After 10 days of play in the desert, the NBA 2K23 Summer League championship game will take place Sunday afternoon in Las Vegas (3 p.m. ET on ESPN). This year saw the debut of several lottery picks for the Orlando Magic and Houston Rockets, and the return of the Golden State Warriors’ 2020 lottery pick, but the title game will feature the New York Knicks and the Portland Trail Blazers.
Both teams were among seven squads that finished their first four summer league games at 3-1, but because of superior point differential — the Knicks at plus-47 and the Blazers at plus-33 — New York and Portland earned the right to square off for the crown.
And for the first time in Las Vegas summer league history, the winners will receive championship rings. So there’s clearly a lot to play for, right?
Sunday won’t be the first time these two teams have met in Vegas this year. On Monday, the Blazers defeated the Knicks 88-77. Trendon Watford led Portland with 18 points in that contest, while Quentin Grimes had a game-high 24 for New York.
Here’s a look at how both teams made it to this point and a breakdown of key players to watch in the championship game.
Trail Blazers: How they got here
After opening summer league play with an 81-78 loss to the Detroit Pistons, the Blazers bounced back with wins over the New Orleans Pelicans (85-68), the Knicks (88-77) and the Houston Rockets (85-77).
Portland could have easily been counted out after losing the No. 7 overall pick in the 2022 NBA draft, Shaedon Sharpe, after just five minutes on opening night, but the team battled back with three consecutive victories while holding opponents to an average of 74 points per game in the 10-minute-quarter summer league contests.
After Sharpe was pulled out of the first game, an MRI revealed a small labral tear in his left shoulder the following day, shutting him down for the remainder of play.
Despite being 28th in 3-pointers made and tied for 25th in field goals made, Portland rode its defense to the title game while also being one of the better rebounding teams (42.8 — tied for third) in Las Vegas.
Watford (12.3 points, 8.0 rebounds) and Jabari Walker (12.0 points, 8.5 rebounds) have given Portland a presence down low. Against the Knicks, Walker had one of the best games of the summer league off the bench when he had 16 points and 13 rebounds.
Trail Blazers: Who to watch
After being selected by the Clippers in last year’s draft, Keon Johnson was one of the players Portland picked up last season in the trade that sent Robert Covington and Norman Powell to Los Angeles.
Johnson, who was the No. 21 overall pick, played in 22 games with the Blazers and averaged 9.7 points and just under 3 assists and 3 rebounds while his 3-point shot continued to improve (34.8%).
He has been the Blazers’ leading scorer at 17.3 points per game in Las Vegas. He is coming off of his best overall game, scoring 25 points on 61.5% shooting in the win over the Rockets.
Johnson, however, has been bit by the turnover bug quite a bit in Vegas. He’s averaging five turnovers a game and has had six in each of his past two contests. If Portland wants to be successful, Johnson will have to limit his mistakes.
It’s been easy to tell Johnson has played better during his second stint in Vegas. Last year with the Clippers in roughly the same amount of minutes, Johnson struggled from the field, shooting 28.8% overall and 20.0% from 3. This year with Portland in four games, he’s shooting 48.0% and 40.0%.
Knicks: How they got here
Outside of the loss to the Blazers, the Knicks have looked stellar during their Vegas run, picking up wins over Golden State (101-88), Chicago (101-69) and Orlando (102-89).
The Knicks were the third-highest scoring team in Vegas (95.3 points per game), shooting a second-best 47.7% overall. New York was also active on defense, leading the summer league with 10.8 steals per game.
Guard Quentin Grimes — who may or may not be a Knick for much longer if a Donovan Mitchell trade gets done, but that’s a story for another time — put up exactly 24 points in his first three games in Vegas before hanging 22 against the Magic.
Grimes finished behind only Brooklyn’s Cameron Thomas in scoring among players who took part in at least three contests.
Miles McBride has gotten plenty of work at the point guard spot alongside second-round pick Trevor Keels. McBride has averaged 16.8 points and 5.5 assists per game.
Knicks center Jericho Sims has made the most of his opportunities with the ball in his hands, shooting 80.0% overall in four games.
Sims has shot 20-of-25 from the floor while averaging 11.3 points and 10.3 rebounds a game racking up three double-doubles in the process.
Knicks: Who to watch
Forward Feron Hunt went undrafted in 2021 but played for the Dallas Mavericks in the summer league before being waived in training camp and getting assigned to the G League Texas Legends.
He was signed to a 10-day hardship contract by the New Orleans Pelicans in December but never played a game for the organization before that deal expired in early January.
Hunt returned to the Texas Legends waiting for his chance to get back to the NBA, but that didn’t come until March when he was added to the Knicks’ roster as a two-way player. He played two games for the franchise and seven for the team’s G League affiliate, but Las Vegas has been his opportunity to really show what he can do.
An active defender, the 6-foot-8 Hunt has averaged 2.5 steals per game in Vegas while putting up 11.8 points on 51.4% shooting.
He has struggled from 3 in summer league play (2-of-9) but showed he could shoot from long range during his stint with the Legends when he shot 37.5% from deep on 3.3 attempts per game.
The summer league is all about making the most of your chances and that’s exactly what Hunt has been doing in his time on the court.
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