After 24 games this season, Gary Trent Jr. had scored 41 points for the Trail Blazers — 13 of them in a loss at Milwaukee. He had dealt with a hamstring injury, but mostly it was coach Terry Stotts choosing not to use him. In 13 of the games, he had not seen any action. Everyone was saying Portland's best second-year guard was Anfernee Simons.
The tune has changed dramatically in the 30 games since then.
Damian Lillard was Damian Lillard, and Hassan Whiteside exacted some revenge on his former team, and Trevor Ariza scored 15 first-quarter points. But as important as anything in the Blazers' 115-109 victory over Miami on Sunday night at Moda Center was the performance of Trent, who bombed in 22 points on 8-for-11 shooting — 5 for 7 on 3-point attempts — in 33 minutes off the bench.
"Pretty good," judged the soft-spoken, understated Trent of his performance. "Did my job. Knocked down some shots. Played well. Most importantly, we got the 'W.'"
Lillard scored 33 points with eight assists, Whiteside picked up his 39th double-double with 11 points and 17 rebounds to go with four blocked shots, and Ariza finished with 21 points on 7-for-10 shooting.
It was the seventh win in 10 games for Portland (25-29), which remained 2 1/2 games behind Memphis (27-26) in the battle for the eighth and final playoff spot in the NBA Western Conference. On a night in which the injury-riddled Blazers began with nine able bodies and finished with eight after an ankle injury to Mario Hezonja, Trent's contributions were critical.
Trent worked hard on defense, scored 13 points in the second quarter and provided some clutch plays down the stretch.
Portland's lead was 99-97 when Trent knocked down a 3. The difference was 105-100 when Trent muscled a rebound away from Miami's 6-9, 255-pound Bam Adebayo. The Heat were within 107-103 when Trent beat the shot clock with a corner 3 that pretty much finished off the visitors.
It was just another in a succession of impressive outings for the 6-6, 205-pound Trent, who has been a key figure since scoring a career-high 30 points in a 119-106 loss at Oklahoma City on Jan. 18. In the 11 games since, Trent has averaged 14.6 points, shooting .527 from the field and a sizzling .535 from 3-point range.
"He has really stepped up and played well," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said after Trent had burned the Heat. "It's not easy to be a role player with great players. It sounds easy, but you have to do a lot of the little things. You have to defend, and oftentimes at the end of the clock when (the opponent) is getting the ball out of the great player's hands, you have to step up with confidence and make shots.
"He certainly did that tonight. On five, six possessions where you do about as good a job as you can do on Lillard, got the ball out of his hands, and it ended up in Trent's hands, and he made those shots. The outcome could have been different if he'd missed one or couple of those, but he stepped up."
Injuries — to Rodney Hood for the season, to Simons and rookie Nassir Little in smaller doses — have helped open up playing time for Trent, who turned 21 on Jan. 18 and left Duke after one season. The Blazers bought a second-round pick from Sacramento to choose Trent at No. 37 in the 2018 draft.
"I told Gary the other day, I don't know if I've ever been more proud or happier for a younger player since I've been in the league than I am of what he's been doing," Lillard said. "Second-round pick, he doesn't get the opportunity right away. ... he had a lot to learn. He was 19 years old. He had a lot to figure out, and he did it."
Trent — son of former Blazer forward Gary Trent Sr. — stayed in Portland last summer, working out daily at the Blazers' practice facility.
"He came back (to training camp) in shape," Lillard said. "He was lean. You could tell he was picking up the plays and the defensive assignments easier. Early in the season, he still wasn't playing a lot, but he stayed with it.
"All of those things from Day One as far as growing up and getting better and paying attention — it's just shining right now. He is doing it in big stretches of the game, and it shows in how everybody is showing trust in him. Super happy for him."
So is everyone else around Trent.
"Unbelievable," Whiteside said. "He wasn't even playing at the start of the season. Now he's coming into his own. He's coming in shooting. He's not afraid. He adds another dynamic out there. I'm loving every part of it."
"I know how hard he works," guard CJ McCollum said. "I told him he'd get an opportunity eventually, just to be ready. He has taken advantage of it. When given the chance, he has defended, he's made shots, he's been in the right spots and he's stayed active."
"He is playing with a lot of confidence," Stotts said. "He's been getting good looks — that helps. He's a really good, confident shooter — that helps. He's gained a lot of experience and is getting the opportunity he has now because of injuries. He's grown defensively, and that's carried over to his offense as well."
Being able to feed off veteran teammates such as Lillard and McCollum "gives you a big boost," Trent said.
"You can play carefree and comfortably," he said, "feed off the energy they give. There are a lot of positive vibes.
"This has been a big jump for me (since the start of the season). I've been waiting for this opportunity and trying to take advantage of it. I'll just play hard and control what I can control."
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