There are a few breakout teams this season that have really amazed me. These are teams that, on the surface, are not amazing, but when you realize the type of basketball that they’re playing, it’s impossible not to appreciate them.
One of those teams is the Portland Trailblazers.
On Thursday night, the Blazers beat the San Antonio Spurs—yes, the team with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. That game taught me a couple of key things that helped me realize why Portland has been so successful.
First, rookie point guard Damian Lillard isn’t afraid. At the end of the first half, he was standing and dribbling with Parker defending him, watching the clock tick down. With a couple of seconds remaining, Lillard pulled up just inside the three-point line and swished a jumper. He has the poise of a veteran, of someone who has played in the league for a lot longer than month and a half.
Even Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich had kind words to share (h/t The Oregonian).
I think he's a wonderful player. His skills are obvious, but I like his demeanor as much as I like his skills. He really plays within himself, and that doesn't mean he doesn't play hard. He's aggressive, he's not afraid of contact. ... He can shoot it, and he can drive it, and I think he works hard on D.
He can definitely do all of that. For the night, Lillard had 29 points on 11-of-22 shooting, seven rebounds and six assists, an impressive stat line for a rookie point guard going up against one of the best defensive teams in the league.
It was also evident that the Trailblazers trusted each other. A perfect example was was at the midway point of the second quarter when Lillard drove hard to the basket and, at the last second, passed the ball to Nicolas Batum, who was standing in the corner. Typically, you would expect a player to take that shot. But it wasn’t the perfect, open shot, so Batum made the extra pass to Luke Babbitt, who shot an uncontested three-pointer.
That type of ball movement can make any team lethal. The ball always moves faster than legs, so if teammates really trust one another, they are capable of making shots. This is why the New York Knicks are winning and, perhaps, why the Los Angeles Lakers are losing.
Are these Blazers a championship-caliber team? Of course not. They’re still young, their defense is not all there yet, and they rely a little too much on the three-point shot (26 percent of their shots were from downtown last night).
However, what this victory does show is that the Trailblazers aren’t going to back down from a game, even against one of the best teams in the NBA. And that’s what makes me a believer in their future. This unit, as they continue to grow and develop together over the coming years, will do some great things.
With Lillard—a rookie player who thinks like a veteran—leading the way, I am confident about that.
Jacob is a fan of the NBA and more importantly, appreciates high-quality basketball like what Lillard and the Blazers are doing. He is co-founder of Curave, a morning newsletter containing the best NBA writing from around the web.