Justise Winslow had a feeling early in Friday night’s game at the Phoenix Suns that the Portland Trail Blazers had something cooking.
With 5:58 remaining in the first quarter and the Blazers down 17-11, coach Chauncey Billups substituted Keon Johnson in 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’ve got a real shot to win this game.”
“Yeah, I know,” Lillard responded.
That both felt such confidence with Lillard in street clothes sitting next to Anfernee Simons, also in street clothes, and Portland trailing one of the best teams in the NBA on its home court might have seemed foolhardy to most.
But saying you have a shot is one thing. Proving it is another. And the fact that the Blazers ultimately won 108-106 on a buzzer-beater from Jerami Grant speaks volumes about this team from top to bottom.
The Blazers (6-2) locked down 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 were tenacious. Physical. Relentless. Offensively, they managed to create enough offense to largely make up for the 53 points per game supplied by Simons and Lillard.
In the end, while most of the 17,071 in attendance at the Footprint Center were left shocked, the Blazers felt like they had simply executed their game plan well enough to win, which is what they expected.
And that is the product, said several players, of a team that is working in unison and has discovered that connectivity that their coach has pushed for since training camp began.
“I’ve been trying to build a culture here of competitiveness and toughness and playing together,” Billups said. “And it doesn’t matter who plays in the game at that time, we have to play that way. And when you play that way, you give yourself an opportunity to win. Sometimes you won’t win. But you can live and die with playing that way. I’ve been proud of us for trying to do that every single night.”
The key to the evening started with Winslow, a 6-foot-6 forward who has a legitimate point guard feel.
He finished the game with 12 points, nine rebounds and nine assists and also led the way for the Blazers’ physical defense that absolutely disrupted the Suns (6-2).
“There’s a calmness that he gives the team when he has the ball in his hands,” Billups said. “He knows the plays from every position. We obviously put him on these tough matchups. But you just 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 because of foot inflammation was simply to go out and figure it out well enough to get the win.
And he felt prepared to do so. Billups, Winslow said, had been easing him into point guard duties since training camp. Having Billups, a former NBA championship point guard, coach him up made Winslow feel prepared for the challenge.
“He believes in me,” Winslow said. “I think that’s crucial for my success.”
With Winslow running the show, the Blazers shot 50.9% from the field and 43.5% on threes while producing 30 assists. The Blazers entered the game averaging 21.9 assists per game.
“I’m a guy that, I just try to make my teammates better,” Winslow said. “If there is an open guy, I’m going to make the right basketball play.”
Others made up for the scoring lost to injuries. 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 so efficiently, thanks in large part to strong ball movement.
“When you’re missing guys like Dame and Ant, you become less predictable,” Billups said. “You never know where the ball is going and it’s tough to guard that.”
It’s also tough to defend a team loaded with offensive weapons and led by one of the all-time great court orchestrators, Chris Paul.
The Blazers didn’t exactly shut down the Suns, but they did prove disruptive enough to slow them down. The Suns average 118.3 points per game. Part of holding them 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 up a lot of stuff 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 told our guys before the game, ‘Just go hoop. Have fun. Play together. Be physical. We will live with the results.’”
It was just one night. It’s difficult to believe this Blazers lineup would win a series against the Suns. However, the fact that they didn’t blink when faced with such an obstacle and played with such confidence against a true NBA contender cannot be underplayed.
“We believe in each other,” center Jusuf Nurkic said. “We have confident players. We believe no matter who is on the floor, we can compete. And that’s what we did tonight.”
— Aaron Fentress | afentress@Oregonian.com | @AaronJFentress (Twitter), @AaronJFentress (Instagram), @AaronFentress (Facebook).
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