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Trail Blazers knock off Knicks to win NBA Summer League title

Updated July 17, 2022 - 8:48 pm

Portland Trail Blazers summer league coach Steve Hetzel opted to leave his championship ring in its shiny black box Sunday, revealing that its likely resting place probably will be a bookshelf in his home.

Trail Blazers forward Trendon Watford’s ring didn’t stay in its box, though. It rested instead on his left ring finger — loosely but comfortably.

“It feels good,” Watford said from the bowels of the Thomas & Mack Center. “This is the first year we did rings. I can say we’re the first team to take them home.”

The Trail Blazers captured their second NBA Summer League championship with an 85-77 victory over the New York Knicks, earning the first iteration of championship rings in the process. Watford, an undrafted second-year forward who played 48 games last season, was named championship game MVP after posting 19 points, seven rebounds and three steals.

Quentin Grimes scored 19 to lead New York.

The rings, worth about $20,000, were presented to Watford, his teammates and coaches during a brief ceremony at center court that preceded two other games in a format that deviated from the standard summer league championship. But the celebration continued in the locker room, capping a crucial offseason for a team that hopes to return to playoff contention in 2022-23.

“They wanted to get better. They didn’t come in with the mindset of wanting to try to dominate summer league,” Hetzel said. “They wanted to play well. They wanted to learn to execute, and they did that. Very proud to be a part of it.”

The Blazers began summer league with high hopes — and No. 7 overall draft pick Shaedon Sharpe, a high-flying scoring guard due for his first organized basketball activity since his final year of high school in 2020-21. Formerly the top recruit in the 2022 class, Sharpe reclassified and attended Kentucky, where he practiced with the Wildcats without playing a game.

The summer league was supposed to be a setting for Sharpe to showcase his tantalizing talent. But he was injured July 7 in Portland’s opener against the Detroit Pistons, thereby altering the team’s trajectory.

Sans Sharpe, the Trail Blazers relied on a rugged team defense that held all five opponents to less than 40 percent shooting.

As they were presented their trophy and championship rings, Watford and some of his teammates yelled “seat belt,” a phrase that summarized their approach the past 11 days.

“We buckled in and locked up” defensively, Watford said.

That they did.

After dropping the opener, the Trail Blazers won three consecutive games to earn a berth in the championship game opposite the Knicks and Grimes, a former first-round pick entering his second NBA season.

But Portland slowed New York, too, forcing 18 turnovers and building a 41-30 halftime lead.

“We wanted our core guys to learn how to play winning basketball, to continue to learn winning basketball,” Hetzel said.

The holdovers from Portland’s summer league squad will join a roster that now features Jerami Grant and Gary Payton II, two-way veteran players who fortify the rotation. Payton, a Spring Valley High graduate, joins a backcourt that includes perennial All-Star Damian Lillard, who signed a contract extension during the summer league.

Health permitting, Portland should contend for a playoff berth in 2022-23.

“This is like a starting ground for us,” Trail Blazers rookie forward Jabari Walker said. “Hopefully we get the big ring next time.”

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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