Let’s talk about these Portland Trail Blazers

In an NBA season that spans 82 games in six months, it’s always wise to take early results with a grain of salt — to react to what you see but don’t overreact what all this could mean in the grand scheme of things. After a month, however, those little rehearsals are getting bigger… and as we near the quarter pole of the 2022-23 season, it doesn’t seem like much of an overreaction to think the Portland Trail Blazers just might be real.

Portland goes into Thursday’s matchup with Kevin Durant and the perpetually headline-grabbing Brooklyn Nets leading the Western Conference 10-4 with two wins over the Suns, who already have under their belt, and quality wins over the playoff Hopes Denver, Miami and New Orleans. And while one reason for the Blazers’ rise was the return of Damian Lillard after an injury-plagued 2021-22 season, head coach Chauncey Billups and co. stayed afloat despite Dame already missing a handful of games with a calf strain, almost even playing along the All-NBA flamethrower from the floor – a dramatic Farewell to the last half decade of Blazers basketball.

Let’s take a look at two factors that contributed to Portland’s preseason success, starting with a new signing that was just what the doctor ordered.

Jerami Grant gives Portland a three-headed monster

Only two NBA teams can boast three players scoring at least 20 points per game: the 76ers, led by MVP candidate Joel Embiid, former MVP James Harden and rising guard Tyrese Maxey… and your struggling Trail Blazers.

Lillard looked no worse after his 2021-22 loss, averaging 27.9 points and 6.6 assists per game while shooting 55% with 2-pointers, 38% from the arc and 86% from the free throw line. Considering the sheer volume of shots he’s putting on his feet – nearly 10 three-pointers and nine free throws a night – that efficiency has propelled Dame squarely into the ranks of the league’s most dangerous offensive engines. He ranks in the NBA’s top 10 offense on a number of advanced metrics, including Box Plus-Minus, Estimated Plus-Minus, and FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR, among others.

With Lillard on the floor, the Blazers have scored 118.2 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, which equates to the NBA’s No. 2 offense, according to Cleaning the Glass. However, he did not have to shoulder the burden alone. Anfernee Simons’ attempt at writing an encore for the groundbreaking fourth season, which landed him a $100 million contract, got off to a rocky start, but even with his low shot counts, he still averages 22.3 points and 3 .9 assists per game alongside Lillard. And more importantly, there is at last a wing capable of relieving the Blazers’ bombastic backcourt.

Imported this summer at the expense of a top-4 protected first-round pick in 2025, 28-year-old Grant is playing arguably the best basketball of his career. He’s averaging 21.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game while shooting cover off the ball — 49.3% from distance on 5.5 attempts per game — and nestles comfortably in the sweet Spot between the smaller role he once resisted and the star status he sought.

It raised more than a few eyebrows when Grant left a Nuggets team fresh from a Western Conference Finals run for a three-year, $60 million deal to rebuild Pistons, especially given reports that the Nuggets were ready to double the money Detroit bid. There were a few factors that went into Grant’s decision, but one of them seemed to be an interest in pushing the boundaries of his game and exploring how good he could be in a leading role; No little kid imagines settling into life as a low-use 3-and-D grand piano, you know?

After spending two seasons in Detroit doing things he wouldn’t necessarily have gotten around to discovering Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. in plays meant for him to shoot, off the screen to run, operate in selection — and-roll, call his own number in isolation, etc. — without much team success, Grant comes to Portland with a deeper and more refined set of tools, more confident in his ability to use them and An understanding that his best chances of winning big aren’t by being a no. 1 option overbid. It is as an overqualified third option who can Also Make life difficult for the opponent’s best offensive weapons.

There aren’t many guys who are 6ft 8 tall and have a wingspan of 7ft 3 that trainers would trust to cover opposing point guards. most of them seem to end up in Toronto. Portland now have one, however, and Billups took advantage of it, pitting Grant against the primary ball handlers so Lillard and Simons could take on less strenuous opponents. The beauty of Grant, however, is that his size and skills give Billups the flexibility to slide him into whatever matchup seems most threatening. The list of Grant’s most defensive plays reads like an All-NBA poll.

Lightning-fast initiators like Ja Morant and De’Aaron Fox, big wings like LeBron James, Luka Doncic and Jimmy Butler, maulers like Bam Adebayo, Anthony Davis and Zion Williamson – Grant saw time with all of them. Most of the time, he’s held his ground — a big reason why a Blazers team that’s ranked 27th or worse in defensive efficiency in each of the last three seasons is now ranked eighth in terms of possession per ball allowed points.

“He allows us to do some things defensively that I think every team in the league would love to have the opportunity to do,” Billups recently told The Athletic’s Jason Quick.

Including uncorking a change that can throw opposing offenses off balance when Portland needs it most.

Portland Trail Blazers forward Jerami Grant reacts after scoring a 3-point basket against the San Antonio Spurs in the first half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Oregon Tuesday, November 15, 2022.  (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)

Portland Trail Blazers forward Jerami Grant shoots 49.3% from 3-point range. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)

living in the zone

According to Second Spectrum tracking, the Blazers have played more times this season than any other team except Heat, with Billups picking it just under 13.5 times per game. The frequency isn’t exactly a surprise — they actually led the league in zone possession last season — but the success they’ve seen is.

As with nearly every other coverage Billups attempted during a rocky rookie season, Portland’s zone slashed last season and conceded 1,171 points per possession — ranked 22nd out of 26 teams to have at least one possession per game. This season, however, the Blazers have only allowed .930 points per zone possession despite getting into the game even more – second out of 18 teams go to the zone at least once a night.

After just messing around with the zone early in the season – falling in here from free throws and jumping in there as a change of pace on possession – Billups are showing a greater willingness to lean on it. The Blazers went in the zone for almost a full half against the Pelicans last Thursday to make it difficult for Williamson and co. to enjoy the indoors and dared a team that’s up at 3-point attempts a game Place 29 lies, shoot it out. New Orleans scored just 38 points after the break, and the Blazers rushed back for a big win away.

Billups also returned against the Spurs Tuesday in the fourth quarter, trying to smother a San Antonio attack that had hit Portland inside. It worked once again: The Spurs had as many turnovers as shots (two) in the final four minutes, allowing Portland to rip off a 13-4 run and walk away with the win.

“I think in the past we’ve said, ‘OK, someone has to make it work [offensively]’ Lillard said after Tuesday’s win, according to The Rose Garden Report’s Sean Highkin. “But the energy in our team now feels like we need to make a few stops. We need to stop them and get some rebounds.’ That is the difference.”

After finishing 25th in total rebound percentage last season, Portland has moved up to 10th this year. Some of that involves health: The Blazers cleared the defensive glass with the best odds in the league when center Jusuf Nurkic was on the court last season and the worst odds in the league when he wasn’t, leaving him 26th Missing games that really hurt. Some of it features swingman Josh Hart playing one hell by much more than 6-5, and who ranks only behind Doncic among NBA guards in rebounds per game (8.6) and fifth among guards in defensive rebound rate.

Much of that, however, stems from a team-wide commitment to crashing the boards, with six Blazers averaging between three and five rebounds per game — which goes back to why the Zone seems to be performing much better this season as well. With Grant and amazingly ready-to-play rookie Shaedon Sharpe joining Hart, Nassir Little, Justise Winslow, Trendon Watford and Keon Johnson, Portland just nailed it path more and much better wings.

If you’re always playing little guys at the top of the zone, attacks will just flash a cutter down the middle, go over the top and start working the body. However, field big, aggressive and good defenders – like when Erik Spoelstra started pounding Butler, Andre Iguodala and Derrick Jones Jr. on opponents – those entry passes get harder to complete, clean looks get harder, and the shooters start second – guessing rather than firing in rhythm. Keep the ball on the edge, finish hard and force opponents to switch to Plan B, and you can win a few more possessions than if you played straight – which is when margins are as slim as in the NBA can make the difference between victory and defeat.

Between boosting the zone and showing increased comfort when going small — Portland has played 108 minutes without centers Nurkic or Drew Eubanks on the court, according to PBP stats, and those lineups have opponents scored a microscopic 95.4 Limited per 100 possessions (although much of that stems from the opponent’s shaky 3-point shooting) – Billups lets the Blazers play a more varied, adaptive style of defense. And the more opportunities you have to get stops, the harder it is to play against you.

“In this league, if you look too much at someone with the same looks, they’re going to pick you apart,” Lillard recently told reporters. “I think that was something that was in our favor. We went small, we zoned, we picked up full court, we were in the full court zone, we got trapped… we messed it up so much it was unpredictable.

This unpredictability goes a long way in explaining something else nobody Predicted a month ago: The Blazers sit at the top of the Western Conference.

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