Trail Blazers Show Bursts of Promise Against Warriors as Starting Lineup Gets a Workout

Craig Mitchelldyer-US PRESSWIRE

The regular-season rotation of the Portland Trail Blazers (plus a couple of guest stars) gets its first trip out of the garage to mixed results.

If you're looking for a blow-by-blow recap of the game, check out Timmay's fine work right here.

Playing the pre-penultimate game of the pre-season tonight, the Portland Trail Blazers trotted out a tighter rotation than usual. Blazer fans got their first look at Portland's starters in 30-ish minute action. They also got a clue as to which players will see the floor when Halloween arrives and which will be wearing warm-ups or the uniforms of other teams.

The performance of the starters was mixed tonight. To the positive they got LaMarcus Aldridge good shots, they maintained rebounding parity, they kept Golden State from destroying them in the paint, and they got to the free throw line enough to make up for their own interior scoring shortcomings. On the other hand non-Aldridge performances were spotty, the best play showing up only intermittently. They didn't set or make good use of screens and found open shots sparse. Only individual heroics kept them in the game...a nice touch for a lineup hungry for talent but not sustainable and not Terry Stotts' first plan for production. Defense was spotty as well, particularly against the pick and roll. The Warriors singled out Portland defenders to involve in screens. The quality of response corresponded directly to the individual involved...not a promising sign for a team that depends on a five-man response to cover holes.

The high bench players--which in this case excluded veterans Ronnie Price (injured) and Jared Jeffries (7 minutes tonight)--sputtered just as much in the offensive sets and gave up plenty of points. The one time the bench found success was when they forced Golden State turnovers and ran. But that lasted all too briefly. Soon the Blazers reserves found themselves coughing up TO's and trouble ensued.

The third period saw a marvelous stretch of play by Nicolas Batum, aided by those ever-elusive well-set screens. The Warriors playing without Steph Curry (injured mid-game) didn't hurt either. The fourth quarter saw the return of the deep-bench players who repeated their Wednesday night performance against Denver. For those who missed that game, Portland's least talented and/or experienced players also found themselves relying most heavily on the game plan. Sticking to basics and executing them well, the third-unit guys actually excelled. So, too, went the final period of this game. Only in the last critical possessions when the game narrowed to 1 or 2 shots for the win did the bargain basement unit strike out. Failing to win a game in pre-season is no crime, however, especially since these guys faced Golden State's starters (minus Curry) for most of the period. That they hung close at all was a testament to them and to Stotts' ability to milk points out of what they do well.

The net impression from this game was positive, with the caveat that the first unit needs to blow off the rust and get used to playing hard and well together.

Individual Notes

This far into the pre-season it's not worth remarking on things that haven't changed since Game 1, so we'll hit the highlights.

LaMarcus Aldridge shot aggressively and comfortably from the elbow. This was the biggest effect he's had on the offense yet this year. He shot 7-11 for 18 points. He could have helped more defending screens, as his point guards definitely needed it.

J.J. Hickson is many things, but he is not a center. Ditto the remark about screens we just made about Aldridge.

Nicolas Batum struggled until that third-quarter rally. He finished 4-10 with 6-8 free throws for 15 points, which looks good. But 10 of those points came in just four-minutes. Outside of that streak...meh. This team isn't deep. There's nobody to cover for non-productive minutes this year.

Wesley Matthews shot 3-8 from the field but also went 8-8 from the charity stripe, finishing with 14. He went to the bucket a bunch with and without the ball...good to see.

Damian Lillard is just an eye-opener. You forget that he has played exactly four pre-season games. That's his entire career. Watching him dish, he sees the floor so well. He was the Picasso of the Pass tonight. And this from a guy billed as a "scoring" point guard. What the "scoring" amounts to right now is you thinking, "He's had a little bit of a quiet offensive game" and then looking up and realizing he has 15 points to go along with his 7 assists. He finished one drive nicely with a reverse tonight and a couple more at the rim in less-than-heavy traffic which also looked quite fine. It's good to see him get those points at the cup either way. The other end of the story is that his decisions and looping routes around opposing screens plus the failure of his bigs to help properly resulted in some truly abysmal defensive looks in the early going. I'd love to say that the situation got better--maybe it did marginally--but Curry departing also had something to do with that. Nobody is going to give Lillard and Company any breaks defensively in the regular season. If a play works once they'll run it 50 times or until the Blazers can stop it.

Meyers Leonard had a nice rebounding night, nabbing 6 in 14 minutes. His defense was brilliant, like, twice and best not mentioned otherwise. He also collected 5 personal fouls in those 14 minutes.

Victor Claver was one of the first Blazers off the bench tonight and responded with 4 rebounds, a steal, and a bucket in 5 minutes. Then he got clocked in the nose and couldn't play anymore.

If you go by stats alone Joel Freeland had a poor night. He played 18 minutes, had but 1 rebound plus a block, got tagged with 4 whistles, and scored 5 points. The counter-points are two. First, those 5 points came off of 6 free throws, since he was at least trying to get near the rim. Second, he was by far the best center defender against those screens that we've mentioned 4 times now.

Nolan Smith is many things, but he is not a point guard. His confidence is just not there right now. It looks like he's trying to play at a speed that's half again too fast for him. Check the Warriors vs Trail Blazers boxscore for results.

Will Barton got some serious run, playing 18 minutes with 4 points and 3 rebounds. He showed a couple flashes of nice athleticism, particularly on a reaching back in the air block and a dunk-back of a missed layup by Smith.

Sasha Pavlovic continues to make you say, "Why is he on this team again? Oh...he's usually in the right place, is not afraid to take shots, makes them often, and understands how he fits." I suspect that this being his 7th stop in the league has made him something of a system shark, able to pick up what he needs to do.

Luke Babbitt was in aggressive scoring mode, notching 5 with 3 rebounds in 8 minutes. In typical Babbitt fashion, every time you're ready to write him off he earns a metaphorical chalupa and rises again. When he's safe and you want to depend on him, he sinks.

Jared Jeffried did fine in 7 minutes, with 3 rebounds and 2 points.

Coby Karl and Adam Morrison did not play.

Final Thoughts

It's encouraging that the Blazers were able to stay close via the foul line on a night when their three-pointers were not falling (31-35 FT's, 4-17 3PT's). It was also heartening to see them press a turnover advantage for a while even though they ended up giving it back. This team will need alternatives on the nights when things don't click. We don't know if either of these developments will be consistent, but it's within the realm of possibility. Seeing the Blazers keep the Warriors to 11 fast break points was also heartening. You gotta use those young legs for something. Might as well be getting back.

You can check out the impressions at GoldenStateofMind if you wish.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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