When I turned on tonight's contest between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Minnesota Timberwolves and realized that Kevin Love, Nikola Pekovic, and Kevin Martin were all in fancy suits instead of team uniforms, I decided this would be a non-standard recap. With the 'Wolves missing three players from their starting lineup, three of the top four players, three players who have done the most damage to the Blazers this year, the outcome of this game probably wasn't going to be suspenseful. Credit to the Timberwolves; they made the game closer for longer than I would have given them credit for. You can read about that in Timmay's Instant Recap or check out the Boxscore. You can even head over to Canis Hoopus to get a peek from the other side of the fray. Also don't forget to check your Jersey Contest scores and enter the next game HERE.
For this piece I decided to take a different angle on the game. For weeks now people--myself included--have been sensing something rotten in Denmark...or if not rotten, per se, at least as not as fresh and pretty as the Blazers were looking early in the season. Some folks have cited fatigue as an explanation. Others point to tougher opponents. We've talked about the major gaps in Portland's coverage since the season began: defense, bench power, lack of interior scoring. We don't need to cover any of those topics again. Instead we're going to highlight more subtle issues with Portland's game that may be contributing to the general feel of unease you might have felt tonight as a team missing only its mercurial 6th Man skirted the edge against a team without most of its best players. It's a safe enough exercise on a night when the Blazers were almost sure to win but also appropriate enough for a game that was probably closer than it should have been.
If you're wondering why things don't look quite the same (outside of the obvious and oft-mentioned reasons) these points may be something to watch.
1. The Blazers don't rebound that well at the defensive end.
Portland's offensive rebounding success, and the benefit second-chance points give them, has been well-chronicled. The Blazers are a Top-5 rebounding team at the offensive end. They're more middle-of-the-road on the defensive side, not horrible by any stretch but not dominant. This eats into their offensive-rebounding and second-chance advantage. It also forces them to spend more time defending, not their strong suit. Granted, the Blazers scheme this way. They value offensive rebounds highly. But a little more determination, effort, and better spacing/technique on the other end would make their strengths count for more and their weaknesses tell less.
2. The Blazers over-rely on Robin Lopez.
Lopez is a fan favorite for a reason. He's blue collar. He sells himself fully on almost every possession. He has impeccable technique and a good sense of timing. He's effective.
We've already talked plenty about Lopez's limitations, how he can be drawn out of his effective zone and semi-neutralized. We haven't mentioned the flip side of that. When Lopez does one extra thing--almost anything that removes him from his sweet spot in the middle of the defense--teammates don't move to help and the job doesn't get done.
A related tangent: Lopez has to be ultra-careful about picking up fouls. It's better for him to let a guy go clean to the bucket and score two than it would be for him to get whistled and risk having to sit. There's no defensive confidence and precious little rebounding security apart from him.
Some of these things are set in stone but it'd be nice for the rest of the guys on the floor to notice when Robin makes a move to cover them and return the favor.
3. The Blazers are not getting out to defend the three-point arc.
At the beginning of the year you could count on a huge advantage for the Blazers in volume and percentage from beyond the arc. As the year has progressed the margin has narrowed. As with offensive rebounding, some of this is systemic. The Blazers are making a more concerted effort to collapse, to keep opponents from scoring 60 in the paint, than they were earlier in the year when it seemed they just didn't care unless those opposing points came three at a time. But the rotations out of the paint and across the court are coming slowly, if at all. The Blazers are an average three-point defensive team right now, heading downward. You're seeing more opponents get wide-open looks from distance. That's a bad trend.
4. Damian Lillard doesn't demonstrate that defense is about spacing and technique as much as effort.
People see Lillard hopping and darting against an opposing point guard around the three-point arc and assume that he's playing good defense. In reality that movement doesn't usually create turnovers or even concern. Bad spacing against screens, incorrect lines, incorrect strategy, and sometimes just abandoning solid technique altogether tell more of the story. He can expend all the energy he wants--though even those high-energy moments happen intermittently--but until he becomes more of a student of the game it won't matter. Heady veterans don't defend well by blowing themselves up. They figure out where to move, how to anticipate, and when to act.
5. Aside from a couple pet plays, the Blazers aren't setting and using screens all that well.
Portland's offense isn't crisp. Interior screens aren't freeing players they way they used to. Smarter defenders account for some of the change but imprecise positioning, less-than-full commitment to setting picks, and trotting through plays also accounts for some of it. For the most part the Blazers aren't amazing one-on-one offensive players. They need those screens to free space for the offense to operate.
6. Plenty of players are standing on offense.
This contributes to the screen issue just mentioned but it also deserves a category of its own. We've talked about the Blazers becoming more isolation-oriented, relying on LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, slowing down, not whipping the ball around or reversing it as much, turning even secondary and tertiary options like Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews into individual scorers. This isn't entirely on the shoulders of the stars. What are they supposed to do when somebody tosses them the ball and then nobody moves? They can't pass. They can't find cutters. Nobody's open for the shot. It's iso or nothing. Teammates need to give them better options or at least clear more space by moving around defenders.
7. The Blazers have learned they can win by coasting through games or quarters and picking it up in critical moments.
The hue and cry will rise, "This is what elite teams do!" Yes, Magic Johnson and the Lakers did it. Michael Jordan and the Bulls did it. LeBron James and the Heat do it. Guess what? The Blazers aren't an elite, championship-level team. You don't know when you should push hard and when you can get away with easing up until you have been through the wringer, been pushed to your limit, and have emerged victorious anyway.
Early in the year the Blazers didn't walk onto the court expecting to win no matter what. They were precise, focused. They won. After a while that precision started slipping. They didn't get much negative reinforcement from it. A combination of schedule, opponent, and heroic play kept those wins coming even when the effort didn't keep pace.
Lately the Blazers have been facing tougher opponents. The only time the "pick our spots" approach has really worked is against teams who just don't have it, tonight's decimated Timberwolves squad being one example. We've seen good teams like Memphis and Golden State clean Portland's clock.
It's a tricky thing because you want your team to approach each game with confidence, expecting to win. But you don't want them to play like that win is automatic. You also don't want them to play like a .700 winning percentage midway through the season encompasses the entirety of their goal. Recent timeout huddles and shouts from the bench during play have revealed Terry Stotts and his coaches imploring the team to approach possessions a certain way and they haven't responded on those possessions. At times they've gone out and done the exact thing the coach has warned them about.
Again, this hasn't cost them too much yet...a subtle slip in the standings and the tacit admission that, well, maybe they're not an elite elite team but they're still plenty good. In some ways a sharp, focused losing jag might do them some good. If they carry that mindset into the playoffs they're probably going to be disabused quickly, much like the 2008-09 Blazers against the Houston Rockets.
8. Portland's timing is off.
Even when they are active and even when they do put the pedal to the metal, the Blazers look about an eight of a step off. Just missing the right time to use a screen, just missing a rotation recognition, just missing the spot where the opponent is opening a window for you, just missing the pass to an open player. This may be a lack of focus, a lack of energy, a lack of trust, or a lack of communication, but it's there.
9. The Blazers are flirting with danger in the foul department.
I've said all season, and I'll confirm it now: referees are being kinder to the Blazers than we've seen in a while...maybe since the days of Clyde Drexler and Steve Smith. There's nothing wrong with that per se, but it still seems like the team is getting wrapped up in calls (or lack thereof) when things are already going their way. It also seems like the Blazers are taking for granted that this will remain the same, if not relying on it.
Things are starting to slip a little in the ref department. Calls have gotten tighter and have ceased to trend so far in Portland's direction. The Blazers have also gotten cavalier with their approach. At the beginning of the year we saw Lopez with off-arm shoves underneath or getting away with a little over-the-back action. Well and good. Let the big guys bang. But we seldom see Aldridge drive anymore without creating space, clearing out with his off-arm. The move isn't Shaq-proportioned, but it's there. Now we're seeing Nicolas Batum use his off arm more flagrantly on defense, getting in extra love taps. It's like the tendency is trickling downhill by height.
As with the coasting thing, the problem isn't necessarily that the Blazers are getting negative feedback now. They're starting to get more but they're still ahead of the game. But how soon will that change? At what point will opposing teams start sending highlight reels into the league office? At what point will the refs decide that one of the poorer defenses in the league might not be worth the extra respect? Or at what point will they have heard one too many complaints from the Trail Blazers themselves and start eyeballing infractions differently? The balance has started to shift so we may have reached that point already subtly. My money's on it tipping fully the other way as soon as the Blazers get matched up against a high-profile, talented team in the playoffs.
The Blazers don't want to get blindsided by that moment. Aldridge and Lillard will, and probably should, get some leeway offensively because of their star status. But everyone needs to tighten up their approach on defense. Sneaky non-calls can turn into stupid fouls pretty quickly.
Bonus: Turnovers are starting to tell a little more of the story.
This one isn't critical. The Blazers are still one of the best teams in the league at taking care of the ball. But turnovers have started to creep in at inopportune times and the Blazers look more pressured even though the stats aren't showing it. It may be a passing fad or an eye-test mistake but it's worth keeping an eye on.