The Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz faced off tonight in Portland's fourth pre-season game, an 88-81 victory for the Blazers in Energy Solutions Arena. For links to stats and a recounting of the game--including video of Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum getting ejected for a Flagrant 2 foul against Gordon Hayward--check out our Instant Recap.
Portland superstar Damian Lillard did not play in this game; he is still nursing an ankle injury. McCollum started in Lillard's absence. Despite being down their most important player, the Blazers gave a decent accounting of themselves on a night when the opponent played a style of defense likely to become de rigueur in the regular season. The Jazz held Portland to 38.5% shooting with a simple philosophy: sag into the lane on any penetration, keeping defenders in front of the dribbler and loading extra men at the rim to rebound the ball after the shot goes up. Portland prospered in the first quarter, hitting their three-pointers and making Utah pay. But a first half 40% shooting clip from distance would sink to 29% for the game, leaving the Blazers below the 90-point mark. But the Blazers returned the favor, ceding open looks to Utah's jump shooters, who fared even worse than Portland's. The Jazz shot 31% from the field, a miserable 23% from the arc. With neither team scoring consistently in the paint and neither team able to hit a jumper, the game devolved into a battle of opportunity plays. Portland's energy and enthusiasm--sure hallmarks of the season to come--carried them to a victory that was ugly, but welcome.
Since wins, losses, and stats mean far less in the pre-season than the regular season, let's get down to the things we saw from the Blazers tonight with possible application when the games actually count.
1. Portland's Screen Defense Still Needs Work
The Blazers got hammered by Utah picks in the first quarter, chronically getting rubbed off, hesitating, and failing to recover after passes set up by screen plays. Since the Jazz missed the bevy of open looks Portland gifted them, the harm was slight. Letting Utah shoot deep jumpers may be a viable strategy, but that's not going to fly against most teams. Plus it didn't look as if the Blazers were intentionally giving up those open attempts, more like they were a step slow. You can inscribe this in stone for the 2015-16 season: If you say to yourself, "Hmmm...the team looks a little slow tonight," Portland's in deep trouble. They're built on speed and agility.
2. Portland's Bigs Are Vulnerable on the Defensive End
For a lineup that prides itself on defense, Portland's power forwards and centers have a couple deficiencies. They're quick but they lack bulk. Opponents with size and strength can bully them in the post. Rudy Gobert was a non-entity tonight and Derrick Favors shot only 2-11, so all's well that ends well in this outing. But when Favors caught deep with his back to the basket, he was a power dribble and a spin away from paydirt.
Blazer bigs were able to get their feet in front of Utah's penetrating guards but couldn't manage to hold the fort securely when they got to the play. This bears watching. Opponent field goal percentage won't be the only casualty if it becomes a trend. Opponent free throws will skyrocket and Terry Stotts will be digging deep into his bench as his front line players collect fouls like candy.
3. When the Blazers are On the Run, They're Devastating
Both the Blazers and Jazz scored 13 fast break points tonight, but any time Portland had half a seam into the open court, you could feel the thunder coming. Everybody from point guards to centers can jet down the floor and dunk; most are capable of handling the ball themselves. A couple times you could see Jazz players give up on a play after a single Portland dribble. They knew they weren't catching up to the break and probably couldn't stop it if they did.
4. Turnovers are a Potential Gold Mine for the Blazers
The Blazers had wonderfully busy hands and feet tonight. They don't throw a traditional pressure defense (though it'll be interesting to see if they experiment with this more) but they create pressure naturally with their athleticism. Their strength isn't just poking away dribbles and passes, but threatening to convert turnovers into easy points. When Portland flusters an opponent offense, you're really, really going to enjoy watching this team.
5. The Blazers Also Give Up Turnovers
This is 75% a function of experience. McCollum isn't the regular point guard. The players are still getting used to the system. Everybody in the lineup is capable of making the right play, but for most of them it's just that: THE right play. When the defense shuts off the obvious option, half the time the ball-handler will try to make it work anyway. Welcome to 1-on-3 drives and passes sailing into opponent uniform numbers. The Jazz aren't coordinated enough themselves to take full advantage of Portland's predictability, but some headache-filled games are coming down the pike this season as veteran defenses step in the way of plays that Blazers players don't even realize they're making yet.
6. Penetration is the Key
This team has been drilled in the value of penetrating dribbles and passes and the players seem to have adopted the message. Considering their early stage in the growth curve, the Blazers are magnificent in moving the ball and their feet into threatening positions. The importance cannot be overstated. If the ball were flopping around the perimeter six times, leading to a forced jumper, the Blazers would be dead in the water. Instead guards are looking to get inside, opening passing angles and layup opportunities. Everybody has an eye out for cutters. The ball seems to find the paint on nearly every possession. This is marvelous. We've seen far more veteran Portland squads have less grasp of this concept than this group of youngsters does.
(P.S. If you don't think the Blazers have a good coaching staff...)
7. Finishing in the Halfcourt Could Be an Issue
Having just extolled the virtues of penetration, we must also admit that the Blazers are dicey with finishes close to the hoop. (They're dicey on jumpers too, but that's less surprising.) The lack of Lillard showed mightily tonight. Time after time McCollum would get a step, get into the lane, and fall prey to a closing help defender or a big man making like the Wall of China in front of him. You'd think a 6-21 shooting night would come down to jump shooting, but McCollum was only 1-6 from point blank range tonight. Nor could McCollum and company draw foul shots, attempting only 26 to their opponent's 41 even though both attack styles looked similar. The non-Lillard Blazers just aren't accomplished enough in this area yet. If they can't finish or draw fouls in traffic, it's going to be a long season. Help us #0, you're our only hope.
8. When the Blazers Can't Offensive Rebound, Their Offense Looks Shaky
Portland got 6 offensive rebounds tonight, something like a single quarter's worth at their usual rate. And this on a night when they shot sub-40%. This contributed mightily to that double-snowman final score. Performances like this will not discourage opponents from packing defenders into the lane.
9. Several Players Will Be Important for the Blazers, But Every One of Them Will Ride a Roller Coaster
Meyers Leonard's 4-7 three-point shooting tonight stood testimony to his critical role on this team. His offense was everything you could have wished for, everything the Blazers cry out for. CJ McCollum tried to step up similarly and had a rough evening. Last game that was not so. Next game will be different as well...for both players.
I hearkened back to visions of Noah Vonleh dominating the paint a couple games ago as I watched the lane open wide for the Jazz during his shift tonight.
So far it looks like the most consistent contributors--if not in numbers, at least by doing something nice every time they hit the floor--will be Portland's new small forwards: Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless. Whatever they lack in refinement they make up for in chutzpah and will. Blazers fans are going to like these guys.
This is how it's going to be, though. Everybody's going to look good, but fans will need a selective filter to make it add up to a great season overall. Next April we won't just be asking who had the best highlight reel, but who has the best chance of being able to deliver at a high level every night. Your guess is as good as mine at this point.
Here's your boxscore. The Trail Blazers face the Jazz again on Sunday at the Moda Center.