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Some Trail Blazers shine in the Valley of the Sun, others just get burned.
The Portland Trail Blazers went down in ignominious defeat in their second game of the pre-season, falling 93-104 to the Phoenix Suns in a game that wasn't ever in doubt. You can find Timmay's full game recap here and complete coverage from Game Preview to the final word (including the analysis you're now reading) in our Game 2 Story Stream.
Here are some things to draw from Portland's performance tonight.
You may recall that we've been saying for a while that there will be two sides to the Blazers' run-and-spread offense this season. When they catch opposing teams unprepared or unmotivated they're going to look pretty. When defenses remember to work and/or when the Blazers fail to execute properly those same players will look like they're walking through a collective nightmare.
The first quarter of this game was a prime example of the latter phenomenon. Phoenix controlled boards and tempo enough to keep the Blazers from breaking outright, eliminating the possibility of baskets near the rim on the run. Stuck in the halfcourt game, the Blazers failed to screen for each other and make crisp cuts. Every pass landed in the hand of a covered man. As long as that guy is LaMarcus Aldridge the Blazers can get away with it. But how many shots can Aldridge attempt on his own? Seemingly every non-LaMarcus look in the period was a covered three. The Blazers attempted 11 triples in the opening quarter, making but 2. They got destroyed.
Things looked better as both teams calmed down and experimented with odd lineups. Random was better than predictably bad. Eventually the Blazers managed a more balanced diet of shots. But that first period should be your enduring memory from this game, as it's indicative of Portland's offensive story. When it works, it'll work well. When it doesn't...boy.
The Blazers will have an interesting time solving this riddle as well. The only sure out is to go back to Aldridge isolation sets. They're going to do that, but they don't want to stall the system to get decent shots. They have a couple people who can get by their men initially but no threats to finish at the rim, so the drive is out. If the Blazers can get every player involved in a play to pay attention to detail--screening technique, routes, timing--they could work their way out of this a little. But that requires a precision and commitment we have yet to see...perhaps an impossible demand from brand new players just trying to remember what they're supposed to do.
It's worth noting that screening and cutting are two of the harder things to simulate in practice. You can make the motions and walk the steps precisely, but you can't get that same intensity or push-back from the opponent in a non-game situation. It's not surprising that the best-drawn plans of mice and men often go awry.
If precision and commitment were lacking on the offensive end for this brand-new team, you can imagine what happened on defense tonight. We saw some impressive moments from individuals, some genuine hustle from a couple players. In general, though, the defense was a mess. When schemes are predicated on people moving and they don't (or when they move to the wrong spot) the machine is going to break down quickly. The Suns only scored 12 fast break points for the game but their opportunities were greater than that as Portland's "D" often started behind due to lagging wings. In the middle section of possessions Portland's bigs had trouble keeping their counterparts out of the paint and smaller defenders couldn't rotate fast enough to get a hand in the face of jump shooters. Up until the final part of the game Portland also had trouble securing rebounds. Add this up and you find Phoenix shooting 51% on the evening, 50% from the three-point arc, scoring 48 in the paint, and notching a prodigious 30 assists. You can't pin this on one or two defenders. This team has enough defensive holes that everybody has to stay sharp and help each other all the time. When that doesn't happen...ugh.
Damian Lillard came back to earth tonight, finding only deep shots early and missing almost all (1-6 from distance for the game). 5 turnovers took the shine off of 5 assists just as 5-13 shooting took the shine off of 15 points. This wasn't a lack of ability as much as lack of familiarity with the situation. His team fell apart around him. He's the point guard. He's supposed to manage this. But this is his second-ever game in the NBA. The collapse took him along for the ride. Eventually he'll be able to stem that tide with more than just covered three-point attempts. Not tonight though.
Two areas could be of more permanent concern. Defense is the first, as Lillard looked bad during significant stretches tonight. We've always known his teammates would have to help him in this area, but he can't need that much help and he's occasionally got to be of service to others. Second, Lillard is one of those guys we mentioned who can get past defenders but he has yet to show finishing ability at the rim. You'll say, "No problem! He can just dish!" If he doesn't threaten with a strong finish defenders will play him for the pass and take away the benefit of his driving altogether. This will be something to keep an eye on. He did get to the line for 4 attempts tonight. If he can draw fouls consistently this concern will be alleviated.
Meyers Leonard started in place of the injured J.J. Hickson tonight. He had a few isolated, brilliant moments: a put-back slam here, a great rebound there, and the occasional really sharp screen. For the most part, though, he was still figuring it out. He looked like he was running through plays instead of playing for effect. Standout portions of his evening included 7 offensive rebounds and 5-8 shooting. Less impressive: 1 defensive rebound and missed assignments.
LaMarcus Aldridge is still tuning up his game. He had a great night on the boards with 10 overall. Portland will need rebounding from every forward and guard this season and Aldridge looks like he's taking that responsibility personally. He shot only 4-13 on the night. Part of that reflects the sparse help he got from his teammates. He still looks a little awkward about his offensive role, however. It's Game 2 of the pre-season so you can't read too much into it, but this is another area to watch. So far this new system looks to be making different demands on Portland's star forward, not just in where and how he's getting his looks but in how he's expected to fit in. He prospered when he was the center of nearly every play Portland ran. That hasn't been the case so far this year. Are the Blazers just practicing new stuff, knowing they can always return to Aldridge isos and the old standby? Or will LaMarcus continue having to adjust to not touching the ball for long and having to depend on everyone else to help him get his offense in?
Nicolas Batum was one of the few Blazers to register a successful first half, the only guy to hit threes early. He ended up with a respectable 14 points in 26 minutes. He also hustled when his teammates were struggling...a rarity tonight. After the initial burst his play leveled out, but then again it was pre-season. On the other hand the Blazers could use a little more than 4 rebounds, 1 block, and 2 turnovers in his stat line.
Wesley Matthews couldn't find the range on his three-pointer (1-4 on the evening), couldn't dribble drive, and couldn't make up for all the cracks in the defense, leading to a generally forgettable game for him.
With only a couple exceptions, Portland's bench ran by a simple rule tonight. The more experienced the player, the more towards their norm they played even as the team was struggling. Jarred Jeffries, Ronnie Price, Adam Morrison, Sasha Pavlovic...these guys have seen NBA action and played like it. That's not to say they were good. Several of them showed better in L.A. on Wednesday than they did tonight. But they didn't fall apart in the face of less-than-ideal circumstances. If anyone crossed that line into looking downright nice, it was Pavlovic...one of the few players to play crisply both ways and hit shots.
Nolan Smith, on the other hand, looked like a fish flopping out of water and still trying to put up every shot it saw. Smith went 3-9 on the evening, though even he had good moments (as his 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals will testify).
Luke Babbitt deserves some mention for his offense. With the pressure off he looked comfortable and hit 3-5, adding 2 rebounds and a steal. He was in with an odd lineup which guarded an odd Phoenix lineup so it's hard to judge his defense much, other than saying it wasn't worse than anybody else's and at times looked decent.
Joel Freeland again showed his Euro experience by using speed and motion to get to good positions and complete plays when he had them. Of particular note are some nice passes he made in the offense, though a couple of post moves and paint stops late also make the bill of reasons Portland fans should like him.
As one would expect in this kind of outing, concerns raised outweighed positive points. However you have to remember that most of this night was within the realm of the average, not just for individuals but for the team as a whole. Most players played about as expected, perhaps a notch or two below because of the lack of cohesiveness. The team itself showed the downside of its normal offense, its collection of skills, and its lack of experience just as we saw the upside in Game 1. The team hasn't changed between Wednesday and now. We just have a broader picture of what we can expect in the coming season, the ups and the downs.