PORTLAND -- Anfernee Simons refused to take any credit for the performance Monday night that lifted the Trail Blazers to their first win of 2022. To him, all the praise should go to his “papa.”
The 6-3 point guard in his third season out of IMG Academy put up a career-high in points a day after his grandfather passed away to lead the Trail Blazers to a 136-131 victory versus the Atlanta Hawks in front of a crowd of 15,091 Monday night at Moda Center.
“I really can’t take credit for how well I played tonight,” said Simons. “I really can’t take it today. Sadly, my grandpa died yesterday from cancer. This all him, honestly. Credit to him, dedicated this whole game to him.”
The Trail Blazers are now 14-22 overall and 12-9 at Moda Center this season. The win breaks a four-game losing streak.
Simons, who missed Portland’s loss to the Lakers on New Year’s Eve due to health and safety protocols, was able to visit his grandfather, Jake Carter, last weekend, only to find out that he had passed as soon as he arrived back in Portland Sunday night.
But with the Blazers already short on guards -- Damian Lillard sat out due to abdominal tendinopathy and CJ McCollum is still sidelined as he recovers from right lung pneumothorax -- and with the sense that it’s what his grandfather would have wanted, Simons decided to play Monday and got the start versus a Hawks team coming off a win versus the Cavaliers.
“Sad kind of day but he would want me to play today, so I wanted to go out there and play my game and play to the best of my abilities,” said Simons. “That was all him that took over my body tonight.”
The result was the best offensive performance of Simons’ career. He went 6-of-10 from the field and 5-of-8 from three to put up 17 first-half points which, along with Norman Powell’s 17 points and Nassir Little’s 14, helped the Trail Blazers take a 70-65 lead into the intermission.
But in the third, thanks to inspiration or divine intervention, Simons was nearly perfect, making his first five attempts, four of which came from three, to blunt a second-half rally from the road team.
“I was already kind of having a rough patch the last couple games, finding out my grandfather was in the hospital kind of added on to it,” said Simons. “Going back and seeing him, seeing all my family kind of get a good refresh. I came here obviously with a heavy heart but kind of a clear mind in what I needed to do. Things could be worse, honestly. I just came with a clear mind and wanted to play my game and play to the best of my ability for him.”
He would eventually put up 18 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field and 4-of-6 shooting from three in the third. But even with Simons’ heroics, the Hawks outscored Portland by 10 in the quarter to take a 105-100 lead into the fourth.
But Simons’ teammates would step up, both for him and for themselves, in the fourth. Portland started the quarter with a 12-2 run, bookended by three-pointers from Nassir Little, to take a 112-107 lead with 7:43 to play. The Blazers would never relinquish the lead thereafter, with Jusuf Nurkic and Norman Powell making timely plays to ensure they’d start 2022 off right while honoring Simons’ grandfather, who played a large role in his growth from a skinny kid from Orlando into an NBA player.
“He was very supportive in everything I did,” said Simons. “He always motivated me, especially like when we in the car driving to practice or something, he always motivated me to continue to do what I’m doing.
“He was just a great man, cared about a lot of people. He would do things that I feel like normal grandparents wouldn’t do. He just took the extra mile to be there for us. I really appreciate that.”
The way Simons sees it, his career-high 43 points that led to an important victory was just his grandfather doing what he had always done: going the extra mile for his family.
“Something felt different about today,” said Simons. “I knew kind of in the back of my mind that it’s going to be a great night and I knew it was going to be a great night because he’s there, my papa is there to help me along the way.”
Simons went 13-of-21 from the field, 9-of-16 from three and 8-of-8 from the line in his career night to go with seven assists and three rebounds in 38 minutes. His nine three-pointers matched his career-high.
"Man it was just good seeing (Simons) get in a rhythm like he did," said head coach Chauncey Billups. "It was kind of early on that he was really feeling it. I think we all did, so that’s why I just encouraged him to stay aggressive and not settle because he didn’t have to. He could have got wherever he wanted to tonight. I’m just proud of him; I know he’s playing with a very heavy heart, playing inspired basketball. We jumped on his back, he was incredible."
Powell went 9-of-13 from the field to finish with 26 points, six rebounds, four assists and four steals in 36 minutes. It was his 13th game this season with 20-plus points.
Little went 8-of-16 from the field and 4-of-5 from three for a season-high 22 points to go with nine rebounds, two assists and a steal in 35 minutes.
Nurkic posted a double-double of 21 points and 12 rebounds while also handing out four assists in his first game since clearing health and safety protocols. Ben McLemore came off the bench to scored 10 points.
Trae Young led all scorers with a career-high 56 points while also handing out 14 assists in the losing effort.
Next up, the Trail Blazers continue a four-game homestand to start the new year by hosting the Miami Heat Wednesday night at Moda Center. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.