HOUSTON – Lost amid the Trail Blazers’ thrilling comeback Thursday in Houston was a development that could change the Blazers’ postseason plans: the defensive emergence of guard Wade Baldwin IV.
While much of Thursday’s storyline was focused on the Blazers’ 17-0 run in the final four minutes that tied the game at 94 with 6.1 seconds left, only to see Chris Paul win the game with a driving layin with 0.8 seconds left, Baldwin had left an impression.
With dogged defense that harassed James Harden and Chris Paul into two turnovers each – all of them at or behind halfcourt – Baldwin just might have entered the conversation for playoff minutes.
“What he did tonight was exceptional,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “To be able to pick up (defense) like that is something we haven’t done and it’s something we can use going forward.’’
From the bench, injured star Damian Lillard said his mind immediately flashed to visions of the postseason.
“That’s playoff level,’’ Lillard said. “Playoff level, man.’’
It was during a first-quarter timeout that Lillard said he pulled Baldwin aside.
“I told him he can really impact this game, that it could be a coming out party for you,’’ Lillard said.
Baldwin, a former first round pick who was waived by Memphis after one season, was signed by the Blazers to a two-way contract in October, and after recovering from thumb surgery, he played 17 games in the G-League. In March, he was signed to a full NBA contract.
With long arms, a barrel chest and a 6-foot-4 frame, Baldwin is gifted physically. Mentally, he is fueled by being released by Memphis, one year after they took him 17th overall out of Vanderbilt.
“I’ve always been a defensive player, and given my circumstances – having an organization kind of, you know, throw me away, I just strive to be the hungriest person in the NBA and build my brand back up,’’ Baldwin said. “Defense is my ticket. Every time I go down the court, that’s my calling card. I’m just going to go hard with that.’’
The Blazers all season have been a top 10 defensive team, but many of their better defenders are centers (Jusuf Nurkic, Ed Davis) or lanky wings (Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless, Evan Turner).
Missing has been a lock-down guard. But Baldwin – in a game last week at Memphis and Thursday in Houston – looks like he could be a notable defender.
Considering the Blazers’ playoff path could eventually include an encounter with either Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, or Houston’s Harden and Paul, Baldwin’s emergence could be quite the development for Portland.
“I think he showed that he can come in and impact the game,’’ Lillard said. “Playing against two elite offensive players, two stars in this league and he comes in no fear, picking up full court – making them turn the ball over, frustrating them, impacting the game.
“And it wasn’t like he did it for a short period of time. He did it every minute he was on the floor. That’s something we can add to our team, something that can make us a better team. Now we have a guy on the perimeter who can really defend and lock up. He could really make us a better team.’’
As an added bonus, Baldwin in his two extended chances at playing has been an offensive spark as well. On Thursday, he hit 6-of-10 shots and finished with 14 points and three assists, which comes on the heels of his 15-point performance last week in Memphis.
“I come in with a chip on my shoulder, and try to be a devil on defense, knowing in the back of my mind that an organization quit on me,’’ Baldwin said. “A first round pick and I’m a converted two way player. I play with a chip on my shoulder every time out there and if my name is called I’m going to bring that intensity every time I play.’’
Baldwin is another find by Blazers’ top executive Neil Olshey, who has shown a penchant for finding players like Maurice Harkless and Shabazz Napier, who are entering a career crossroads after their teams give up on them.
Baldwin said when Olshey signed him in October, he gave him some advice.
“He told me to be the first one in, the last one out and when your time comes, make the most of it,’’ Baldwin said.
“There was nothing to say, except work, and show by actions,’’ Baldwin said.
On Thursday, he did just that.