72 hours ago the Portland Trail Blazers owned a shiny, if somewhat overstated, 2-1 record in the young 2016-17 NBA season. Back-to-back losses against the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns have dimmed their shine, leaving Portland with a more somber 2-3. Let’s take a look at five things these losses have taught us, or at least confirmed, about the Blazers.
1. Portland Is Not a Good Team (Yet)
All summer long the talk among Blazers fans was, “Second round of the playoffs last year!” and “Way ahead of schedule!” and “How far can they go?” Utterances from the front office included, “Improving the defense” and “Targeted, smart signings making a difference.”
Let’s shine a flashlight on the early-season elephant in the room. The Blazers have played two good teams in their first five games. They lost to both. At home. Handily. The Blazers are not one of those really good teams yet. If struggling against the likes of Denver and Phoenix and getting clocked by the Clippers made you suspect it, getting steamrolled by the not-so-steady Warriors in a big early test all but confirmed it. Whatever goodness the prognosticators promised, it has yet to arrive.
2. Defense Is the Major Culprit
The Blazers have averaged a healthy 110.6 points per game so far on the season, a productive, Top-5 pace should it continue all year long. They’ve also given up a gulp-inducing 115.2 points per game. That’s just...wow.
We can talk efficiency and schemes until the cows come home. When they arrive, those same cows will shake their heads in disgust, Even they know giving up 115 per won’t cut it. Frankly we should be grateful the Blazers own two wins with that many points leaking out the door.
The Blazers are getting beat at the point of attack, sometimes in isolation, habitually off of screens. The promised big-man help on the perimeter hasn’t materialized. Those same big men are getting pushed around inside, wiry strength giving way to pure bulk at the rim and on the boards. When they maintain integrity the Blazers are still fulfilling last year’s mission of forcing the opponent to take less-efficient mid-range shots. By the time sneakers hit the mid-range area, shooters are so wide open it hardly matters.
Portland isn’t going to find more energy as the season progresses. They’ll be playing tired, suiting up injured. As their bodies wear down the scintillating offense will ebb. Drives will become slower and jumpers fall short. Fatigue only makes bad defense worse. The Blazers better find a way to address this or they’re going to get caught in an untenable position.
3. Three Pointers Are Sure Purty
What the baptismal font does for the faithful and Vegas does for gamblers, three-point shooting does for the Trail Blazers. Portland made 53 of 141 attempts from beyond the arc this year, an average of 28.2 threes per contest with a 37.6% success rate. Not only do the Blazers have a green light to shoot threes, the coaching staff is lined up six deep honking their horns behind. The philosophy shows. Aside from a few passed up shots from less-confident scorers (hello, Al-Farouq Aminu) every attempt looks confident and almost every attempt looks good. It’s almost enough to wash away their sinfully permissive defense, plus the lack of rebounding, plus mismatched offensive players. That’s practically a miracle.
Where would the Blazers be without the three? I shudder to think.
4. The Blazers are Desperate for Bench Production
As Dan Marang chronicled last night, the key developments in the Phoenix Suns game revolved around Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard. Thus far they’ve been hamsters tooting in a windstorm: interesting but hardly impactful. When they finally broke through in Phoenix, they got all the minutes they could eat. This isn’t a coincidence. Turner and Leonard provide more options on offense, take the burden off of Lillard and McCollum, provide a legitimate alternative to Aminu three-point attempts, and their defense isn’t appreciably worse than anybody else’s.
Portland’s pattern in nearly every game has been surge-collapse, surge-collapse. The best way to level out is to get somebody producing in the second unit. Allen Crabbe helps, but the Blazers won’t get serious until Turner and Leonard find their groove.
5. Third Quarters are Nightmares
The Blazers are one of the better fourth-quarter teams in the league, averaging a cool +4.2 point margin over opponents in final frames. It’s a good thing too, because they trail the entire league with a -10.0 point margin in third quarters.
Other than Philadelphia registering -11 in fourth periods, Portland owns the worst margin of any team in any quarter anywhere with those abysmal thirds.
It’s possible that opponents are solving Portland’s schemes during intermission and the Blazers aren’t countering fast enough. Or maybe they’re listening to Eeyore motivational tapes backed by a Depeche Mode soundtrack at the half. Either way, it’s like falling in down an open manhole cover in the 14th mile of a marathon and having to crawl through the sewers until Mile 20. You might recover from that, but it sure makes things harder.
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The Blazers face the Dallas Mavericks on Friday. Let’s see if these trends change.