Trail Blazers forward Nassir Little was nearing his return to the lineup after missing six weeks with a mild femoral head impaction fracture in his right hip, but he needed to get in some practice time first, something that can be hard to come by at this point in the season.
But after falling 109-106 to the Magic, their fourth-straight loss, at Moda Center on January 10, the team finally had the chance to hold a short practice the following day. The starters and those playing regular rotation minutes didn’t do much on the court, as the majority of the time was spent receiving treatment and watching film from the most recent loss, pretty standard fare for a mid-season practice.
However, after the film session, the younger players and those out of or on the fringes of the rotation held what Chauncey Billups calls a “stay ready” game in which those players, and a few coaches and/or staff members to fill out the teams, play a high-intensity scrimmage in order to, as the name suggests, stay ready should their number be called. So Little joined the five-on-five scrimmage, not to stay ready, but as the last step to getting ready to rejoin the rotation.
And ready he was. Little apparently looked as good in the “stay ready” game as he had at any point this season, even prior to the injury, something that didn’t go unnoticed by his teammates and coaches. But while he played well, it was the mentality that be brought to the scrimmage that left a lasting impression.
“I stay in the gym. I was going crazy these last two weeks, put in a lot of work,” said Little, who is averaging 5.7 points on 47 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent shooting from three, 2.3 rebounds and nearly an assist in 15.4 minutes per game this season. “Before I came back Dame texted me like ‘Bruh like, when you come back you’ve got to be aggressive.’ I was playing three-on-three and five-on-five and I was killing and he was just like ‘We need to you to bring that same mentality when you come back. We just need it.’”
Lillard has spoken before about knowing what it takes to get a struggling team back on track, and often times, those discussions revolved around what he can do in order to make that happen. But he’s also savvy enough to know what others need to do for that to happen, and when he saw the way Little was playing in practice, he recognized right away that it was something Portland had been missing during a stretch in which they lost five-straight and nine out of 11 games.
“I told him a few days ago when I watched him play in a stay-ready game after we lost to Orlando, they were playing for like 30 minutes and Nas was just out there in attack mode,” said Lillard. “He looked confident, he looked like he was really believing. And I told him I noticed it, you know, ‘Play with that same energy in the game.’”
So when Little made his return to the lineup in Portland’s 140-123 victory versus the Mavericks Sunday night at Moda Center, Lillard was prepared to help the fourth-year forward come out with that same energy. After giving Little a few possessions to get his legs back under him, Lillard made a point of finding a shot for him.
“When I came in, my first shot, Dame told me he was going to throw it to me,” said Little. “So he was like ‘Look, I’m going to get you a shot right here,’ so I was shot ready. He hit me in the corner, first one felt good, the rest just started flowing.”
A little more than two minutes after Little made his first shot in an NBA game since November, he blocked a Christian Wood layup attempt. He got another block less than a minute after that on a three-point attempt by Jaden Hardy. An energetic start, to be certain.
“I thought Nas played great for us tonight, his shot making was huge,” said Billups. “We missed Nas a lot, just his athleticism. His energy is good for our team, his shot making is good for our team, so we missed him a lot.”
And in his second shift, Little had the kind of play that perfectly encapsulated the hopes the team, Lillard and probably Little himself have had for him since he was selected by Portland with the 25th pick of the 2019 Draft. Little jumped the passing lane to steal a Theo Pinson pass bound for Spencer Dinwiddie, passed the ball up the court to Shaedon Sharpe, who took one dribble and then passed it back to Little for the open three-pointer. A few plays later, Little converted another three from almost the same spot off a Jerami Grant assist.
“I thought he looked great,” said Lillard. “He was flying around, crashing the offensive glass like we’re used to seeing him, he was shooting the ball with confidence. Just having guys out there if they gonna run two guys at myself, run two guys at Ant (Simons), having a guy out there that can raise up and make that three confident like he was tonight, that’s a weapon for us.”
And he’ll continue to be as long as Little keeps that same energy.
“It felt good man, just super excited to be back out there,” said Little, who finished the game with 10 points on 3-of-5 shooting from three and 1-of-2 shooting from the line, two blocks, one assist, one rebound and one steal in 16 minutes. “I felt good, felt the healthiest that I’ve felt since before last season. I was more so excited about that, more than anything, just to be able to move freely and have fun.”