Winning isn't exactly the top organizational priority in Rip City after a truly transformational trade deadline. Nobody seems to have told Anfernee Simons, Josh Hart, Jusuf Nurkic and the re-invigorated Portland Trail Blazers, though.
Portland routed the Milwaukee Bucks 122-107 on Monday at Fiserv Forum, winning its third straight game since overhauling the roster last week. Milwaukee played without Giannis Antetokounmpo, resting his sore left ankle after testing it out in pre-game warmups.
It takes nothing away from the Blazers' victory to admit the game would've unfolded much differently had the reigning NBA Finals MVP suited up. They've been powerless to stop Antetokounmpo for years, and are even less equipped to defend him now absent the likes of Robert Covington and Larry Nance Jr.
The relentless activity, palpable hustle and renewed competitive vigor Portland played with again on Monday would've been enough to spark big-picture optimism even in a losing result.
“I've said it all along, most fanbases, in particular ours, it's not really about the names on the back of the jerseys,” Chauncey Billups said after the game. “It's about the heart and the spirit and the intensity and the effort that you put into it.”
word on the street is that y'all wanted to see this last bucket by Ant 🐜 pic.twitter.com/x6GmCk712v
— Portland Trail Blazers (@trailblazers) February 15, 2022
Simons poured in a game-high 31 points, shrugging off typically aggressive defense from Jrue Holiday en route to 50% shooting and seven triples. He paced his team with six assists, too, one of six Blazers to rack up at least four dimes. Simons has totaled 90 points, 18 threes and 19 assists compared to just seven turnovers during Portland's mini winning streak, playing perhaps his best basketball of a breakout season.
Josh Hart showed out after an impressive debut, dropping 27 points, seven rebounds, five assists and two blocks on hyper-efficient 10-of-16 shooting, putting consistent pressure on the rim in transition and the halfcourt. Jusuf Nurkic was a problem for the Bucks on the block and the offensive glass, exploiting an imminent size advantage with 23 points, 16 rebounds and four assists.
Justise Winslow proved instrumental to Portland's dangerous open-floor attack and stout team defense, staking another forceful claim for a roster spot next season. C.J. Elleby's intensity never waned on either end, and Trendon Watford played arguably his best game as a pro.
Justise Winslow said NO 🚫pic.twitter.com/Og63eXuxt5
— Blazers Nation (@BlazersNationCP) February 15, 2022
There were many stellar individual performances for the Blazers on Monday. What most continues to stick out about this cobbled-together team, though, is the budding two-way identity and overall culture that could eventually drive long-term success—and make the city of Portland quickly forget the pain of trading C.J. McCollum to rebuild on the fly.
“When you play with that type of heart, not only do you give yourselves a chance,” Billups said on Valentine's Day, “people fall in love with you.”