With the eight seed clinched, the Portland Trail Blazers rode the play of reserve guards Pat Connaughton and Shabazz Napier to a win over the San Antonio Spurs and a near victory versus the New Orleans Pelicans in the team’s final pair of games of the regular season. Connaughton and Napier averaged 17 and 28.5 points, respectively, as the Boston duo earned the opportunity to shine in the Blazers’ final games.
The confidence has carried over into Portland’s first round series versus the Golden State Warriors, despite a limited rotation in the playoffs. Seldom used in the regular season, Connaughton and Napier each made an impact in relief of starting guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on Sunday as the Blazers fell to the Warriors, 121-109, in a tightly contested game that saw the two sides tied after three quarters.
“Shabazz, he’s a gamer, he gets out and competes,” head coach Terry Stotts said of Napier’s play. “I like him at both ends, he can get into their guards defensively when we wanna pick up the pressure. Offensively, he allows Dame and CJ to move off the ball a little bit. For Damian and CJ, it takes a lot of energy to run the team on one end and then guard Steph [Curry] and Klay [Thompson] on the other end.”
Of Connaughton, Stotts continued: “Pat really competes. He’s tough; he rebounds the ball well for his size. He missed his two threes, but I have a lot of confidence in Pat that he’s gonna go in there, he’s not going to make mistakes and he’s gonna play hard.”
For both Connaughton and Napier, it was their first meaningful playoff experience. Connaughton saw time in blowouts during his rookie season in Portland a year ago, while Napier made his postseason debut.
“It’s one of those things where you’ve always gotta be ready,” Connaughton said. “Coach told all of us to be ready. He pulled us aside, made sure we knew all the plays and knew them from different positions, the whole nine yards.
“For me, it was cool to get a chance at the end of the season, show what I can do and now we’re trying to win games [in the playoffs],” the Notre Dame product added. “Whatever I’m called on to do, whether it’s jump up and do some crazy-a** bench celebrations or make a few shots to help the team win. Getting those games at the end of the season really helped me with my confidence and now it’s about building on it.”
Napier, a two-time NCAA Champion at UConn, prepared for his first playoff minutes just he would any other game: expecting to play a full 48 minutes.
“I was talking to Coach Stotts, he asked me yesterday — he knows that I’m ready to play, but am I surprised when he calls my name? I said ‘No, because I’ve always prepared myself like I’m gonna play 48 minutes.’ I know I’m not, but that’s just how I prepare myself because that’s who I am. I never try to settle for anything less than that.
“Even though I know at this point in time I don’t play a lot of minutes, I’m always prepared for that.”
Connaughton and Napier combined for six of the Blazers nine bench points in the Game One loss that saw Golden State’s reserves outscore Portland, 22-9. If the eighth-seeded Blazers are to make it a series versus the top seed Warriors, Portland will need more contribution from its second unit.
“We need to help the starters out more,” said Napier. “Not just from an offensive standpoint, but a defensive standpoint as well making sure we have no breakdowns and things of that nature. If you look at it last game, the starters carried the load offensively. They’re going to do that, but anything we can do to help them out in the second unit is going to be that much more beneficial for them and make their job easier.”
Added Connaughton: “We’ve gotta communicate better on defense and certain guys have gotta be more aggressive offensively when they get the ball.
“Defensively, we have to be way more in-tune than we were.”