PORTLAND — As the Portland Trail Blazers inch closer to the finish line of the 2022-23 season shorthanded and out-skilled, there’s a silver lining for several players stepping into larger roles during the stretch run.
It’s an opportunity to make an impression ahead of an important offseason for the franchise. An audition of sorts, Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups says.
Seven players sat out Monday’s 124-90 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans at the Moda Center nursing various ailments, including starters Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic, Jerami Grant and Anfernee Simons, as well as Justise Winslow and Trendon Watford, who suffered an ankle sprain in Sunday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder and was ruled out prior to Monday’s game.
With the Blazers (32-43) currently sitting in 13th place of the Western Conference standings and five games out of 10th place to reach the NBA Play-In Tournament, it’s unclear if any of those players will return to the court in the final seven games of the season.
That leaves lots of minutes open. For players on the roster since the beginning of the season, Shaedon Sharpe, Jabari Walker, Keon Johnson, Nassir Little and Drew Eubanks, Billups is looking to see growth: Is the player making the same mistakes as several months ago? Or, is he getting better and making different ones?
“I think this is kind of like my playoffs, to be honest,” said Walker, who scored seven points in 25 minutes off the bench Monday. “Each game is a playoff for me, because I feel like all these games are important for me to learn and for all the guys to learn. My approach has picked up.”
Then, there’s the group of players Portland acquired near the trade deadline: Matisse Thybulle, Cam Reddish, Kevin Knox and Ryan Arcidiacono. The team will make decisions on all of them this offseason and determine if they’re part of the future.
“For the new guys, I’m looking for it all,” Billups said before Monday’s game. “Obviously right now, most all of these guys are playing roles that they wouldn’t have if we were healthy … . But this is an audition for you to show what you can do, who you can be and more importantly, for any coach, you’re just looking for people you can count on. So this is an awesome opportunity for all of them to be able to show and grow.”
The challenging part for fans in the meantime is, it isn’t translating to winning basketball.
The Blazers’ 90 points Monday was their second lowest scoring output of the season. They’ve lost nine of their last 10 games. The Pelicans, led by 29 points from Brandon Ingram and 17 points from ex-Blazer CJ McCollum, jumped out to a 34-14 advantage through the first quarter and led by as many as 36 points.
Johnson paced the Blazers with 20 points and Knox chipped in 15 points off the bench. Eubanks and Sharpe each finished with 12 points.
Sharpe, who scored a career-high 29 points in Sunday’s loss to the Thunder, went scoreless in the first half and, at times, struggled on both ends of the floor. He and Billups had frequent conversations from the sideline, and at one point, was seen taking instructions from Lillard on the bench during a timeout.
According to Billups, Monday’s game should serve as a learning moment for the No. 7 overall pick in last year’s NBA Draft.
“I’m pretty sure that was the first time he’s probably felt that way in his life,” Billups said. “Struggled on both sides of the ball like that, but it’s a part of it, man. … He understands and knows that when you become a real, real player, we’ll depending on you to do it every night. Every single night.
“This was good. I’m pretty sure he’ll remember this game for a long, long time.”
Three of Portland’s final seven games are at home. The Sacramento Kings will play a two-game series against the Blazers on Wednesday and Friday. Then, following a four-game, six-day road trip, the Blazers will face the Golden State Warriors in their regular season finale April 9.
“I think they all kind of understand the moment that they have right now in front of them,” Billups said. “Most of these guys that are out there right now, they weren’t planning on being out there this time of year. … So, they’re grateful for the opportunity and I feel like they’re doing a pretty good job with it.”
- As a result of Monday’s loss, the Blazers slid into a tie with the Orlando Magic for the fifth-worst NBA record. For NBA Draft Lottery purposes, that position has a 10.5 percent chance of landing the No. 1 pick. Last season, the Blazers finished with the sixth-worst record and had a nine percent to get the top pick. The team ultimately picked seventh, where they selected Sharpe.
- Adding to the Blazers’ injury woes, Reddish was listed as probable for Monday’s game with lumbar soreness and ultimately played 26 minutes, scoring 11 points. But, he exited the game in the second half and was ruled out for the remainder due to the same injury, according to the Blazers’ PR department. Reddish, along with Watford, are listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game.
- The Kings missed out on a chance to clinch their first playoff appearance since 2006 in Monday’s 119-115 home loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. They can secure a playoff bid as early as Tuesday if the Warriors fall to the Pelicans. If not, the Kings can clinch with a win at Portland on Wednesday.