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Monday Practice Report

Turn Back The Clock Night

It was a relatively quiet day at Blazers practice as the television stations were out in full force to get soundbytes in preparation for Wednesday's game against the Phoenix Suns that will be played in the Memorial Coliseum.  It was a real head-scratcher watching reporters prodding 20-25 year old players who didn't grow up in Portland for their favorite Memorial Coliseum memories.  I'm shocked Greg Oden wasn't sure if Clyde Drexler played in the arena.  I'm amazed Brandon deferred questions about the MC to his father.  I just can't believe Martell Webster isn't able to give us a 20 minute speech about this beautiful landmark.  Most of the guys copped to never even being inside the building which led to some television anchor anguish. Gotta love it. 

Nate McMillan, on the other hand, certainly remembers the Memorial Coliseum and he sounded genuinely excited to be "on the other sideline" this Wednesday.  It's been an interesting transition for Mr. Sonic as he's adopted this Blazers franchise.  To me, one of the best hidden gems in that interview yesterday was when Nate referred to the 1977 Blazers as "our championship team."  For guys like Nate who have vivid memories of the Memorial Coliseum's heyday, Wednesday should be a treat.  Personally I can't wait.

Juwan Howard

Juwan Howard got scratched on the head today (no stitches needed, he said after practice) which led to this rather hilarious picture.

Pick and Roll Defense

This is a holdover from yesterday's extended chat with Nate McMillan but it's pretty interesting.  Dwight Jaynes asked Nate for his thoughts on the team's defensive progress.  Nate stuck to his guns with his typical answer -- "We need to get better" -- but broke things down into a fair bit of depth when it comes to how the team will handle pick and rolls this season.  

Essentially, Nate's base defensive schemes call for small forwards and power forwards to "show hard" when their man sets a pick for the guard.  The idea is that everyone in this group -- Martell, Nic, Ime, Travis, LaMarcus, Howard, Cunningham -- has the physical tools (sufficient quickness and length) necessary to impede the ballhandler's dribbling progress until the guard gets through the pick completely, and then recover back.  

On the other hand, Nate's schemes require centers to handle things in exactly the opposite way: centers (Oden, Przybilla) are expected to collapse off of the ballhandler.  In Nate's words: their job is "dropping back and zoning up and corralling."  The goal is to eliminate ticky-tack fouls by the big guys and keep them from getting stuck out on an island in unfavorable mismatches.  

Here's where it gets tricky: if the Blazers decide to go with a smaller lineup -- using either LaMarcus Aldridge or Juwan Howard as their center -- which they very well might do, potentially even in late-game situations -- both those guys will be expected to play the pick-and-rolls as if they are 5s rather than 4s.  In other words, LaMarcus and Juwan must be well-versed in both ways of handling the pick-and-roll and cognizant of what position they are playing at all times.  Additionally, their guard teammates won't be able to rely solely on verbal cues to know how to play a pick and roll.  For example, if Andre Miller or Brandon Roy hears LaMarcus shouting that a pick is coming left or right that won't be enough for him to know how LaMarcus will play it, he would also need to recognize whether LaMarcus is at the 4 or 5 spot at that moment.  Of course, the Blazers have verbal play calls on defense to account for this, so assuming everyone is communicating properly, there shouldn't be any mix ups. But it's just another thing for the players to remember to talk about on defense and it's an extra responsibility for LMA and Howard to constantly remind themselves about.

McMillan acknowledged that this might cause some confusion for the casual observer but was fairly adamant that the Blazers do, in fact, stick pretty tightly to their defensive rules most of the time. "You may see Howard and LaMarcus [play it] different if they're at the 4 and the 5," Nate warned.  But just because they play it differently doesn't necessarily mean that they are playing it inconsistently.

Dwight Jaynes was quick to raise the counter-approach to this philosophy: the Blazers players are not interchangeable parts at every position.  Some guys are quicker, some are stronger, some might excel playing pick and rolls one way while others might favor a different approach.  I love the idea of a long, quick, smart LaMarcus hard showing on small guards, making their lives difficult and blinding their passing lanes with his long arms as he recovers.  Indeed, I wrote about that very thing earlier this summer.  But do I like that setup for Travis?  Would I fully trust his footwork and recognition?  I'm not sure.  Nate did acknowledge that players have different strengths but that the overall strength of the defense was increased by sticking to the team schemes that he believes in.  Here are his full thoughts on the matter...  

It doesn't make a difference who the guys are. They shouldn't be playing a guy different. Not in our schemes. We are going to play the pick and roll defense whether Blake or Miller is guarding the ball. We're going to play the pick and roll defense whether Joel or Greg is into it. Now Joel and LaMarcus play it different because they are 5 and 4.  But all of our 4s play it the same as each other.  It shouldn't make a difference the combination of players because we're not changing where we have 4 or 5 smalls in the game.  That shouldn't change. We're going to shadow and pick up with Blake and Miller and Bayless.

Our 5s, we don't go out aggressive and send them out to hard show. Our 5s we drop them back and let them zone up.  When LaMarcus is at the 5, he plays it as a 5 because our rules will allow him to defend it and we can help him if he plays it that way. You're dropping back and zoning up and we're corralling. We still want you up but you're not coming out.

LaMarcus and our fours should be able to jump out and show and that guard gets through. With the 5 man, we don't want him running out on these little guards. It's a different defense that our guys know. Our 3 and our 4 play the pick and roll the same way. They hard show. They don't automatically switch.

Pick and roll defense was one of the team's weakest points last season.  Why?  Because way too often the players "automatically switched." At the end of the day, there's no ideal, set-in-stone way to play the pick and roll.  It depends on who is running it.  It depends on your personnel defending it. And it depends on the match-up between the two sides.  No scheme is perfect.  But if Nate's defensive rules and the responsibilities that go with them can eliminate some of the lackadaisical defending everyone saw last year, I think he will be satisfied.

Jarron Collins Update

Through 3 pre-season games, J. Collins hasn't found much playing time.  It's too bad, too, because he looks very much the NBA player in the practice gym.  I asked Nate for his assessment of Collins up to this point and whether he'd seen enough of the Stanford grad in game action to render a verdict on the final roster spot. Here's Nate's assessment.

He's smart. He picks up things fairly quickly. We'll give [Udoka and Collins] an opportunity to play. But there are going to be 10 guys in rotation that I want to -- probably by that Denver game -- to start to play.  Whether we have rotations with a starting or backup unit, I won't say that. But those 10 guys, I want to look and play them and not play 12, 13 guys [after the Denver game].

Collins knows how to play.

It's just the fact that he's over there in that video room with Greg so that he can talk. He knows what he's doing.  He knows why he's here. 

At that point, Nate gave kind of a longing look across the gym to the video room, where the two centers were sitting huddled around a monitor looking at game tape.  I'm not sure if Nate's look meant, "What a great influence he is on Greg!" or "Man, I'd like to have that guy around all year but there's just no room."  Either way, it was clear that Collins' pre-season contributions are appreciated by his Coach, even if his playing time doesn't reflect that at first glance. 

Meanwhile, Ime Udoka was one of two players staying late at today's practice, getting in some extra jumpers.

-- Ben (