After months of speculation and pontification, the Portland Trail Blazers finally played some (semi) meaningful basketball, squaring off against the Sacramento Kings in the preseason opener for both teams.
The Blazers fielded a starting lineup of Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard, Mason Plumlee, CJ McCollum, and Damian Lillard. No surprises there, except that Crabbe started in place of Al-Farouq Aminu, who was unavailable due to the birth of his child.
Early gameplay showed that head coach Terry Stotts is using the same offensive system as previous years. The most noticeable wrinkle was consistently having Leonard come off of off-ball screens in a sort of curl pattern for mid-range jump shots, a look that he would almost never get in prior seasons.
As can be expected in the preseason opener, the first few minutes were quite sloppy, featuring a lot of up tempo play with poor shooting and little to speak of in the way of playmaking. Leonard and Lillard hit a couple of open threes that seemed to calm everyone down and get them into the flow of the game.
From there the Blazers settled into the half-court offense and made work of Sacramento's defense. Plumlee, in particular, showed an uncanny ability to find the open cutter with a couple of nifty passes out of the post. After the first quarter the Blazers led 24-18, with Leonard sporting six points and six rebounds.
While the first quarter was nice, the second quarter was positively sublime. Portland opened the quarter on a 13-2 run, highlighted by a Tim Frazier steal leading to a wide open CJ McCollum 3-pointer. Noah Vonleh was able to get to his spots with relative ease for a couple quick buckets, which drew positive comments from a crowd largely unfamiliar with his game. The Blazers led 56-41 at the half, shooting 53% with 14 assisted baskets.
In the third quarter, the Blazers continued their success in the half court, with multiple off ball screens. The offense looks very similar to last year, and while spacing didn't present a major problem tonight, it will be interesting to see how Stotts addresses potential issues when multiple poor shooters are in the game at the same time.
The night's biggest scare came early in the third quarter, when DeMarcus Cousins stepped under Meyers Leonard as he curled off of a screen for a jump shot, Leonard landed awkwardly and had to limp off of the court and head to the locker room. Cousins didn't seem to try to slide under Leonard, it was more that his front foot was out in front just a bit too far. Thankfully, Leonard returned to the game several minutes later.
In the fourth quarter, Portland rested several starters, and Sacramento began to climb their way back in. Stotts clearly had minute allocations in mind for certain guys, as he subbed in Omari Johnson, and later Luis Montero, even as the outcome of the game was in doubt. Marco Belinelli showed Blazer fans why he is a
first ballot Hall-of-Famer fine role player and poured in 24 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter to push the game to overtime, where Sacramento stole a comeback victory, 109-105.
I hate to break it to you, Blazer fans, but this will probably not be the last time this season that the team looks great for three quarters before falling apart. It's strange after the last couple of seasons, but the Blazers are now the team that doesn't have experience closing out games. Teams have to learn how to win, and even though Portland outplayed Sacramento for about 36 minutes, they weren't able to shut the door.
That being said, there were a lot of things to like about tonight's play. While there was clearly a thick layer of rust to be shaken off, the team seems to have the offensive sets down. No one looked completely lost or out of place. Defensively, there were a few more opportunities, but mostly due to effort, as opposed to miscommunication or scheme breakdown.
There was a fairly drastic drop off in play from the starters to the bench, particularly in the backcourt. Hopefully McCollum continues to work on those handles, because the offense lulled with Frazier or Pressey in the game.
Damian Lillard looked like he was playing in third gear all night, and was still clearly in control. He had a few nifty finishes around the rim, and seemed to have better body control finishing in traffic. Maybe all of the swimming/core work in the offseason is paying dividends? Dame finished with 17 points and three steals.
Mason Plumlee had a nice game. He was active on the defensive glass and had a nice baby hook in the second half, to go along with the aforementioned nice passes. Six points, six rebounds, three assists.
Meyers Leonard played a little bit closer to the rim tonight, working for 15-18 foot jump shots instead of just taking 3-pointers. He shot 1-3 from 3-point land and 5-11 overall, good for 14 points and eight rebounds. He has increased the speed on his shot release noticeably since last year, which makes sense now that teams will be keying in on him more.
Maurice Harkless had a streaky game, capped with a run in the third quarter where he seemed to be everywhere. Harkless combines athleticism and a motor into quite the nifty package. Picking him up for a future second rounder was already a steal, and if he can consistently play like he did in spurts tonight, that trade could end up being outright robbery. 14 points, six rebounds, two assists, two steals, 5-6 from the field, 2-6 FT.
Noah Vonleh had a solid game off the bench. He showed an ability to get to open spots on the floor and a soft touch around the rim. He also uses his body well to fight for rebounds in traffic. 12 points and 11 rebounds in a team high 26 minutes for Vonleh.
Tim Frazier made the most of his minutes at the point guard spot, hitting a couple of 3-pointers on his way to 9 points and three assists. Phil Pressey, on the other hand, shot 2-8 for four points and was a minus 21 on the night.
Ed Davis had a solid, if unspectacular night, scoring five points and racking up six rebounds. Davis has nearly flawless rebounding technique, and did a great job keeping a couple loose balls alive, even if he didn't come up with them.
CJ McCollum had a rough night, shooting 2-11 and never looking completely comfortable. Five points and four assists.
Pat Connaughton looked like a lot of rookies in their first game action and seemed unable to relax and let the game come to him. His shot looked good, but he just played tight overall. 1-7, two points, five rebounds.
Omari Johnson got some run in the second half and stuck a 3-pointer on his way to five points.
Luis Montero played the final two minutes of the game and did not score.
Chris Kaman was a DNP - take your pick
In Arena Notes
I was having problems with my fancy new Samsung Note, so I wasn't able to get any photos of the action in the arena
The in-arena entertainment was low key this evening. Just a couple of brief contests during timeouts. The halftime entertainment featured the winners of the Rip City 3 on 3 tournament in a couple of age brackets.
It was awesome to see all of the season ticket holders reconnect with their neighbors after a summer off. It really shows what a community we Blazer fans have.
The new player intro video is nice. The roster has so much turnover, that there isn't any actual game footage to use, so it features footage of them at the practice facility, all glossed up in a futuristic motif. Cooler than it sounds.
Attendance was listed at 14,976. A fairly generous number, but it took all of six seconds of game play to hear our first "Let's go Blazers" chant. It didn't last long though.
The crowd still managed to get fired up during the multiple Blazer runs in the 2nd quarter, and especially during the 4th quarter show known as "the Marco Belinelli Experience". It was a good showing for an early October game.