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Jerami Grant Has Things Covered

Jerami Grant dunks the ball.
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers faced the Pelicans Thursday night in New Orleans, in a matchup of two fun and intriguing teams from the fattened up Western Conference. Both squads were on the second leg of back-to-backs; for the Blazers, this was the penultimate contest of a 13-day, six-game, cross-country road trip. They’re a little bit banged up: Head coach Chauncey Billups pulled a bunch of regulars from his rotation in New Orleans, including center Jusuf Nurkic, sparkplug rookie Shaedon Sharpe, and star Damian Lillard, who was not happy to be benched for his first meeting with former teammate C.J. McCollum, even as a sensible precaution. “He’s really upset about it,” Billups admitted before the game. “He’s been looking forward to this game, obviously, to play against his buddy.” Yanking Lillard would mean resetting expectations, both for a marquee showcase and for Portland’s chances of grabbing another encouraging road win in what has been a very impressive start to the season.

Faced with all these absences, Billups did a cool thing: Instead of shoving several end-of-bench guys into larger roles for the evening and shifting into development mode, he shrank his rotation to a lean and aggressive seven men (plus eight minutes of Jabari Walker), bumped Jerami Grant and Anfernee Simons to star-type minutes loads, and treated the game with playoff-level seriousness. This is not always advisable in early November: Grant, for instance, is also nursing a recent injury, and was questionable for Portland’s game Wednesday night in Charlotte. But the Pelicans, who expect to be in the mix for playoff positioning in the conference’s upper half, are an important opponent for the Blazers, who will face them four times this regular season. Billups played it safe by resting some of his most important guys, but he wasn’t willing to treat the Pelicans game as a schedule loss or a forfeit, as often happens in a season that squeezes 1,230 basketball games into a 25-week sprint. Grant and Simons want to be and think of themselves as stars, and Billups was happy to give them as serious a shot to make their case as circumstances would allow.

Portland trailed by six at halftime but deployed an effective zone defense in the third quarter to bewilder and frustrate a Zion Williamson-powered Pelicans offense that thrives on dribble penetration, paint points, and kick-out passing. New Orleans has a top-five offense by points per possession, because there are few humans on Earth who can stop Williamson from going wherever he wants, and the desperate scramble to do the job with two or three or very often five humans opens up a lot of prime opportunities for Zion’s more-than-capable teammates. But the Blazers are very tough defensively—up to third now in defensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass—and their organized and deeply annoying zone messed up the Pelicans’ rhythm enough that even without Portland’s offense clicking at a particularly high level, the Blazers were able to pull in front by six by the end of the third quarter.

That is a long and circuitous way of arriving at an extremely bitchin’ highlight, from the fourth quarter of what wound up being an impressive 106–95 Blazers victory. The teams were trading buckets, and Williamson was starting to dictate the action a little, by repeatedly hammering his way to the front of the rim and drawing fouls. He’d just dropped in his sixth and seventh free throws of the quarter, to pull the Pelicans to within six. Portland’s offense bogged down on their next possession, so that with eight seconds on the shot clock, Grant was stuck in an isolation at the top of the key, with the hulking Williamson as his defender and several long-armed Pelicans hovering at the edge of the lane, ready to collapse and help against any drive. That is when this cool shit happened:

You’re fixating on the dunk. You heathen! Fine. But I would like to draw your attention back to the setup dribbles, and to what Grant does to send Williamson on tilt and fling his 285 pounds of bulk to the side as if he’d been standing on the deck of a ship during a squall. Here are some good angles:

Grant put up an efficient 27 points, eight rebounds, four assists, four steals, and a block Thursday night, and in a game featuring two Pelicans all-stars he was the best player on the court for each one of his 42 minutes. It’s possible that you haven’t thought much about Grant since he decided to give up his supporting role on a contending Nuggets team for a shot at becoming the main guy for the Detroit Pistons. He got squeezed out of Detroit’s plans after just two seasons, thanks in large part to the franchise-altering arrival of Cade Cunningham, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Grant was wrong to take his shot. He averaged 20 points a game in his two years as a Piston, which is not something anyone would have necessarily thought him capable of doing when he was a Nugget. So, fine, he didn’t become a star, but he showed what he can do with some extra weight on his shoulders, and on Thursday night he showed it again.

The Blazers are now 9–3 on the season, and 6–1 on the road, and 3–2 in games played without Lillard in the lineup. Some of the early part of each NBA regular season is spent waiting to discover which of the surprise teams at the top of the standings are just placeholders, over-performing their talent level and doomed to cascade back out of sight once their conference’s real heavy-hitters start taking matters seriously. It’s too early to say for sure whether the Blazers are The Real Thing, but if this is who Grant is for them, even in games where his higher-profile teammates aren’t around to create space and opportunities, they might be a lot closer to contention than anyone thought.

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