Another game, another game-winner.
After trailing by as many as 15 in the third quarter, the Trail Blazers played nearly flawless basketball in the final six minutes, capped off by Josh Hart making a corner three off a Damian Lillard assist as time expired, to earn a 110-107 victory versus the Miami Heat in front of an announced sellout of 19,600 Monday night at FTX Arena.
“Miami is just so dang good, they just make you play so ugly,” said Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups. “It’s really a compliment to who they are and how they’ve been, but if you want to have a chance to beat them you’ve just got to grind and keep grinding and keep grinding. And we did that tonight, that’s kind of who we are now. To have a fourth quarter the way we had, 37 points against this team is really one of the best quarters we’ve had all year.”
The Trail Blazers are now 7-3 overall and 3-1 on the road this season. And with the win, they have split the season series versus the Heat after losing the previous matchup in Portland on October 26.
“It was just a great fourth quarter,” said Hart, who finished the game with 12 points on just five shots, nine rebounds, eight assists and two steals in 36 minutes. “I don’t think we should have had THAT great of a fourth quarter, I was hoping we weren’t going to be down 17 at one point in the third, but that’s the one thing about this team. We’re going to fight and we’re going to be gritty.”
After trailing for the better part of the game, Portland took their first lead of the second half with just 1:40 to play on an and-one by Anfernee Simons, who played Monday night after missing two games with a sore left foot to finish with 25 points, four assists and a steal. The teams would take turns either taking slim leads or tying the game on the remaining possessions, with Simons converting two free throws with 8.5 seconds to play to give Portland a 107-104 advantage.
But on the next possession, Heat guard Max Strus found just enough daylight in the corner opposite Portland's bench, making a three-pointer to tie the game with just 6.2 seconds to play. But rather than call a timeout, Billups opted to let his team play the game out instead of call time, which would have allowed the Heat, one of the league’s stingiest teams, to set their defense.
Lillard took the inbound, got a screen near the halfcourt line from Justise Winslow and looked as though he was either going to raise up for a three like he had done so many times in his career in similar situations or make a beeline to the basket for a chance to win the game at the rim.
He ended up doing neither.
Instead, with three defenders running at Lillard, presumably due to his earned reputation as one of the NBA’s great late-game finishers, the point guard, playing for the first time since sitting out four games with a right calf strain, kicked the ball to a wide-open Hart for what would be a game-winning three-pointer as time expired.
“It was just a good, unselfish play by (Lillard),” said Hart. “I think he was going to shoot it until -- I don’t know who was guarding me -- they just left me and went all the way up on him. Just an unselfish play by him to swing it to me and was able to knock it down.”
Hart’s game-winner was the second time in four days that Portland scored as time expired to win a game after Jerami Grant converted a fadeaway two-pointer off an inbounds pass versus the Suns in Phoenix on Friday. And while they weren’t buzzer beaters, both Grant and Simons also converted go-ahead, game-winning baskets in the final moments of victories versus the Lakers and Suns, respectively.
With so many improbable wins, it’s starting to feel as though the Trail Blazers might be on the verge of something special. While every player asked in Portland’s locker room agreed, they all seemed to have different takes on why that might be the case.
For Lillard, who finished Monday’s win with 19 points, six assists and three rebounds in 34 minutes, the good juju he an his teammates have been enjoying is a product of their considerable improvement on defense.
“I don’t want to jinx it or nothing like that but it feels special,” said Lillard. “We’ve had a history of come out and have a hot streak and we’ll make every shot and it’ll be like, this is a good game for us but the other team had 121 (points). But we haven’t been giving up a lot of points, we’ve struggled turning the ball over and teams capitalize on it, we’ve been giving up threes in stretches.
"But ultimately, at the end of the game, like tonight, we gave up 107 points and I think against Phoenix the other night I looked up there and it was like, 106 points. And tonight with a couple of minutes left they only had 98, I’m like ‘Man, this a low scoring game.’ I think we’re just giving the effort and energy defensively to stop teams and that’s been a major difference for us.”
As for Hart, he noted that the team’s ability to win close games early in the season portends good things when times get tough down the road.
“It’s good to have games like this, especially early in the season, that are close games that come down to the wire,” said Hart. “Forces you to execute, forces you to realize that every possession matters. Obviously when you get down to the stretch of the season, you need that kind of experience. We want to be a playoff team and obviously in the playoffs, that intensity and those possessions count even more. So that’s something that’s good to learn early and we’ve just got to keep going.”
Then there was Justise Winslow, who readily admitted that there’s a particular feeling around the team right now, one that has him thinking Portland’s 2022-23 season might be charmed. He wouldn’t go into detail, perhaps out of fear of tempting the fates, but whatever that feeling is, Winslow noted he and his teammates are going to keep cultivating it.
“There’s something brewing,” stated Winslow, who went for 12 points, two assists, two rebounds and a steal while finishing a game-best +15. “Something is brewing, and I don’t want to tell y’all what it is. We’re just going to let it keep brewing, we’re going to fermentate it. We gonna let that thing, all the suds and the juices in the grapes, we gonna let it keep processing in the barrel.”
Next up, the Trail Blazers head to Charlotte to start the second half of a six-game trip Wednesday night versus the Hornets. Tipoff is scheduled for 4 p.m.