Normally that combination would be enough to describe the outing thoroughly, but these aren't your grandfather's Trail Blazers. Heck, these aren't even your barely-older brother's Trail Blazers. With 66% of the squad new to the uniform, the questions permeate this pre-season like mayonnaise on macaroni salad. Sorting out lineups and rounding into regular-season shape--traditional pre-season priorities--are the least of Portland's worries. Instead they face fundamental questions of continuity and playing style. Nobody knows what this team is going to look like...perhaps not even them. Tipping the ball each night will be like unwrapping a new present. Will it be a new iPad Pro or a pair of scatalogically-themed gag socks?
In this atmosphere the first chance to see the New Blazers on the court versus a live opponent becomes the opportunity to hold up the gift to light. So let's assess where they are and how their focus is changing based on what we saw versus Sacramento.
One of the biggest questions surrounding the Blazers is whether they'll be able to develop any kind of cohesion with so many new players (and so many of those so young). The team took that question out to the woodshed and paddled it hard last night. It's not invited back in either.
Portland's execution was hit and miss, as you'd expect, but intent was clear and, with minimal exceptions, the game plan was carried out by every player on the floor. The Blazers struggled during the opening possessions on defense and broke down when the deep bench played large minutes, but they looked and played like a team far more than anybody has a right to expect. Full credit, and a heaping share of amazement, needs to go to the Blazers coaching staff for the team being ahead of the curve in this way.
Several aspects of the new game plan got underlined and repeated in this outing. These include:
Motion Like the Ocean: Constant Cutting to the Basket on Offense
Portland's guards made a concerted effort to find the hoop last night. 11 of 26 shots attempted by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum came in the key. But even more impressive were the instant, almost instinctive, rim dives propagated by every member of the frontcourt. Watching forwards pass to a guard on the wing, dive, then receive the ball back for easy scores was beautiful. Defenses will compensate, but the constant motion of Portland's offense should at least make opponents pay if they let their guard down.
Rebounding, Rebounding, Rebounding
The Blazers tallied 19 offensive rebounds last night. Noah Vonleh accounted for 9 of them, but he wasn't an aberration, more the main beneficiary of the game plan. The Kings seldom got to rest on the glass. As Sacramento watched the orange roundball bounce off the rim and sail towards their waiting hands, the Blazers bumped bodies, snagged the rock, and converted easy put-backs. No matter what else happens--even if they win zero games this season--the Blazers are going to be good at this. Book it.
Running Like the Wind
The Blazers ended up tied with the Kings for fast-break points overall but early in the game you could see Portland's commitment to getting up and down the floor. It became a double-edged sword. When they ran, they succeeded. But they failed to get back a few times and ended up having to walk the ball up the floor during the latter part of the game. At that point they deflated like a balloon. Running will be important to this team.
Help Defense Returns
Over the last couple years Portland's help defense has been understated. Their centers mostly stayed home. Their wings took personal responsibility for their men. Deep penetration called for emergency measures but that usually ended up as a LaMarcus Aldridge-Robin Lopez Wall of Doom three feet away from the bucket. That was the extent of Portland's "help".
Not anymore. The Blazers are sending extra men the ball earlier and in more situations, even (gasp!) crossing the court to cut off penetration before it happens. During the first half especially, as soon as a Portland player got beat he had a man by his side. Faster, more agile frontcourt players (plus the need to aid guards) will create a more dynamic defensive look this season.
(Stay tuned on the pick and roll scheme. That's a work in progress too.)
Turnovers Become a Key
As with help defense, turnover creation was MIA for the last incarnation of the Blazers. It's going to be one of the solid platforms of this year's defense. It's one of the few areas of clear strength for Portland guards on that end of the floor. Portland's athletic forwards create havoc just by existing. This...looks different.
Both teams ended up committing 23 turnovers for the game but in general Portland forced Sacramento into mistakes while Portland's own mistakes were self-created. That's going to be par for the course, but there's hope that the Blazers will evolve out of their own miscues while keeping the pressure on opponents. Even if the Blazers end up tossing points back via turnovers, their opportunistic athleticism should allow them to convert mistakes into points better than the other guys.
The Submarine Routine
The Blazers probably dived on the floor more tonight than in a typical half-season in recent years. Youthful exuberance has its perks.
Several less-pleasant (and less planned) trends showed forth as well.
Sacramento made hay targeting particular defenders with screens, posts, and drives. Portland's guards are vulnerable. Meyers Leonard and Pat Connaughton will probably get singled out as well (Leonard in the post and Connaughton up high).
As one might expect, the Blazers got plenty of open looks from three-point range. They shot 50% in the first half, creating an enormous lead. They gave it all back as their percentage sank to a more believable 32.3% for the game. The Blazers won't shy away from the long ball, but in some ways their offense will live and die by the ability to spread the floor with it. Odds are they'll die more than live.
Portland's vulnerability was also exposed when Damian Lillard twisted his ankle in the first half and limped across the floor for a couple possessions. Leonard and Vonleh experienced similar mishaps, but Lillard's was the real heart-chiller. One couldn't help but envision a 5-win season as he hobbled his way up the floor. As modest as expectations are, they still hang on a single thread. It's a thick one, but there's no backup plan if The Man can't perform.
All in all, though, it was an impressive start to the new campaign. We'll see what happens against the World Champs on Thursday night, but so far the Blazers look pretty good...or at least fun to watch, which is half the battle at this stage of the rebuild.