‘Gritty’ Trail Blazers find success on the road when trouble appeared inevitable

Portland Trail Blazers coach Chauncey Billups acknowledged how tough this current six-game trip appeared before his team set sail.

The Blazers were set to play four games against NBA title contenders from last season (two against Phoenix followed by Miami and Dallas), plus New Orleans, a strong playoff contender, with struggling Charlotte mixed in.

Yet, five games in, the Blazers (9-3) sit at 4-1 on this trip, with Dallas up next on Saturday.

And that’s not because the difficulty of the trip turned out to be overblown. It’s because the Blazers have risen to the occasion.

“Truth of the matter, even though we have one more game left, this is a tough trip,” Billups said. “We’ve played some really good teams on this trip. And we earned every single thing on this trip so far.”

In addition to facing tough competition, the Blazers have excelled despite starters missing a combined eight games. Damian Lillard has missed three. Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic each have missed two. Jerami Grant has missed one.

An abundance of reasons exist for the team’s success. The defense has been stellar, allowing 101 points per game. Entering Friday, the Blazers ranked fifth in defensive rating (110.3). Players also have come up big in clutch moments, producing buzzer-beater wins at the Suns and the Heat. Finally, the versatility and depth of this roster have shined.

“We just personify the word, ‘Gritty,’” Nassir Little said. “That’s something we got labeled as and we just embraced it. Every game we’re ready to fight. We’re ready to scrap it out. And I think that’s what Chauncey wants, and I think that we’ve been living up to that so far.”

The Blazers’ defense has been tough all season, but it’s gone to a different level during this trip. The Pelicans entered Thursday’s game averaging 118 points per contest, but the Blazers won 106-95 despite having Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson and CJ McCollum in the lineup.

Nassir Little

Portland Trail Blazers forward Nassir Little goes to the basket between New Orleans Pelicans guard Trey Murphy III (25) and guard CJ McCollum (3) in the second half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022. The Trail Blazers won 106-95. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) APAP

With the game on the line in the fourth quarter, the Pelicans struggled to even get good shots off. And at the rim, the Blazers dominated. Their commitment to rotating properly, helping and contesting shots has led to the formation of an extremely disruptive group.

And none of it is by accident.

“We had a really, really, really, really tough, intense and focused training camp,” Little said. “Guys came early before they had to and we just locked in. We had guys in the gym for months before the season started and we all just had one goal. And I think we did a good job of being connected and we truly want to see each other succeed, and I think that’s why we’re having the success that we’re having.”

The defense has helped create winning opportunities on nights when the Blazers are missing some firepower or simply aren’t shooting well.

The Blazers have found themselves trailing by double digits on occasion. The Pelicans led by 10, the Hornets by 12 and the Heat by 15. The Blazers responded by simply cranking up the defensive intensity, which also helped generate transition points, and worked their way back into it before winning.

“When we get down, we never feel like we’re out,” Justise Winslow said. “We always feel like we’re going to win the game. That kind of belief and just confidence in yourself and your team as a whole, that goes a long way.”

Portland Trail Blazers v Charlotte Hornets

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – NOVEMBER 09: Head coach Chauncey Billups of the Portland Trail Blazers looks on in the first quarter against the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center on November 09, 2022 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)Getty Images

The Blazers were without both Lillard and Simons for both games at Phoenix. Nurkic and Grant missed the win at Charlotte. Lillard, Nurkic and Shaedon Sharpe sat out against the Pelicans.

But no matter what lineup Billups threw out on the court, the Blazers looked the same on defense, and managed to find enough offense to win all but the second game at the Suns.

“We’ve got depth,” Simons said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who know their roles. And even if they are not in the rotation, they are stepping in and doing what it takes to win.”

Billups did point out that two wins, the first game at Phoenix and at Miami, were dicey.

“Any time you hit a buzzer-beater, that game could have gone either way,” Billups said. “So, we could be sitting here with a different record on this trip saying, ‘Dang, we let a couple get away.’”

But they aren’t. And that’s because this team appears to be loaded with big shot makers. Lillard, of course. Grant won the game at Phoenix and Hart hit the winner at Miami. Earlier this season, Grant made the winning basket late at the Los Angeles Lakers and Simons’ basket with seven seconds remaining in overtime at home against Phoenix won that game.

The message is already out to the rest of the NBA: With the game on the line, the Blazers can beat you with several players.

The Blazers have 70 games remaining, so this hot start can somewhat be appreciated with some caution.

“It’s just hard to win in this league on the road,” Winslow said. “I like where we’re at. Job’s not done. I would like to go home 5-1.”

But it’s clear that the Blazers have something good going early.

“We’re just trying to keep riding the wave, man,” Billups said. “And just keep trying to get better and get better.”

— Aaron Fentress | afentress@Oregonian.com | @AaronJFentress (Twitter), @AaronJFentress (Instagram), @AaronFentress (Facebook). Subscribe to Oregonian/OregonLive newsletters and podcasts

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