Sure, Damian Lillard hit the game-winning layup with seconds remaining to beat the Phoenix Suns, but the Portland Trail Blazers would not have even been in the game if not for a former lottery pick who had already lost favor in two other cities.
Lillard's score sealed a 90-89 win on Wednesday, but the player of the game for Portland was reserve forward Thomas Robinson, who not only led the team with 15 points, but provided some stiff defense and energy to the Blazers in the second half as they responded to multiple Phoenix runs.
Don't let the Suns' matador defense on that last possession fool you: This was a tense, hard-fought battle from beginning to end. The Suns nearly stole this game thanks to a stingy defense that shut down the Blazers' excellent three-point attack in the first half—Portland shot just 1-of-4 from downtown before halftime—while holding LaMarcus Aldridge and Lillard to point totals well below their season averages.
But when the Blazers' stars faltered, Robinson stepped up with a clutch performance to keep Portland in line for the win.
Robinson entered the game for Aldridge with 19 seconds left in the third and the Blazers down by seven. Normally, when a reserve comes in for a star like Aldridge, he's merely expected to hold the fort. But Robinson played that fourth quarter like a star himself, leading Portland with nine points (on 4-of-4 from the field), six rebounds, one block and one steal.
He notched two of those nine points—and one of those six rebounds—on one play: This highlight-reel putback jam that brought the Blazers back to within six.
That dunk was just one of several instances in which Robinson made a play to keep the Suns from pulling away.
Robinson even got the treatment usually given to star bigs like Dwight Howard: the "Hack-a-______" treatment. The Suns resorted to fouling Robinson without the ball with 3:00 left in the game. Robinson shot five free-throws in the fourth quarter alone—half of the total number of free-throw attempts he had coming into the game. Clearly Robinson will need to start practicing his free throws a bit more.
Up-and-Coming Player for an Up-and-Coming Team?
The Blazers are now 6-2, percentage points ahead of the 5-2 Oklahoma City Thunder for first place in the Northwest Division. Portland just might be the most surprising division leader east of Philly.
The Blazers came into the season with a pair of offensive stars in Lillard and Aldridge, and they came into the game ranked second in the NBA in offensive efficiency. But they could still use some more defense and rebounding if they want to compete for a playoff spot in the rugged Western Conference.
It was for that reason that the Portland front office traded for Robin Lopez to bolster the front line. Lopez is a quality defensive big, but Portland still has a weak spot on the second unit.
Enter Robinson, the fifth overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft. Robinson has already bounced around the league, playing for three teams in his two shorts years as a professional. His development has been stunted somewhat by all the upheaval, but Robinson did lead the Blazers with a 15.8 rebounding percentage coming into the game.
He has yet to receive consistent minutes for Portland—playing just five minutes in the Blazers' last game, against Detroit—but Robinson has learned to stay prepared as he waits for opportunities like the one he received Wednesday night, as he explained to Blazers' official website:
As far as mentally being strong I think I’m stronger when it comes to that. Went through a rough year last year so I know to keep my calm. I know I only played five minutes last game but you never know what happens. [Aldridge] came out and got two quick fouls tonight and my name was called called.
Robinson is more than just a project. He has youth, athleticism and talent on his side, and he could become a valuable asset to a Portland team ready to make a run for the playoffs.