Let’s talk about these Portland Trail Blazers

In an NBA season where 82 games are packed into six months, it’s always wise to take early results with a grain of salt – react to what you see, but not necessarily. overreact with what it all might mean in the grand scheme of things. With one month down, though, those small examples are adding up … and as we approach the fourth leg of the 2022-23 campaign, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to think that the Trail Blazers might just your real

Portland enters Thursday’s game with Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets leading the Western Conference at 10-4, with a pair of wins over the Suns already under their belt to go with quality wins over hopefuls Denver, Miami and New Orleans . And while one reason for the Blazers’ surge in the standings is Damian Lillard after an injury-plagued 2021-22 season, head coach Chauncey Billups and Co. the All-NBA flame off the floor — a dramatic departure from the last half century of Blazers basketball.

Let’s look at two factors that have contributed to Portland’s early season success, starting with new arrivals that are exactly what was ordered.

Jerami Grant gives Portland a monster three

Only two NBA teams can boast three players : the 76ers, led by MVP candidate Joel Embiid, former MVP James Harden and senior guard Tyrese Maxey … and your fightin’ Trail Blazers.

Lillard looked no worse for wear after missing 2021-22, averaging 27.9 points and 6.6 assists per game while shooting 55 percent on two-pointers, 38 percent from beyond the arc, and 86 percent from the free throw line. Considering the sheer number of shots he’s taking – almost 10 3-pointers and nine free throws per night – that efficiency has vaulted the Dames back into the most dangerous offensive engines in the league; he is in the top 10 in the NBA in the offensive end of a series of advanced metrics, including , , and .

With Lillard on the floor, the Blazers have scored 118.2 points per 100 non-trash possessions, according to , equal to the . He did not have to shoulder the burden alone, however. Anfernee Simons’ effort to write an encore for the breakout season earned him the lead, but even with his shooting numbers down, he’s still averaging 22.3 points and 3.9 assists per game next to Lillard. . And, more importantly, yes at the end a wing capable of easing the burden on the Blazers’ bombastic backcourt.

Imported this summer at a cost, the 28-year-old Grant is playing arguably the best basketball of his life. He is averaging 21.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game while shooting the coverage off the ball – 49.3 percent from distance on 5.5 attempts per game – and nestled comfortably into the sweet spot between the He once bristled at a smaller role and the star status he sought.

It raised more than a few eyebrows when Grant left a Nuggets team fresh out of the Western Conference finals to rebuild a three-year, $60 million deal with the Pistons, especially in light of reports that the Nuggets were willing to -money that Detroit was offering to match. . There were a number of factors that went into Grant’s decision, but one seemed to be an interest in expanding the boundaries of his game and exploring how good he could be in a featured role; no little kid imagines himself settling into life as a lowly 3-and-D wingman, you know?

After spending two seasons in Detroit doing the kind of things he shouldn’t have to look up around Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. — running off screens in plays he was supposed to shoot, performing in the pick-and-roll, calling his own number alone, 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 understanding that he doesn’t have the best chance to win big as the No. 1 pick. 1 overtaxed. He is an overqualified third choice who can too make life tough on the offensive weapons of the opponents.

There aren’t many dudes who are 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that coaches would trust to guard other point guards; most of them seem to have wound up in Toronto. Portland now has one, though, and Billups has taken advantage of it, matching Grant up against primary ball-handlers to allow Lillard and Simons to face less combat tax. The beauty of Grant, though, is that Billups’ size and skill set give him the flexibility to slide him into whichever threat is the most; The list of Grants reads like an All-NBA ballot.

Lightning-quick scorers 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 has seen time with them all. More often than not, he has his own — one big reason why a Blazers team that finished 27th or worse in defensive efficiency is now eighth in points allowed per possession.

“He allows us to do some things defensively that I think any team in the league would love to have the option of,” Billups .

Including uncorking a shift that could keep opposing offenses off balance when Portland needs it most.

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

Living in the zone

The Blazers have played zone defense more often than any team besides the Heat this season, according to Second Spectrum tracking, with Billups dialing it up just under 13.5 times per game. The frequency isn’t necessarily surprising – they led the league in zone possessions last season – but the success they’ve found is.

As with nearly every other coverage Billups tried during a rocky rookie season, Portland’s zone gashed last season, surrendering 1.171 points per possession — 22nd out of 26 teams that zoned at least one possession per the game. This season, however, despite getting to it even more often, the Blazers have allowed just 0.930 points per zone – second out of 18 teams to go into zone at least once a night.

After starting the season just dabbling with the zone — dropping into it after free throws here, springing it as a change-of-pace on an out-of-bounds possession there — Billups has begun to show a greater willingness to follow through. he said. The Blazers went in the zone for almost the entire half against the Pelicans last Thursday, trying to make it more difficult for Zion Williamson and Co. feasting inside and scaring staff in the class to let them out. New Orleans scored just 38 points after intermission, and the Blazers came back to win big on the road.

Billups went back to it in the fourth quarter against the Spurs on Tuesday, too, trying to stifle a San Antonio attack that was gashing Portland inside. Once again, it worked: The Spurs had as many turnovers as shots (two) in the final four minutes, enabling Portland to go on a 13-4 run and win.

“I think in the past, we would have been like, ‘Okay, somebody has to promote it [offensively],'” Lillard said after Tuesday’s win, according to . “But the energy on our team now, it feels like, ‘We have to get some stops. We have to stop them and get some rebounds.’ That’s the difference.”

After finishing in the overall rebounding percentage last season, Portland is all the way up this year. Part of that has to do with health: the Blazers cleared the defensive glass at league-best rates when center Jusuf Nurkic was on the court last season, and at league-worst rates when he wasn’t, and so it didn’t really hurt 26 games. Part of that has to do with swingman Josh Hart, who plays a hell well over 6-foot-5, and ranks second among NBA guards behind only Luka Doncic in (8.6) and fifth among guards in .

Much of it, however, stems from a team-wide commitment to hitting the boards, with six Blazers averaging between three and five rebounds per game – which goes back to why the area looks like to work much better this season, too. . With Grant and rookie ready-to-play right away Shaedon Sharpe joining Hart, Nassir Little, Justise Winslow, Trendon Watford and Keon Johnson, Portland is way more, and in a better way, alas.

When you’re always playing small guys at the top of the zone, offenses will just flash a cutter into the middle, pass over the top and start working the body. Put some big, aggressive, good defenders up there, though — like when Erik Spoelstra started draining Butler, Andre Iguodala and Derrick Jones Jr. on their opponent – those entry passes become harder to complete, clean looks become harder to come by, and shooters start second. – guess instead of running in rhythm. Keep the ball on the perimeter, close out hard, and force your opponent to go to Plan B, and you can win a few more possessions than you could playing straight up – which, when the edges as thin as they are in the NBA, can be the difference between winning and losing.

Between cranking up the zone and showing increased comfort with going small – Portland has played 108 minutes without substitutes Nurkic or Drew Eubanks on the court, according to , and the lineups are limiting opponents to a microscopic 95.4 points per 100 possessions (although a lot of that goes back to ) — Billups has a more varied and adaptable defensive style. And the more ways you can get stops, the harder you’re going to play against them.

“In this league, if you give someone too much of the same look, they’re going to pick you apart,” Lillard. “I think that was something that went in our favor. We’ve gone small, we’ve played in the zone, we’ve been picked up full court, we’ve been in the full court zone, we’ve been caught … we’ve mixed it up so much it’s been unpredictable.”

That unpredictability goes a long way toward helping something else explain that anybody which was predicted a month ago: the Blazers sitting on top of the Western Conference.

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