The Blazers beat the Los Angeles Clippers tonight in a ratty but entertaining game. Let's run down the good, bad, and etc.
The Blazer big men redeemed themselves from a spotty pre-season tonight, offering up their best corporate effort across the board.
It might not look like it statistically, but Robin Lopez had his most solid game in a Blazer uniform so far. His energy was up from the opening tip, he got himself in good position, nabbed some nice rebounds, and kept DeAndre Jordan from another explosive outing. His teammates didn't do the best job protecting him and he picked up 4 fouls...one of the recurring themes of the pre-season and something to watch as the real games commence.
Joel Freeland didn't set the world on fire but he did yeoman's work on the boards, looked like he was running plays, even made some nice passes.
Meyers Leonard's rebounds got gobbled up by teammates but his shot was plenty sweet. Pulling people out to the baseline to guard the jumper isn't the worst thing in the world...providing somebody can dribble drive to take advantage of it.
Damian Lillard could have scored 30 in this game with the proper incentive and minutes. His mid-range shot looks double-sweet. There's no reason his moves in the middle shouldn't translate directly into regular-season points. With anything from 15 feet and out looking good, you know that drive and rim finish will start opening up for him...plus fouls.
Small forward was also covered well as Nicolas Batum and Dorrell Wright had their best all-around games of the pre-season on the same night. Both were stroking shots. Batum drove a little. Defense was solid. This is what the Blazers are hoping to see every night during the regular season.
Portland's three-point shooting game came to the fore tonight, at times the only thing keeping the team afloat. The rest of the offense looks rough, especially without LaMarcus Aldridge. But the kick out for three (as opposed to the three off the dribble...unless it's Lillard getting a screen) looks really nice. The Blazers were rowing crew from distance: stroke, stroke, stroke.
Rebounding remains a definite strength so far.
Having more of a backstop on defense appears to have made the exterior defenders more confident closing out on threes. The Clips got few uncontested shots from range tonight and it showed. The home team fired 1-15 from the arc. This is a recurring theme for the pre-season. It also may be part of the cause of the big-man fouls, so we'll have to see how it balances out.
You have to start with turnovers. The Blazers had 19 at the half and finished with 26. Mixed up, unfamiliar lineups provides part of the explanation. That won't be quite so much of a factor when the season starts but neither will it magically change just because 10 more days have passed. Neither is this the only reason for the miscues. The Blazers field way too many guys whose offense is limited, some to the point you're scared to throw the ball to them in all but the most ideal circumstances (and sometimes not even then). Players are catching the ball in positions from which they can't score. Even if that doesn't lead to an outright turnover or horrible shot (and there were plenty of both tonight) it eats clock. This causes the next recipient to rush...thus even more turnovers and bad shots.
This is part of the reason I've said you have to be careful about the difference between these new additions on paper and on the court. Switching out last year's bench with this one isn't as easy as it sounds. Again, these guys are taking minutes from last year's starters, not just last year's bench. They're replacing players with better and more varied offensive skills and players who are far more intimately familiar with each other than with the newcomers.
Also solidly in the bad category are three familiar bugaboos for Portland: fast break points allowed, fast break points scored, and points in the paint scored. Across the board the Blazers are bigger than they are quick. Yes, turnovers play a part in those fast break points against but opponents are also getting down the floor faster off of missed, and even made, buckets. You'd think Portland's size would allow a corresponding advantage in the paint at their end but the limited offensive ability of the bigs combined with ineffective dribbling by the smaller players makes it not so. The end result is that most of the easy points go up on the wrong side of the scoreboard.
The only Portland player to end up in the bad category tonight was Mo Williams. His game wasn't that awful but for a veteran it wasn't that comforting. We saw the shadow side of Mo tonight. When the offense stalled even a little bit he started firing ridiculous shots, trying to bring the team out on his own. He went 0-5 from distance, 3-11 overall, and posted 6 turnovers in 25 minutes.
Thomas Robinson was the asterisk at the end of the big-man praise. He was a rebounding machine but we know he can do that. Every other part of his game needs work. His offense is random. His defense was foul-plagued like Lopez'. He's a serious work in progress (heavy on the "work", light on the progress for now).
Will Barton started in place of Wesley Matthews. He grabbed 10 rebounds and had a couple steals. His offense was a little hot, a little more cold, and even more non-existent. If it's not an easy catch and shoot or an individual masterpiece, he's not ready for it. He also committed 5 turnovers.
Victor Claver did OK but he's going to get buried beneath Batum and Wright unless one of the triplet starts playing another position.
Portland's foul situation was a see-saw affair. They matched the higher-powered Clippers with 33 free throws attempted. That also meant they gave up 33. Reserve point guard Darren Collison accounted for 16 attempts on his own. Portland's perimeter defense looks more effective than it did last season but a guy with a hard-nose and a quick first step will still wreak havoc with them. They're going to be tested. The Blazers made 85% of those foul shots, which is great.
The things that went right for the Blazers tonight--Lillard, small forwards, rebounding, three-point defense, three-point shooting--went really right. It was a really good game in that sense. You still can't get over the impression that the nagging issues in transition and the paint (maybe turnovers also) will force the Blazers to swim against the tide most nights. Things can go right for the Blazers, but things also have to go right for the Blazers.