Gary Payton II practices with Blazers, whose defense has fallen off a cliff after hot start

Gary Payton II participated fully in Portland Trail Blazers practice on Wednesday. This is a big deal because Payton, perhaps the best perimeter defender in the NBA, has yet to make his debut for the Blazers, and they need any help they can get on that end.

On the morning of Nov. 12, Portland was 9-3 and its opponents were scoring 108.7 points per 100 possessions, the sixth-lowest mark in the league. The Blazers don’t have an elite defensive staff, but they have more athleticism and versatility on the wing than they’ve had in recent seasons and, early in the season, they’ve been able to throw teams out of rhythm by playing a ton of zone and using small, shifty lineups.

However, over the next 12 games, they surrendered 117.5 points per 100 possessions, the third-worst mark in the league. They are now 13-11 and their defense is ranked 23rd overall.

Portland star Damian Lillard broke the news about Payton, who had abdominal surgery in July.

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“He practiced today,” Lillard told reporters. – I mean, he did everything with us today.

When reporters seemed surprised, Lillard laughed and said, “Should I have said that? He practiced with us, he practiced today, so he’s got to feel good, I guess, I don’t know.”

The Blazers announced in mid-September that Payton is making good progress in his rehab and is expected to make a full recovery before the start of the regular season. On October 13, they announced that he would miss the start of the regular season and would be re-evaluated in two weeks. On November 1, they announced that he had been cleared to increase his conditioning and on-field activities, and his return to action schedule would be determined after a six-game road trip that ended on November 12.

But on November 18, they announced that he was still recovering. The press release said: “During progressive levels of rehabilitation in preparation for his return to action, Payton has experienced intermittent soreness. He will continue his rehabilitation pending a return to full practice and will be reevaluated in two weeks.”

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Payton broke in with the Golden State Warriors last season and, after helping them win the championship, signed a three-year, $26.1 million contract with Portland. When healthy, his defense from the point of attack will give the Blazers a big boost. He will also get deflections, improve their transition game, be a link in the offense and give coach Chauncey Billups more lineup flexibility.

“It was good to have him there, to be honest with you,” Billups told reporters. “How close or not, I’m not sure, but he looked pretty good. And you always have to wonder how he’s going to feel, you know what I’m saying, but he looked pretty good.”

Billups said the Blazers practiced for 45-50 minutes. He said Payton is still dealing with some pain, but “is better than it was the last time we talked about it,” adding that Payton has “pushed some of that stuff out.” Payton was listed as out for Thursday’s game against the Denver Nuggets, and Billups said he will be on a minutes limit when he returns.

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“It was good to have his energy on the floor,” Billups said. “We’ll see, but he’s obviously closer than he’s ever been if he practices.”

After hosting the Nuggets, Portland will play back-to-back games against the Minnesota Timberwolves at home on Saturday and Monday. The Blazers are coming off a 116-100 victory against the Indiana Pacers on Sunday, which was Lillard’s first game since Nov. 19 and their best defensive performance since Nov. 10. Pacers star Tyrese Haliburton didn’t play, but this still counts as positive momentum, and even a few short visits to Payton as well. In practice, Billups told reporters that other teams now know “how we play in our zone, in our man, in our change of defense, in our small formations,” and they attack accordingly.

“We don’t surprise anybody anymore,” Billups said.


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