Trail Blazers Getting Healthier, Rediscovering and Expanding Their Identity
Nassir Little's return and a new smallball look powered Portland to a much-needed second straight win.
PORTLAND, Ore. — Around their regular practices and shootarounds, the Trail Blazers' coaching staff routinely runs scrimmages they've taken to calling the "stay-ready" games. These games feature the end-of-bench guys, who aren't typically in Chauncey Billups' rotation—the Keon Johnsons and Greg Brown IIIs and Trendon Watfords of the roster—going up against the younger coaches who are more capable of guarding them for practice purposes.
In preparation for his return after a six-week absence due to a hip fracture, Nassir Little played in one of those games the day after Tuesday's home loss to Orlando. Damian Lillard was watching, and he saw Little playing with the kind of confidence and aggressiveness he had worked his way back into before the injury.
Lillard sent Little a text later that day telling him to play the exact same way when he returned to the lineup.
"When I came in, my first shot, Dame told me he was going to throw it to me," Little said after the Blazers' Sunday night blowout win against a Luka Doncic-less version of the Mavericks, their second win in a row to snap a five-game skid. "He was like, 'Look, I'm gonna get you a shot.' He hit me in the corner, the first one felt good, and the rest started flowing. They were all rhythm shots."
Little was on a minutes restriction coming back from the injury, and only played 16 minutes in the game. But in those 16 minutes, he looked just like he had come to look following a slow start to the season, and showed exactly why the Blazers have missed him so much in the 21 games he was sidelined. He scored 10 points, shot 3-for-5 from beyond the arc, and flew all over the court on defense. One of his two blocks came at the rim, the other on the perimeter.
Another spectacular Lillard night (40 points on 10-of-17 shooting) powered the Blazers to the win, but it was a balanced scoring effort, with three other starters—Anfernee Simons, Jerami Grant and Jusuf Nurkic—scoring 20 apiece. For the second night in a row, the team that has for much of the year been the worst in the league at taking care of the ball finished with a turnover total in the single digits. There was a bit of let-up in the third quarter to allow the Mavs' skeleton crew to claw back and take a lead, but Portland pulled away and have now won consecutive games for the first time in over a month.
The most intriguing wrinkle in Sunday's win, one that hasn't been seen at all, is the introduction of two different lineups with rookie Jabari Walker at center. Billups first tried a look with Simons, Little, Grant and Shaedon Sharpe around Walker, and then went even smaller, subbing out Simons for Lillard and Grant for Gary Payton II.
"They started attacking our fives," Billups said. "Our pick-and-roll coverage we were having to switch. They started attacking Drew [Eubanks] and Nurk, Nurk picked up a couple fouls. It was hurting us, so I said, let's take a peek at Jabari at the five. I think Jabari guards pretty well, other than just rookie fouls."
Walker, who has taken advantage of the Blazers' myriad injuries to work his way into the rotation in recent weeks, wasn't expecting it. Neither was Little, who said he initially assumed Walker was coming in for him when he checked in until Billups told him to stay out there.
"It kind of surprised me a little bit," Walker told me in the locker room after the game. "I haven't played the five before, but I get the concepts. It's more screening, and it allowed us to switch one through five, where they couldn't exploit anything. I picked up a couple fouls, but I started playing with my hands back and sliding my feet with the guards. If certain guys are in foul trouble, being able to guard without missing a beat and adding a different look. Not allowing them to exploit a mismatch makes it a lot harder. It makes the defense a lot more solid. I'm just constantly learning ways to stay on the floor. Once the shot knocks down, it allows me to space the floor even more."
These are the kinds of wrinkles the Blazers will be able to add now that they're getting their horses back. They haven't been this healthy all year, with only Justise Winslow on the shelf with an ankle sprain. There are going to be more growing pains as newly healthy players like Payton and Little are re-integrated, but it's better to be able to try these things out in a win than a loss, and now, for the first time in a while, they've strung a couple of those together.
"The way we're playing with each other on both sides of the ball centers us, more than anything," Billups said. "Being able to get away from teams and sit our guys, we've been playing our starters a lot of minutes in this stretch. But now we're getting a lot healthier. We don't have to lean on them as much. Getting healthier helps."
What We Saw
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