Shorthanded Trail Blazers Offer a Surprisingly Fun Preview of What's to Come
With only eight healthy players, the end of the Blazers' bench put up an unexpectedly competitive effort against Phoenix.
📍 PORTLAND, Ore. — Picture this.
It’s March of 2024. The trade deadline has passed, and the Trail Blazers have shipped off at least one of their veterans—most likely Malcolm Brogdon—to clear more minutes for Scoot Henderson. Jerami Grant and Deandre Ayton are coincidentally missing time with injuries. It’s sort of like what happened at the ends of the last two seasons, but with more stakes, because the players who are available to play will actually be part of the future in Portland.
If you want to know what that will look like and can’t wait six weeks to get there, Sunday night’s home loss to the Suns serves as a handy preview. And, believe it or not, it was the most fun this team has been to watch in at least a month.
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Coming off the worst road trip in franchise history, the Blazers went from hoping Ayton would be back from an 11-game absence to being as shorthanded as a team can legally be without having to forfeit. Grant and Matisse Thybulle caught a case of whatever bug has been going around since Christmas, and Brogdon was a late scratch with an adductor injury. Even two-way feel-good story Ibou Badji was out with a bruised hip.
Usually, when a head coach sits down for his pregame media availability, the first question is which of their players with questionable injury statuses are out. On Sunday, I decided to save Chauncey Billups some time and just asked which of his players would be available to play.
The answer: Henderson, Anfernee Simons, Toumani Camara, Jabari Walker, Duop Reath, Kris Murray, Rayan Rupert and Justin Minaya. That’s eight guys, the league minimum. Five rookies, three-fifths of the Rip City Remix starting lineup and only Simons as a tenured veteran.
It should be noted that the Suns had all of their important players, including Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal, available to play.
It’s not what the Blazers wanted when they desperately needed something positive after the trip from hell. It’s also likely not what the greater-than-expected number of fans that braved the elements to be at the Moda Center were envisioning.
But those that took the risk to drive in the snow to North Portland were rewarded with some legitimately promising play from guys they’ll likely be seeing a lot more of after Feb. 8.
Henderson scored a career-high 33 points. His shooting efficiency wasn’t good—11-of-31 from the field—but he hit four three-pointers and generally made good decisions with the ball. Murray and Rupert also had career highs (13 and 11, respectively) and each knocked down three three-pointers.
For most of the road trip, the Blazers were never in the games they played from the very beginning. On Sunday, they were never out of it. They led after the first quarter and cut Phoenix’s double-digit lead to four in the fourth quarter. They ended up losing by 11, which is a much more normal amount of points to lose by than, say, the Oklahoma City debacle.
“A lot of young guys got a good opportunity tonight and took full advantage of it,” Simons said. “Playing in the G League and waiting for the opportunity to come back up, and they showed it tonight. All of them have been working their ass off getting ready for the opportunity. That’s what you want to see.”
Murray, Rupert and Minaya might not have these opportunities again for a few weeks. Grant and Thybulle won’t be out long. Ayton is getting close and could be back as soon as Wednesday against the Nets. The Blazers should have clarity soon on Shaedon Sharpe’s adductor injury, which he re-aggravated in Oklahoma City.
But based on what was on display on Sunday, once the trade deadline comes and the gradual shutdown of the veterans commences, the March-April 2024 stretch could be a lot more enjoyable than it was a year ago. Those players have been playing for the Remix, enjoying real development and will have all the reason in the world to prove they belong here in the future once they become the Blazers’ everyday rotation.
That sounds more fun than what it could be. Certainly more fun than what the last month has been.