PHOENIX – Sometimes in the NBA, all it takes is a chance, an opportunity, to show one belongs.
We saw it three years ago, as the Blazers were dying in the 2015 NBA playoffs in Memphis, and a youngster named CJ McCollum was thrown into the fire. He responded with 33 points in Game 5, catapulting him into what is now a star-studded career.
We saw it last year, when a young center named Jusuf Nurkic, left to wilt on the vine in Denver, revitalized his career and a team in Portland, after he was given a chance to start.
And Wednesday, in the Trail Blazers’ season opener, Pat Connaughton was given his chance, and the third-year guard didn’t miss it.
Connaughton hit his first five shots on the way to a 24-point performance that helped make up for the suspension of CJ McCollum and carry the Blazers to a 124-76 win at Phoenix.
“He was prepared for this moment,’’ team captain Damian Lillard said of Connaughton.
The opening night performance comes on the heels of a solid preseason where Connaughton showed he had diversified, and improved, his game. No longer just a three-point shooter, Connaughton showed in the preseason improved play-making skills, particularly his ball-handling and passing, and a comfort level befitting of an established veteran.
Coach Terry Stotts didn’t blink an eye at the performance. He half expected it.
“He’s been shooting the ball with confidence, and he showed that tonight,’’ Stotts said. “He played with a lot of poise and a lot of confidence.’’
It wasn’t just an emphatic performance, it was a timely one, too.
When Connaughton entered just 2:34 into the game to replace Maurice Harkless, who was assessed two quick fouls, the Blazers were down 7-2. It soon became 9-2, and the Blazers were looking impatient and jittery on offense, perhaps out of sync because of McCollum’s absence.
But Connaughton hit a three, then beat Phoenix in transition for back-to-back layins. Then he hit another three, giving Portland a 15-13 lead they would never relinquish.
All told, Connaughton hit 9-of-14 shots, including 4-of-7 three-pointers, prompting Lillard to shout “Pat McCollum!” in the locker room afterward. While Connaughton is unlikely to make the Blazers forget about the silky shooting of McCollum, his performance Wednesday was a start to answering how the Blazers would respond to losing Allen Crabbe in a summer trade with Brooklyn.
“Everybody was wondering where the three’s were going to come from,’’ Stotts smirked. “Pat is one of them.’’
And to think, two months ago, there was debate whether Connaughton would actually stick in the NBA, or turn his attention to baseball, where he was drafted as a pitcher by the Baltimore Orioles.
The Blazers had until Aug. 31 to decide whether to exercise a $1.4 million option on Connaughton, and after a rather pedestrian showing in the Las Vegas Summer League, it was anything but assured Connaughton would be retained by Portland.
When the Blazers did pick up the option, it set in motion a diligent workout regime. Lillard said he recounted a time when Connaughton was making 1,000 shots a day.
Connaughton said he is aided by adopting his old baseball mentality, where a player has to learn how to move on from failure. It is a sport, after all, where a hitter can fail seven times out of 10 and still be considered excellent at his craft.
“It’s having that quote-unquote baseball mentality – the short memory -- and making sure that I’m in the right positions for my teammates to make shots for them or to make plays for them and get them open shots,’’ Connaughton said. “That’s something I’ve been working on all summer and quite frankly, the last two years, so that when I got my opportunity I was able to take advantage of it.’’