Gary Payton II fully participated in the 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 Blazers debut, and they need any help they can get on that end.
On the morning of Nov. 12, Portland was 9-3 and its opponents had scored 108.7 points per 100 possessions, the sixth-lowest mark in the league. The Blazers do not have elite defensive personnel, but they have more athleticism and versatility on the wing than they've had in recent seasons and, early in the season, they were able to get teams out of rhythm by playing tons of zone and using small, switchable lineups.
In their next 12 games, however, they surrendered 117.5 points per 100 possessions, the third-worst mark in the league. They're now 13-11, and their defense ranks 23rd overall.
Portland star Damian Lillard broke the news about Payton, who had abdominal surgery in July.
"He practiced today," Lillard told reporters. "I mean, he did everything with us today."
When reporters seemed surprised, Lillard laughed and said: "Was I supposed to say that? He practiced with us, he practiced today, so he must be feeling all right, I guess, I don't know."
The Blazers announced in mid-September that Payton was progressing well in his rehab and was expected to fully recover before the beginning of the regular season. On Oct. 13, they announced that he would miss the beginning of the regular season and be re-evaluated in two weeks. On Nov. 1, they announced that he'd been cleared to increase his conditioning and on-court activity, and his return-to-play timeline would be determined after a six-game road trip that ended on Nov. 12.
On Nov. 18, however, they announced that he was still recovering. The press release read, "Throughout progressive levels of rehab in preparation to return to game play, Payton has experienced intermittent soreness. He will continue rehab in anticipation of returning to full practice and will be re-evaluated in two weeks."
Payton broke out with the Golden State Warriors last season and, after helping them win a championship, signed a three-year, $26.1 million deal with Portland. When he's healthy, his point-of-attack defense will give the Blazers a big boost. He will also get deflections, juice their transition game, be a connector on offense and give coach Chauncey Billups more lineup flexibility.
"It was just good to have him out there, to be honest with you," Billups told reporters. "How close or not, I'm not sure, but he looked pretty good. And you've always gotta wonder how he's gonna feel, you know what I'm saying, but he looked pretty good."
Billups said that the Blazers practiced for 45-50 minutes. He said that Payton is still dealing with some soreness, but is "better than he was when we last talked about it," adding that Payton has "pushed through some of that stuff." Payton is listed as out for Thursday's game against the Denver Nuggets, and Billups said that, when he does return, he'll be on a minutes restriction.
"It was just good to have his energy out there on the floor," Billups said. "We'll see, but obviously he's closer than he's ever been if he's practicing."
After hosting the Nuggets, Portland will play two consecutive games against the Minnesota Timberwolves at home on Saturday and Monday. The Blazers are coming off a 116-100 win 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 couple of short stints from Payton would, too. At practice, Billups told reporters that other teams now know "how we play in our zone, in our man, in our switching defense, in our small lineups," and are attacking accordingly.
"We're not surprising anybody anymore," Billups said.