Trail Blazers: Gary Trent Jr. quietly becoming Portland’s newest late-game assassin

Gary Trent Jr. and Hassan Whiteside, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
Gary Trent Jr. and Hassan Whiteside, Portland Trail Blazers (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /

In what’s become one of the underrated subplots of the Portland Trail Blazers’ season, Gary Trent Jr. has joined his star backcourt teammates as a reliable crunch-time playmaker.

When you’re 6-foot-5, it’s difficult to ever go unnoticed. But in order to execute this designed play, Gary Trent Jr. had to find some way to do so. The Portland Trail Blazers were in Orlando for a third consecutive road game, hoping to avoid a 0-3 result. De-facto crunch-time killer Damian Lillard is nursing a groin strain, and CJ McCollum and Carmelo Anthony are on the bench.

The pressure’s on, and somebody had to deliver the goods.

True to the trend that no one seems to be noticing, that somebody was Gary Trent Jr. On this particular play, he comes off a flare screen, and steps into a 27-footer. On the play before, he’s meandering off-the-dribble, creating space for a pull-up. With offensive creativity on full display, Trent finishes the quarter with a game-high 14 points and 24 in total.

The second-year guard has certainly had higher-scoring games, but when cataloging his potential, this one comes to mind first. It begs a question:

For weeks, we’ve entertained the thought of who starts games off for the Portland Trail Blazers when basketball re-tips, but more importantly, why not entertain who finishes it?

Playing time didn’t become a fixture for Trent Jr. until around New Year’s Day. But since then, he’s produced some fourth quarter numbers that should help him hang in the discussion of who finishes these Playoff and play-in games.

Gary Trent Jr.’s clutch stats since New Year’s Day

— 3.8 points per game (No. 4 on team, and No. 11 among sophomores)
— 47.8 percent from the field (+5.2 percent increase vs. normal)
— 23 3-pointers (No. 2 on team behind Lillard)
— +17 plus-minus

Perhaps 3.8 points per game doesn’t quite float your boat. But remember: Trent Jr.’s doing this as a No. 3, No. 4 option. Since Jan. 1, only 47 players have scored more raw points.

That’s not something you don’t get to say about the everyday second-year player. And there’s an intrepid nature about the way he’s gone about his business late in games. If he makes one more 3-pointer, he would rank third on the Portland Trail Blazers in fourth quarter scoring since Jan. 1 with 121 points. And at season’s beginning, who could’ve predicted that?

For reference, over that same time, Luka Doncic has 124 fourth quarter points. And some of the players Trent ranks above since the calendar flipped to 2020?

Anthony Davis. Kyle Lowry. Derrick Rose. Brandon Ingram. Jaylen Brown. How about this one? Kawhi Leonard. Jimmy Butler. This isn’t elementary work.

As CJ McCollum showed us in last year’s Playoffs, though, sometimes you can throw those metrics into the nearest dumpster. If you’ve got guys on the court that flat out know how to create their own bucket and aren’t clammy up in high-stakes moments, that can be enough to generate wins.

Portland’s young guard passes that test with flying colors; 24.1 percent of his fourth quarter shots over that time have required 3-to-6 dribbles. That’s officially improvisation time, and Trent’s found net on 11-of-21 shots, including 3-of-4 from 3-point range.

It speaks volumes, too, that Terry Stotts trusts Trent Jr. enough to run plays for him, especially at this juncture of his career. And that faith extends into the latter parts of the fourth quarter, too.

Using that Jan. 1 barometer, Trent ranks No. 3 on the Blazers in field goal attempts in the last five minutes of games within five points. No challenge hasn’t been too monumental.

And on the defensive end, Trent has enough “nasty” in him to where you don’t have to scheme him out of the game on must-stop possessions. Earlier this year without Lillard against Detroit, Trent’s grittiness rewarded him with a game-clinching steal.

Stotts, it seems, appreciates that part of it even more.

"“A lot of it is him taking advantage of the opportunity more than anything. I think he’s grown defensively, I’ve said that many times, and I think that’s carried over to his offense as well.”"

Next. Who should Portland sign with its last roster spot?. dark

For the Portland Trail Blazers, it’s a rare, yet pleasant problem to have. They will have tons of players capable of finishing important games. The classic Lillard-McCollum-Ariza-Anthony/Collins-Nurkic/Whiteside probably finishes things off at full health, but Trent appears to have done more than enough to warrant a call if need be.