After a sobering 117-122 loss to the Dallas Mavericks last night, the Portland Trail Blazers are still happy to go home with a 4-2 record (9-4 overall) after a six-game road trip.
“I thought it was an overall great journey going up 4-2 against all these really good teams on the road,” head coach Chauncey Billups said after the Dallas loss. “It was fantastic. I thought we built a lot of character on this journey and I’m proud of our boys.”
Billups called the glove a “beast of a journey”. The six-game, nine-night journey that began Nov. 4 included a grueling five-game string against scheduled playoff teams, including a back-to-back with the red-hot Phoenix Suns, a showdown with the Portland’s Miami Heat blown out earlier this season, battling perfectly healthy teams from New Orleans and Dallas.
To complicate the strain, Portland struggled with injuries throughout the six games. Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons missed the first two games, Lillard also missed the fifth. On the apron, Jerami Grant and Justise Winslow missed a game each, while Nurkic sat out the last three.
Still, Portland drew on its newfound depth and found ways to piece together wins.
In game one against Phoenix, it was Grant who hit his second game winner of the season to secure a 108-106 win. After dropping the second of the back-to-back, the hero of Game Three was Josh Hart, who nailed a triple buzzer out of the corner to finish the heat 110-107. Then Lillard forced Portland to a win over pedestrian Charlotte by 26 points and an all-team effort that defeated New Orleans 106-95. In three of those four wins, Portland trailed by double digits before bouncing back.
“We’ve had a lot of opportunities to go our separate ways on this trip,” Lillard said after the game against Dallas. “…The main thing I’ve learned is that it’s us [actually] together – through the good, the bad, the struggles, the ups and downs, especially over the course of a game and that’s a good sign.”
In addition to the team spirit, another important storyline of the trip was the Grant play. Many have wondered if Simons could develop into that elusive second All-Star that Portland has been looking for since LaMarcus Aldridge left — and he still could — but Grant has thrown his hat in the ring. The ninth-year pro averaged 26.2 points on 54.8 percent shooting in five games on the trip, including that dominating buzzer-beater and a season-high 37 points last night in Dallas.
After Portland’s second game of the season (a 113-111 overtime win over Phoenix), Nurkic told reporters Grant needed to be more aggressive. Grant didn’t attempt a single field goal in the first half and only made seven shots in 40 minutes. Nurkic’s statement was not a public attack on his teammate, but a vote of confidence. Since then, Grant has attempted no fewer than 10 shots in a game. Fresh off a 20-shot game against the Pelicans, he hit a season-high 22 shots against Dallas last night. Perhaps most importantly, the great performance and assertiveness that went with Lillard and Simons on the pitch. He’s expanding his game beyond catch-and-shoot threes and post-ups — adding more dribbles and mid-range jumps — to carve out a sizeable chunk of Portland’s offensive pie chart while maintaining his efficiency. If he doesn’t find the bottom of the net, he draws fouls. It’s a versatile scoring punch that this franchise has been waiting for nearly a decade.
In the locker room after the Dallas game, Lillard described the trip as “good.” It would have been too “great” if Portland could have clinched yet another win against the Mavericks, but even with that loss, he was pleased with the way the team fought. Overall, for what he learned about his teammates and the over .500 result against top-flight opponents, Lillard was pleased.
“If you had told us that we were going 4-2 when we left Portland, of course we would have said, ‘We’ll take it.'”