Portland Trail Blazers: Can a Jump-Shooting Team Succeed in the Playoffs?

Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

How will the Portland Trail Blazers' regular-season success so far translate into the playoffs? Can a jump-shooting team succeed in the post-season?

Dave,

I think we're past the point of discussing whether the Blazers make the playoffs now.  Yes!!!  And I'm tired of chasing my tail trying to figure out how long this miracle run will continue in the regular season.  Just ride it!  The next obvious question is how well success will translate in the playoffs.  Will our style hold up through a long playoff run?  Thoughts?

Kevin

The first thing you want to look at is how much cooperation you need from the opponent in order to play to your strengths.  During the brief years the Washington Wizards made the playoffs, for example, they played a not-entirely-horrible brand of defense...surprising given their offensive-minded personnel.  But the foundation of that defense was forcing turnovers, a category in which they were clearly an elite team (as opposed to most other defensive categories in which they were clearly not).  That approach served them well during the regular season but you knew it wouldn't translate into the post-season because good teams aren't going to commit that many turnovers no matter how diligent you are in trying to force them.  They needed cooperation from the other guy in order to make their defense work.  When they didn't get it, the "D" fell apart and so did they.

The same holds true, somewhat famously, for fast break points.  Fatigue, lack of preparation time, or habit can contribute to teams not getting back on defense during the regular season.  In the playoffs the opponent pays attention and makes the effort to get back in transition defense.  That's all it takes to stop the fast break and hamstring transition-dependent teams.

Focusing on the Blazers, the three-point shot remains a cornerstone to their offense.  Conventional wisdom claims the three is one of the easier shots to take away.  Closing defenders and fatigue conspire to create misses.  That's true in most cases but the Blazers will likely prove an exception.  This team was built to shoot the long ball in a way that few others have.  The sheer numbers of distance marksmen on the roster means there's no way opponents can close on all of them.  It'll be interesting to see how fatigue wears on the Blazers as the regular season grind progresses, but even if they slip the post-season restart should bring a renewal of vigor and confidence.  I don't see anybody taking the three away from Portland.

Three-point defense falls along the same lines.  If the Blazers choose to throttle shooters beyond the arc nobody should be able to take that away from them.

Offensive rebounding is a strong Blazer dependency.  If they don't score second-chance points outright they at least generate the extra field goal attempts critical to keeping their offensive production high.  Teams that keep Portland one-and-done find their road exponentially easier.  Conversely, Portland's runs are often triggered (or at least sustained) by subtle Robin Lopez tip rebounds.

Offensive rebounding requires more cooperation from the opponent than shooting does.  You'll always find some offensive rebounds heading your way but teams that bear down on the defensive boards usually collect rebounds, if nothing else because defenders stand closer to the hoop on each possession than offensive players do.

The foul line has been an underrated part of Portland's success.  Drawing (or avoiding) whistles doesn't break down easily.  NBA rules are spelled out clearly but the way they're interpreted can be opaque.  Style of play factors in.  Star power does as well.

Traditionally teams that get the ball inside are supposed to draw more fouls.  This isn't holding true with the Blazers this year.  Portland is 29th in the league in paint scoring, 16th in free throw attempts.  The Blazers are also 30th in the league in allowing paint points but 6th in the league in opponent foul shots attempted.

Some of that correlates to scheme.  The Blazers aren't fouling in the paint therefore teams are scoring in the paint instead of attempting foul shots.  You have to believe some of this is intentional: keeping Robin Lopez home, letting him work to his strengths, depending on his savvy to know when to foul and when to just play straight up and let the shot fall where it may.  One look at his foul rate per minute compared to his fellow bigs will tell you he's doing an excellent job.

But some of this also makes the Blazers a little bit odd...in company with a few other teams like the Clippers, Lakers, and Timberwolves to be sure, but still an interesting case.  Those gaps are wide by NBA standards.  Ask me whether I trust whistles to stay consistent in the playoffs and I'll say..."???"  This is a little bit of a wild card, worth watching.

Flipping the view to weaknesses we find paint scoring and paint defense as the glaring examples.  Paint scoring is simply a matter of personnel.  Lopez has done wonders with the occasional sweeping hook but the Blazers don't have a true low post scorer or a guy capable of making more than one move in the key.  Fair enough.  They make up for it with the shooting.  Paint defense is partially a function of roster but also a choice.  The Blazers don't have the horses to cover both the outside and inside well.  They opt for the statistical edge, locking down the arc by keeping their perimeter defenders at home at the cost of allowing a relatively free pass in the lane.  Ideally they want to channel penetration into Lopez's wheelhouse.  Practically speaking mobility limits the range of that wheelhouse and Portland's guards aren't diligent in pushing their men there anyway.  The Blazers have decent defensive quarters in the paint but seldom good games.

Without adding players or changing their approach the Blazers will carry this paint weakness into the playoffs.  So far it hasn't hurt them in the regular season.  They might be able to get past the right opponent in the post-season.  But emerging victorious from the playoffs means winning four series.  At some point you have to believe the obvious hole will catch up to them.

Teams prepare for each other during the regular campaign, becoming more familiar as the year progresses.  But it's not like they have a four-hour drill before each game preparing for each specific opponent and altering your approach radically.  You change a few things, figure out what the other side does best and try to take it away, but in the rush of 82 games plus travel you mostly stick to your schemes and let the best side win.

The playoffs are a different animal.  You only face one opponent at a time.  You play them 4-7 games in a row.  You check their Plan A, anticipate their Plan B, and if  they don't have Plan C they're up the creek.  If you find something that works you go to the well again and again until it stops.  If that's Dwight Howard in the lane or Goran Dragic on the drive 15 plays in a row, so be it.  As long as you win nothing else matters.

The Blazers have not played in that kind of environment yet.  We do know that teams who have taken away strengths (usually rebounding) or exploited weaknesses (paint defense) against them have succeeded during the stretches they accomplished this.  We also know that the Blazers didn't cry "uncle" and actually found a way to win most of those games.

We're left in the murky middle somewhere.  This isn't a team you'd trust in the post-season, at least not entirely.  They have a couple of overwhelming strengths matched by a couple of glaring weaknesses with wiggle room in the middle to tip a game either way.  But it isn't a team you'd bet against either considering the nice record so far and their uncanny ability to win games that appear to be losses on the surface.    Maybe the best way to put it is that in a given series, depending on matchups, you'd value the Blazers as highly as you would any good team.  But weighing several series in succession you'd also figure that they'll run into an opponent who will take advantage of their shortcomings while being able to tip away those toss-up categories.

If the Blazers can address some of those weaknesses the story will change.  I don't necessarily subscribe to the Charles Barkley theory that a jump-shooting team can't succeed in the playoffs.  I suspect a jump-shooting team that also allows more points in the paint than anybody in the league while scoring few themselves will have a hard time succeeding in the playoffs.

Either way, it'll be easier to figure out who's who (and how far) when we have the final records and actual brackets in hand.  Until then, of course, it's all about getting as far up the standings as possible.  So far the Blazers are doing a fine job of that, so all's well for now.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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