Willy Raedy is filling in with the analysis for the Portland Trail Blazers-Brooklyn Nets game tonight. --ed.
Looking at this game on paper, the Trail Blazers seem like a great matchup for the Nets. On offense, they use a lot of motion which can be particularly challenging for older, slower teams to defend. On defense, they have solid individual defenders in iso and post-up situations, Brooklyn's bread and butter. From a style perspective, this one seemed to favor the Blazers. Although, the big question was could the Blazers maintain their style of play with two starters missing.
When guys are out, great teams have the ability to keep their core principles solid while adjusting slightly to capitalize on the new players' individual talents. In years past, as Terry Stotts was forced to go deeper into his bench these core principles would begin to break down and there wasn't much talent to capitalize on. It looks like this year things might be different.
The first indication was Stotts' decision to start Meyers Leonard. Last year, when Aldridge went out, Stotts looked down his bench and decided that playing a very different style was his best bet, unable to trust the others to keep up the team's execution. This year he looked down his bench and chose the guy who was most able to play the starters' usual style.
This shift largely paid off as the Blazers' defense remained solid and Leonard's big body was in the right place more often than we've ever seen. For the most part, the Blazers closed off the paint and when the first subs came in the Nets had only managed 10 points with under five minutes to go in the first quarter. Consider the core principles held.
The offense didn't have quite as much success as the Nets crowded the paint forcing the Blazers into jump shots. But the offense stayed afloat as Leonard was able to hit a few and Damian Lillard was aggressive early. The game was knotted at a paltry 13 less than three minutes left in the quarter.
And this is when the narrative really started to change.
With five bench guys on the floor at the same time, we got our first glimpse of the team taking advantage of their unique skills. Not only did the defense remain solid but the quickness of Steve Blake, CJ McCollum, and Will Barton started to force deflections and turnovers. They got three steals and used those to run in transition scoring before the defense got set and gobbling up offensive rebounds in the confusion. By the time the horn sounded, the second unit had gone on an 11-2 run.
This frenetic defense was so surprising that I had to ask myself if the Blazers' bench might actually be the better defensive unit. So I looked it up. Last year, the Blazers' starters had a defensive rating of 103.0, a few points better than the 104.7 they gave up as a team (per stats.nba.com). This year, during the seven games before Nicolas Batum got hurt, the starters had a defensive rating of 102.1 while the team sports a downright stingy 100.5 after tonight's game. Now, small sample size theater can play tricks of many kinds but for a team so used to the starters being vastly superior at every facet of the game this is quite the development.
The offense still wasn't quite there as McCollum and Chris Kaman continued their poor shooting from the first period. When Lillard returned, the Blazers score remained unchanged. And man did he return. Damian didn't necessarily score a lot but for the first time he was scrambling the Nets' defense in the half court and creating opportunities for everyone else on the team. He would rack up five assists in the period and really start to take over, a preview of the show he would put on in the second half.
If you want to give the Nets some credit, they stuck to their guns. Post-ups for Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez and isolations for Deron Williams. Each one would string a few points together but none of them would really get going or free up their teammates for easy looks. The Nets only managed 39 points in the half but were 0/8 from the three point line. The Blazers were up 11 but the Nets had to start hitting eventually and who knew if the Blazers' bench could repeat their success.
Turns out the Nets didn't and the Blazers' bench did. All of the trends established in the first half blossomed in the second and the Nets never really threatened. Lillard went nuts stirring the pot all by himself. The all-bench lineups still struggled to score somewhat but played solid defense holding the lead. The Nets' stars got their points but weren't able to translate that into an overall effective offense. A big part of that was their continued struggle with the long ball shooting 1/11 from the three point line in the second half. No doubt Brooklyn will say that if they hit their usual percentage this game would have been different. Perhaps that is true. But for a team worried about their defense and bench it's hard to take this game as anything but a huge step forward.
Two More Things to Watch For
The all-bench unit got wide open corner threes a few times using the Spurs baseline drive, baseline drift action. This has the ball handler dribble towards the baseline, draw help defenders and then pass the ball all the way across the court to another player spotting up in the corner. This is a great fit for that lineup given Steve Blake's comfort dribbling underneath the rim and the shooting stroke of CJ McCollum. Look for this in the future as a way to generate good looks when none of the starters are on the floor.
It wasn't a big deal given the score but the Blazers continued to struggle with late game situations tonight. Lillard had an ugly turnover as the Blazers tried to put the game away and then rested as Deron Williams sprinted down the court for a wide-open pull-up three pointer. We can cut Damian some slack because he looked exhausted and played a great game tonight but they will need to clean these things up sooner rather than later.
A Look at the Box Score
- The Nets lived up to their reputation as a "selfish" team assisting on only 15 shots for the entire game. The Blazers meanwhile had a crazy 26 assists on 33 made field goals.
- After early advantages for Portland the rebounding and turnover battles evened out. By the end of the game, Portland would have four more rebounds (47 to 43) and committed five more turnovers (14-9).
- The Blazers dominated the lines tonight shooting 11/26 from behind the arc and 20/27 from the charity stripe. Compare that to 1/19 and 16/17 for the Nets and it's clear where this game was really won. Winning the foul line is especially nice to see since that's been one area the Blazers have struggled so far this year.
Damian Lillard. What more can you say about this guy? This win starts and ends with him. He put up 28 points on 14 shots to go along with 10 assists. It doesn't get much better than that. With Aldridge out he was the man and he played like it. Dang.
Chris Kaman was the next leading scorer with 12 but he had his worst shooting night of the season going 3/11. Many of the jumpers we're getting used to seeing him nail weren't falling tonight. He played his usual solid defense and added five rebounds for good measure.
Speaking of rebounding, Meyers Leonard pulled down a game high 12 tonight. His defense was better as well and if he keeps playing like this lots of those criticisms will start going away. He took the looks when he had them scoring 7 on 7 shots. He also had a pretty pump fake and drive against Garnett that was a glimpse of how good he could be in a few years.
Wesley Matthews was one of the few players who really struggled tonight. He always does better when the offense is flowing and his shot is in rhythm. That wasn't the case tonight but credit him with sticking with it and hitting some tough shots to help close out the game. 10 points on 3/13 shooting.
I'm gonna do Steve Blake, CJ McCollum, and Will Baton together. These guys played some very active defense tonight and I would say it's the best they've played as a unit. Steve Blake led the way with 3 steals (!) to go along with 7 points, 7 assists, and no turnovers. McCollum and Barton split time and chose their spots well. Barton was able to find more transition opportunities finishing with 8 points to CJ's 3 tonight but neither really shined or struggled.
Robin Lopez did Robin Lopez things pitching in 10 points, 7 rebounds, and playing great defense against his brother Brook.
You don't notice Allen Crabbe and Joel Freeland much and I mean that as a compliment. Crabbe had 8 points in 31 solid minutes tonight while Freeland had 4 points and 5 rebounds (all offensive!) in 18 minutes.
Thomas Robinson, Dorell Wright, and Victor Claver all got DNP-CDs.
NetsDaily has your Brooklyn write-up.