Not everyone is exhausted
Three high-energy wins for the post-star Blazers
David Thorpe watches a ton of NBA games, and lately he has been noticing players who look exhausted—making the kinds of mental errors that they just wouldn’t make when well rested. Later this week for subscribers: small tweaks to the league that would get more out of the league’s best young players.
BY HENRY ABBOTT
One of the Blazers’ expected starters this season—and their only All-Star, Damian Lillard—is recovering from abdominal surgery. CJ McCollum, Norman Powell, and Robert Covington were just traded, in moves that were seen as an effort to save money and improve the team’s position in the draft lottery—in other words, to lose.
And yet the Blazers, or what’s left of them, just beat LeBron’s Lakers, Julius Randle’s Knicks, and the defending champion Bucks.
One interpretation: the franchise is so bad, they can’t even get tanking right.
Another: beautiful things are happening. Fielding a team of hungry non-stars, first-year coach Chauncey Billups finally has a roster to execute the style he talked about from his first press conference last summer, with scrappy all-out defensive effort and quick ball movement. Compared to December, the team’s pace, defensive rating, and assist percentage are vastly improved. For years they have been one of the NBA’s worst passing teams. Over the last three games, they’re among the best. Players, and the ball, are moving.
“I love it, I love it,” Billups said after Monday’s win over the Bucks, who were missing Giannis Antetokounmpo. “It’s about the heart and the spirit and the effort. The intensity that you put into it. Our team is just playing so hard. We’re all over the place. We’re diving around. We’re ripping and running. When you play with that type of intensity, not only do you give yourself a chance, but people fall in love with you. … I love those type of dudes.”
Eric Oswald🦬 @EricOswald1@CHold When is the last time that happened?
Lillard and McCollum are wonderful players who did not help the team achieve Billups’ goals around defensive effort and ball movement. Their absence may not make the team better all in all, but it does wonders to let Billups define the team’s identity. He notes that he and his coaching staff have been talking about effort and ball movement “all year.”
Now he has players attuned to his vision. Stakes are high for the entire roster. Josh Hart’s next-year contract only has a small guarantee. Nurkic will be a free agent. No one knows if Anfernee Simons, the star of this version of the Blazers, will lead this team next year or if Lillard will return. Justise Winslow—like everyone else on the team—is fighting for his NBA life.
One last reason: every Blazer interviewed post-game used the word “energy.” By mid-February, almost every NBA starter is notably slowed by the league’s grind. Several of the Knicks who lost to the Blazers are among the league leaders in minutes played. Meanwhile, today’s Blazers don’t have a single player in the top 50 in total minutes played. Jusuf Nurkic is 63rd in the NBA this season. Anfernee Simons is 68th. Josh Hart is the only other current Blazer in the NBA’s top 100. CJ Elleby, Trendon Watford, Greg Brown, and Elijah Hughes all rank 300 or below.
Many years ago the Spurs determined that fresh bench players could often outplay tired superstars. G-League players might not win you a championship, but they can hold down a second quarter in mid-February. There are losses to be had by playing tired and banged up—this is exactly why the Blazers lucked into the Bucks without Giannis. There are also wins to be had by developing a bench you trust, especially this time of year.
There might be some NBA players who simply don’t want to do physically taxing things like race back on defense, play help defense to protect the rim, or drive and kick. But mostly the players who aren’t doing that much now have simply done too much already, for too many months in a row, with too little recovery, and have nothing left in the tank.
Jordan Nwora is 6-8 and 23 years old, and thought he might pack it against a 6-6 defender who was out of place and recently starred in a YouTube video about how he failed in the NBA. But Justise Winslow has only played 634 minutes this season. His springs work.
“That block,” Simons said after the game, “was crazy. We were just talking about it in the locker room.”
“Man it was incredible. Incredible play, incredible play,” said Billups. “I didn’t even know he was there to make the block. But goodness that was a beautiful, beautiful play. I thought we got so much energy because of that.”
The Grizzlies are on the schedule tonight. Ja Morant is sitting out with a sore ankle. A lot of players are beat up this time of year.
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