The Blazers narrowly lost a grind-y, foul-filled contest tonight. While the Jazz stuck with their pre-season (and who knows with this roster, maybe all-season) plan of running 13 players Portland tightened the rotation to a look more resembling a regular-season contest. The bulk of the minutes went to seven players: Aldridge, Wallace, Felton, Crawford, Matthews, Batum, and Thomas. The team looked pretty tight and the energy was good enough. The weaknesses in the lineup, exacerbated by the absence of Marcus Camby, pretty much told the story. In their wheelhouse the Blazers look great. Playing to their soft spots they're in trouble. Both pace and defense conspired to keep Portland more in the weak zone than wheelhouse tonight.
While pre-season means nothing in terms of wins and losses, we've likely seen a microcosm of the season to come in these last two games. The defense should be adequate at least, darn good when they're "on". Some nights the Blazers are going to look awesome on offense as well, other nights scoring 90 will be a struggle. This is the nature of the lineup. Portland is probably one of the most dangerous teams in the league between 10 and 20 feet from the hoop. Their inside attack just isn't there at any position save occasionally point guard, as Raymond Felton again showed he could get inside (at least against Utah's guards) tonight. The athleticism is there at several positions but none of these players is the ram-it-down-your-throat attack dog that the Blazers need. It's a little bit like an MMA guy throwing technically sweet punches with no power behind them. On paper it's impressive. In real life the opponent just takes those punches and shrugs them off. The huge x-factor in the offense will be three-point shooting. When the Blazers hit them both mid-range and middle will open. When they don't there's nothing else in their arsenal to compensate or break up the defense. This is exactly the place their players are streakiest. Tonight they shot 7-22 collectively...not near enough. That's likely to be the story all year. Defenses will force them deep and make them hit before surrendering anything else. It got to the point tonight that Utah felt free to double- and triple-team Aldridge on the catch. They also sent an extra man against anybody else who dribbled the ball within 10 feet of the bucket. Portland couldn't hit enough jumpers to make them pay.
We did see some hints of excellence from the Blazers on the run. When they rebounded well and whipped the ball out every player on the court became a threat. This lineup has plenty of speed. The rebounding wasn't good enough for long enough to make that tell, though. We also saw Portland's enormous potential with trapping defenses as the game closed. You can't go that well too often but the Blazers should make use of it this year.
- Portland's interior defense isn't so much bad as lacking any room for error. When everything goes right the Blazers can keep containment. If a guard leaks through or Portland's big man is so much as a half-step off everything falls apart. There's no back-up plan, no interior intimidation. The opponent either makes the shot or gets set up for an easy offensive rebound as the other Blazers scramble. The Blazers are also going to have trouble covering good low-post players for the same reason. Part of the issue may be the feeling-out process among new teammates. Covering for each other takes familiarity. But with most of Portland's defensive stalwarts at small forward or below it's paper thin no matter how familiar they get with each other. Portland will put a ton of pressure on its own bigs to defend. Those bigs probably won't be able to handle it completely. The reaction Portland develops could tell the tale of their season. They have to defend consistently to succeed because the offense is going to be up and down. Stopping close buckets is the most basic tenet of consistent defense.
- Rebounding isn't so much a key as a basic foundation. When the Blazers do it well the table is set for all of their easy shots, either running or off of the offensive glass. When they give up boards they're stuck relying on the jumper and they wilt. Portland doesn't have to be a great rebounding team but they can't suck.
- This team does have an advantage in poise. They took bad shots but never heaps of them. They kept their heads in the game whether they were up or down on the scoreboard and fought to the end. That's veteran talent showing and it should save a couple games for them this season.
- Raymond Felton was one of three players to distinguish himself on Portland's end. He was the only Blazer to break down the defense and finish. His teammates' lack of jump-shooting knocked down his assist total but he was the most dangerous Blazer on the attack tonight anyway.
- Nicolas Batum was the second bonus-star Blazer. His offensive game was pretty good, decisive if not plentiful. He's starting to show more physicality on defense and on the boards though. You'll see him fight for a rebound or chuck an opponent...not quite as "pretty" of a game as he used to play. That's good for Portland.
- Kurt Thomas set the tone early by taking three charges in the first quarter. He knows this is pre-season and he's pushing 40, right? He grabbed some rebounds and played a steady game...a definite plus.
- LaMarcus Aldridge looked decent all over the floor with a little rust on offense. He never got in the paint with success except off of offensive rebounds. The Blazers desperately need him to make some kind of effective move towards the bucket. If he doesn't they have no interior attack at all.
- Matthews was OK, more on offense than anything. Wallace was OK. He missed shots but he had to take some forced ones too. Crawford had an off shooting night but you expect that from game to game. At least he's a threat every night. The two Smiths, Johnson, and Williams were unremarkable, not damaging pro or con.
- Illustrating a point I made at the top: Portland had 25 fast break points tonight but only 30 in the paint.
The regular season comes next! Reflect and anticipate below.