The Portland Trail Blazers opened up their pre-season schedule against the Los Angeles Clippers tonight. That's a big challenge under any circumstances, let alone with LaMarcus Aldridge scratched from the starting lineup. Predictably the Blazers got handled easily. Don't let the loss throw you. Victory and defeat mean nothing until the games actually count.
That said, this was the unveiling of Portland's new offensive and defensive schemes, plus a chance to check on the progress of individual players. The latter result was mixed. Some guys looked good, others less so. The big picture was far more concerning.
Rebounding was the unabashed success story of the evening for the Trail Blazers. Robin Lopez, Thomas Robinson, and Joel Freeland all looked good on the boards. Meyers Leonard's eye test results were still shaky but even he managed a half-dozen carom catches. The frontcourt looks plenty solid in this department.
Defense proved an issue all night long. Portland's scheme has obviously changed, as least if these early results are indicative. The Blazers are trying hard to keep their centers down low in the paint. In theory that's a wise plan. In practice the results weren't ideal. Granted the Clippers shot 37% on the night...seemingly a feather in Portland's cap. But L.A.'s starting unit butchered the Blazers for as long as they needed to, attacking the rim with little resistance to set up open shots outside. They ended up missing almost all those open shots (Jamal Crawford went 0-4, Byron Mullens 2-10) but that's not going to happen every night. Portland's centers either looked rooted to the spot (Robin Lopez) or semi-spastic (Meyers Leonard). In neither case were they able to help their teammates or intimidate the opponent on the drive. And their teammates needed a lot of help. Portland's perimeter defenders just aren't solid enough, individually or as a group, to handle things on their own. Last year the Blazers watched dribblers split a guard and J.J. Hickson at the top of the key. If tonight is any indication that's been replaced by Portland's centers watching a dunk or layup from a couple feet away on the other side of the rim. Either way, the result is the same.
The Blazers had a couple of nifty passing plays on offense, but the overall outing looked more nightmarish than dreamy. The good interpretation of Portland's skill set: passing the ball until finding an open shooter, knowing everybody can hit from range and figuring the defense can't stop everybody all the time. The bad interpretation of Portland's skill set: jump shooters with no means of scoring inside except off the occasional offensive rebound, living off of low-percentage, streaky shots. This game favored the bad interpretation. The Clippers didn't contest every shot, but when they did manage to get a hand in the face of shooters Portland was near-impotent. Like the Clippers, the Blazers will have better shooting percentage results on other nights. But the basic style of offense might remain a concern.
Lopez owned the biggest debut of the evening. Mirroring the team, the rebounding was pretty but everything else was not. Lopez does put a solid body on his man when the ball goes up. He grabs rebounds and clears space for his teammates to do same. But his lack of speed--up and down the floor early, laterally through the game--got exposed a little tonight. He wasn't able to set solid picks, partly because he wasn't in great position but partly because the guards haven't learned to wait for him yet. In a bad omen, the Clippers often decided to lay off of Lopez entirely when he screened for Damian Lillard, willing to take anything he could muster if he caught the ball and choosing to hound Portland's prized point guard with two men. We spoke of the less-than-scary rim defense above. Lopez did pretty well when switching off to Blake Griffin, but what DeAndre Jordan did to Lopez in the first quarter shouldn't be repeated on a family-friendly site.
Let's reiterate a theme from the summer here: this isn't as much about Robin Lopez as it is about what the Blazers are going to ask Robin Lopez to do for their defense this year. Lopez is a fine player in several ways, but he's going to have to be super-fine with a cherry on top and a nasty streak of rotating and shot blocking to make the kind of difference that the Blazers need. He wasn't that tonight and it may not be in his repertoire.
Thomas Robinson rebounded well and wasn't that bad on defense for a young guy playing in a starting lineup against potent foes. He got lost a little but you can see the raw material there. His offense continues to be a Magical Mystery Tour. He seems to have designs on being a face-up, point-power-forward but I'm not sure anybody knows what will happen when he takes the ball under control...maybe including him.
Damian Lillard looked a little rusty and a little overmatched against Chris Paul, but his game wasn't awful. The Clippers obviously had him circled on their defensive board, as you'd expect with Aldridge out. The most interesting part of his game was a new-found confidence in the mid-range pull-up and/or floater. I'm excited to see how that will develop as the year goes on. If he can hit that shot the world will open up for him. More importantly, so will the lane.
Meyers Leonard's offense looks even better than last year, at least if you're judging by range. He looked confident taking his shots, including face-up jumpers he hesitated on last season. The "stay at home, big man" defensive scheme hides his lack of instinct on that end and makes it easier for him to see and call the action. The moment of truth didn't look that much better though.
Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum looked pretty good, though Matthews had a hard time putting the ball in the hole. He scrambled pretty well on defense and brought the customary energy. Batum looked more in game form than anybody on the team, which you might expect given his summer activities. He hit a couple of really nice jumpers.
Joel Freeland and Allen Crabbe also had nice outings. Freeland looked more comfortable and in-position than we saw last year. It's not like he's a world-beater but he played more freely, with far less hesitation and residual guilt. Crabbe looked like an eager puppy on both ends, including the requisite ups and downs. But that's what you want out of your rookies: a little aggression, willingness to make some mistakes, confidence to play anyway, and the ability to make good. Crabbe showed all of that...a pleasant early surprise.
We'll see how much these early trends continue throughout pre-season. Portland plays Phoenix at home on Wednesday night.
Check out the Gameday Thread and Recap here.