Like many great ideas throughout history, the lineup that got the Trail Blazers across the finish line in their opener against the Kings was built around a few drinks.
On the eve of boot camp, Damian Lillard, Josh Hart, Justise Winslow and Jerami Grant gathered at the Ritz-Carlton Bacara in Santa Barbara, a sprawling and stunningly beautiful property overlooking the Pacific Ocean, to learn how to know each other better. over a few glasses of wine.
At some point, as is often the case when vino is flowing freely, the conversation turned to speculation. Specifically, how Portland’s new roster construction could allow for interesting lineups, including “small ball” opportunities that have grown in popularity in an increasingly positionless NBA.
But as with many bull sessions, the ideas discussed, intriguing as they were, really didn’t amount to much, at least not initially.
“I remember it was the night in Santa Barbara before the first practice,” Winslow recalled. “It was me, Josh, Jerami and Dame, sitting around, drinking wine, just talking about the season and that’s one of the things we brought up. We were like ‘Man, I can’t wait to see it ‘ and we thought maybe the first practice coach could do it. But I think we did it once but it didn’t last long, it was a little drill or something that.
However, the vine was planted. And in the fourth quarter of Portland’s 115-108 win, it paid off.
After trailing up to 10 in the third, Portland managed to enter the fourth tied 84-84 thanks in large part to the play of Hart (12 points, two assists) and Grant (nine points, three rebounds). The teams took turns to hold small leads throughout the first seven minutes of the fourth, so when De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis combined to score five straight to give the Kings a 104-99 advantage with a With just under five minutes left and the home crowd behind them, it looked like Sacramento was poised to beat Portland in their season opener for the second season in a row.
But Grant was inserted into the game about a minute before, joining the same peers he imbibed with in Santa Barbara, along with Anfernee Simons, to form a closing lineup in which no player was taller than 6- 8. The idea germinated while enjoying the cool breeze off the coast and the fermented grape juice came to fruition.
“I thought they were hurting us a lot with their pick and roll thing, chasing our big guys even though I thought Drew (Eubanks) had some amazing plays for us on the rim,” the coach said. Trail Blazers Chauncey Billups. “We weren’t able to create any advantages, offensively or defensively, so I thought being small would give us a chance.”
More than a chance, it probably gave Portland the victory. The Trail Blazers held the Kings to 1 of 8 shots, beating the home side 16-4 in the final four and a half minutes. They forced three turnovers, including a charge taken by Grant on Fox with Portland in one with just over a minute left, and went 7 of 7 from the free throw line, with two of them and one by Grant and Cerf.
“This little roster is good for us because we have guys who are versatile defenders, guys who can rebound, guys who can score the ball,” said Hart, who finished with 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting. , seven rebounds. , five assists and a steal in 38 minutes. “It’s definitely something we’re going to do more and more of and it was good to roll it out and get a win.”
But the stats the Kings missed in the final four and a half minutes were just as important as the Blazers, and much of that credit goes to Winslow, who thwarted Sabonis in the fourth. Despite giving up five inches and 20 pounds, Winslow held the former Trail Blazer’s son to just two points before committing a foul with 22 seconds left.
“We knew we were scaring the guys away, we wanted to take away the opportunities, those DHOs and go behind the three shots,” Lillard said. “But I’ve also seen Justise go up against big guys. When it’s a one-on-one game, he’s a strong guy. You saw him in training camp, sometimes he was there and Nurk would come down to him and he was holding on. Since he’s strong, he’s a better athlete than you might expect and he just understands how to defend.
“That’s exactly what I do, I’m proud of my defense, of course,” said Winslow, who finished with 11 points, eight rebounds and a steal while posting a game-high +21 in 26 minutes. “One to five, whoever it is, I go out and do my job. Tonight was Sabonis and I was able to do it and help the team.
How often Billups chooses to unclog small lineups, particularly late in games, will depend on a number of factors, primarily opposition personnel and the ability of his guards to defend themselves on the boards. But after a tantalizing first taste in Sacramento, the range crafted by sipping varietals seems to have time to breathe rather than be put back in the cellar.
“Everyone contributed, top to bottom,” Winslow said. “I think that small ball formation was really effective, we’ll probably see more of that down the stretch.”