The battle between No. 5 pick Jaden Ivey and No. 7 selection Shaedon Sharpe was curtailed prematurely after the Portland Trail Blazers rookie suffered a left shoulder injury. But, thanks to a highlight-heavy 20-point performance from Keon Johnson, and a competitive game from start-to-finish, those who tuned in to the late-night 81-78 loss to the Detroit Pistons were treated to an entertaining matchup.
Brandon Williams picked up where he left off in 2021-22, with 15 points, four rebounds and four assists, and No. 57 pick Jabari Walker joined him in double-figures with 11 points on five-of-five shooting. Though, those efforts were upended by the Pistons bringing four double-digit scorers of their own, headlined by Ivey’s 20-point, six-rebound, six-assist showcase. That said, here’s a quarter-for-quarter review.
You might’ve needed an energy drink or two, but if you found the energy to tune into the Blazers’ Summer League opener, you were rewarded within the first minute. After giving up a thunderous backdoor alley-oop jam on one end, the Blazers returned with one of their own immediately. No. 5 and No. 7 picks Jaden Ivey and Shaedon Sharpe commanded top billing, but it was Brandon Williams and Keon Johnson who first took advantage of that free publicity.
Williams wasted little time building on last year’s aggressive playstyle. Not that you’ll ever need this info, but last year against Detroit, he led the Blazers to 49 free throws, tied for their most in a game since Mar. 13, 1999, and he provided a similar form here, along with smart rotations on defense, helping get his bigs out of tough isolations.
Johnson, for the Blazers, was the star of the first quarter, hitting three-of-four for seven points. Most inspiring is that he produced in so many different ways. The court vision was on display immediately; he had another smooth pass that was just out of reach. Maneuvering a pick-and-roll to get to his spot for an open shot? He did that as well.
Among other highlights, the game seemed to slow down as it progressed for Sharpe, highlighted by this smooth bucket.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, though: an inability to defend the 3-point line and turnovers proved costly for Portland, as the Pistons were able to run up a 10-point first quarter lead, with each of their starters adding to their summer highlight reel. That set up an uphill climb relatively early.
It probably serves no purpose buying stock in Summer League lineup rotations, but for documentation purposes, Shaedon Sharpe sitting on the bench as long as he did felt noteworthy. It could’ve simply been a way to ease him back into the flow early, but with as often as ESPN showed him, it was impossible to ignore. (Casey Holdahl did offer this, midway through the second quarter, and a real update was given later on).
On court, the Blazers had some trouble making any sort of advance on that 10-point deficit, scoring just six points over the first seven minutes of the quarter. To the Blazers’ credit, the Pistons weren’t much better. Thankfully, an interview with Damian Lillard happened at the same time — even in July, he found ways to help the franchise — and that provided a needed distraction. They say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas … and that might include the tape from this quarter.
If nothing else, the Blazers stayed competitive and played hard, and were ultimately rewarded for it down the stretch. Trendon Watford, though the foul issues again reared their head, put some plays together, and Johnson picked up where he left off, continuing to make his case as tonight’s best player. In Year Two, the game should be slowing down, and based on some of his feeds, it certainly is. He stood out as a positive, despite the 41-34 halftime deficit.
For now, Sharpe’s smooth, spinning-pivot midrange shot will have to be on loop; it was confirmed early on that a shoulder strain would sideline him for the game’s remainder. Anchored by their aggressive play, the Blazers remained competitive. Brandon Williams, in particular, commands a note. He was born in California and he plays in Portland. But he made the free throw line his third home to start.
Around this time, one couldn’t help but wonder if certain trends from last season would see any immediate progress. For example: how would Trendon Watford pivot from last year’s foul trouble and 3-point issues? He’s always an impactful player and his box score shows it, but those questions sort of stood out in the third quarter.
In their attempt to cut into the Pistons’ decade-long single-digit lead, the Blazers found notable minutes from Luka Garza. Likely playing with extra juice against the team that cut him just a week ago, Garza showed flashes of that offensive juggernaut we saw at Iowa, with deep post seals, a quick-trigger 3-point release and power in the paint. Digging deep into their rotation, the Blazers actually made their biggest push with Colbey Ross — a versatile bucket-getter from Pepperdine — and the Blazers’ 2022 No. 57 pick Jabari Walker, among others.
Since we’re thinking long-term, how about some highlights on Chauncey Billups’ interview to start the fourth? He complimented Shaedon Sharpe’s “veteran pace” and “quiet competitiveness.” He talked about his plan in building Anfernee Simons’ defensive grit, as well as his belief that Jerami Grant will win the Blazers “so many games.”
It’s a bit fitting that the Grant trade was the topic at this point in the game: Portland and Detroit continued helping one another quite a bit tonight as well, trading turnovers that prevented one team from getting an edge over the other. Walker was a positive down the stretch, hitting a 26-footer and a midrange pull-up to cut the deficit to two; it’d seemed his play earned him a spot in Steve Hetzel’s late-game rotation.
Down the stretch, the game was nip-and-tuck, with the trio of Watford, Johnson, and Williams each getting key buckets, earning valuable late-game chops to keep the Blazers within one bucket. The latter two looked noticeably comfortable in isolations and pick-and-rolls.
A few whiffed opportunities — such as DiDi Louzada’s missed layup, an inability to contain Ivey, and a failure to get the right look on an inbounds steal with four seconds left — effectively closed the door on the comeback try.
The Blazers will get a day off before battling the New Orleans Pelicans at 9:00 pm PT.
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