the Suns. However, the fact that they didn’t blink at such an obstacle and played with such confidence against a true NBA contender cannot be understated.
“We believe in each other,” center Jusuf Nurkic said. “We have confident players. We believe that no matter who is on the field, we can compete. And that’s what we did tonight.
— Aaron Fentress | [email protected] | @AaronJFentress (Twitter), @AaronJFentress (Instagram), @AaronFentress (Facebook).
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