The Portland Trail Blazers opened their 2014-15 pre-season campaign in less-than-sterling fashion, ceding a victory to the Utah Jazz, 92-73. You can click here for the boxscore but it's largely unimpressive. Neither stats nor scores matter much in pre-season, especially on a night when Terry Stotts played his starters a uniform 20 minutes each. Portland substituted hockey-style, their best lineup limited to 1st and 3rd periods. Bench players got minutes en masse during the rest of the contest with mixed results. The Blazers might as well have been singing the "This Isn't a Real Game" theme song, composed during the 60% of the game the starters weren't playing.
The Blazers didn't change personnel over the summer. They're still stocked with long, rangy, but not-terribly quick players. They compensated for that tonight by shading help towards ball-handlers. Once the ball hit the floor, strong-side defenders would slide step towards the dribbler. Once the guy committed, they'd swarm. If he didn't commit, defenders would remain shaded, ready to slide back to their men if the ball moved. The end result: the ball-handler could take a jumper anytime he wished but he couldn't drive without another man coming to help and couldn't enter the lane without getting swarmed. Portland's length makes this possible. As long as they cut down the distance between the help and the dribbler, reducing the need for lateral quickness, the defense works. Few players feel comfortable getting up shots over that many long arms. Passing becomes out of the question once the trap closes as well.
The Blazers still run intro trouble when they get isolated one-on-one or when the pass whips around the horn to an open shooter. In the first case the dribbler gets by and help can't close in time, resulting in a foul. In the second the defense doesn't shift back quickly enough, leaving an open look on the other side of the court.
Particularly troubling: the Jazz started the game by drawing Robin Lopez outside with jump shooters. You may recall the San Antonio Spurs employing the same tactic last spring, negating Lopez's defensive power entirely. Utah didn't take it that far, but you could see the sore thumb sticking out in the first quarter. If more teams follow the trend successfully the Blazers will need to draw up a new plan. There's no way Lopez can live out there. There's no way the Blazers can live without him in the lane. This isn't a problem Chris Kaman can solve either.
Portland's bench defense was hit-and-miss, but that's expected. If history holds true those units will never be playing together in the regular season. The only disturbing thing about the second unit was a tendency to get beat in transition. These guys aren't speed merchants either but at least they're young. They're supposed to get back without breaking a sweat. Utah made hay pushing tempo. The Blazers can't allow that.
When the bench players kept the ball moving they got relatively decent looks. (Whether they hit them is another story but again, it's pre-season.) To their credit, they ran plays under most circumstances. With a couple exceptions, the Portland reserves looked far more comfortable in their own skins and in the system than they did last year.
Those exceptions mostly cropped up in the third unit which (somewhat understandably) had trouble putting points on the board or generating any momentum. The deeper the Blazers went down the roster, the less goodness showed through.
Turnovers and three-point shooting both cost the Blazers this evening. They fired only 16% from distance, hitting 3 of 19 attempts. They committed 21 turnovers. These were less systemic than environmental. Rust and unfamiliarity took their toll.
1. If the Blazers are going to rely heavily on their bench players they have a long way to go.
2. But they're not.
3. Even so, a couple of bench guys demonstrated improvement, or at least the potential for improvement, so they might be able to bank on more of a contribution than last season.
4. If the defense is getting better it's not showing yet but at least you can see what they're doing. It's not the "let guys roam free against Lopez in the paint" approach they started last season with.
Damian Lillard had a rough shooting night but his posture and form were as good as ever. It was less a bad game than a 20-minute game. Had this been the regular season he would have filled his remaining 15 minutes with more drives and general butt-kicking. Penetration was there for him most of the night and he scored well in traffic.
LaMarcus Aldridge was one of the few Blazers whose jumper looked as pretty as ever. No worries about him. Clockwork.
Robin Lopez suffered from having to run around, as mentioned above. The Jazz did a good job of hitting the boards, making him grab the ball in a field of enemy jerseys, if at all. The only mild concern on the evening was fouls. His teammates need to protect him a little better, helping him help them. But Robin's going to be Robin and that's a good thing.
Nicolas Batum looked...detached? Fatigued? Something was off during the first part of the game especially. But then you look up and the guy's got 4 rebounds and 4 assists in 20 minutes.
Wesley Matthews ran pretty well and looked normal...no lingering effects from his earlier bout with an irregular heartbeat showed to my eye.
In short, it was pretty much the outing you expected for the starters. No surprises. Now let's move on to the far-more-interesting bench.
Chris Kaman looked comfortable in the system and the offense. His face-up jumper flew nicely and should provide a new wrinkle to the center spot (or let's face it, to the reserve power forward slot, should the Blazers choose to use him there). He wasn't quite filling Lopez's shoes on the defensive end but he wasn't bad. The same issue afflicts him and Lopez both: lack of lateral movement. As long as the Blazers can keep their centers home on defense they'll be fine. A step off or a tick late and you can hear the whistle coming from a mile away.
Will Barton played more economically on offense than we're used to seeing. He seemed to embrace the Mo Williams, 6th-Man-scorer role. His body language said, "Green Light" and "Team's depending on me". Unlike last year, he found his offense in the flow, getting up open shots without hesitation but foregoing the loopy dribbles and false drives. He was impressive on that end. He got some opportunity steals on the other end but his defense isn't anywhere near his offense at this point.
Steve Blake captained the second unit and did well as long as his teammates moved properly around him. He got stuck as a bail-out scorer when they didn't and that got ugly quick. He still brings a sense of security that Portland's recent point guard subs have lacked though. If there's a play to be made, he'll make it. He's just not going to create any on his own.
Meyers Leonard played power forward with the first set of reserves tonight alongside Kaman and Blake. He's moving more confidently in the offense and finding his timing in plays at both end of the court. He's no longer the most obvious player on the floor, which in his case is a good thing. The Blazers will be hoping that his natural speed will start to show as he continues to find his comfort level. He's still not great at the point of attack on either end though. When any given play culminates, it's not safe to have Meyers in it. If he were part of a comedy team he'd be developing into a possibly-decent straight man right now. Just don't give him many punch lines. But this is a work in progress, obviously. All we can say right now is that the first game this year painted him starting in a better place than his first game last year did. Or heck, maybe even his last game last year.
C.J. McCollum looked like he was trying to fit himself into the Barton/Mo Williams role as well but he did a bit more dribbling and a bit less hitting than Will did. His attacks came mostly in baseline/lane territory whereas Barton played a lot up top. That meant more defenders in C.J.'s way and generally less success. We'll have to see if that's the plan overall or just a single-game quirk.
Joel Freeland got 12 minutes with the deep reserves and didn't have enough talent around him to let him blend in and contribute. He rebounded well.
To my eyes Dorell Wright looks like he's more in off-season shape than mid-season shape. Privilege of a veteran in training camp.
Thomas Robinson also got deep reserve minutes...perhaps surprising given his ascension during the second half of the season last year but who knows if it was indicative or just a phase. The Blazers might be committing to face-up shooting 4's, in which case Robinson would have issues. Either way, he didn't look great tonight. Lack of structure around him only accentuates his own.
Allen Crabbe got 12 minutes, Diante Garrett and Victor Claver 5 apiece. Crabbe had a hopscotch finish at the rim but mostly the trio played unremarkably.
The Blazers face the Jazz again on Thursday in their first pre-season game at home. Something tells me that minute distribution, energy, and style will all change in that game.
SLC Dunk covers the Jazz for you if you'd like that perspective.
Those who saw the game, add your observations below!