In a vacuum, the Portland Trail Blazers’ Monday night loss to the Toronto Raptors was not so bad; a strong defensive effort against the league’s highest rated offense. The game came down to the final possessions, even with star point guard Damian Lillard (ankle) sitting on the bench. Again, in a vacuum, not so bad. The optimist can comfortably find positives in this one without grasping at straws.
Looking at the big picture, however, the Trail Blazers are in deep and deepening trouble. Moral victories are not tallied in the win column. Portland has lost 10 of its last 11 games and now sits delicately at No. 10 in the Western conference—awkwardly teetering on the edge of 11, as the New Orleans Pelicans (who started the season 0-8) threaten to pass. The clock is ticking on a fantastic turnaround.
But let’s reel this back in. Unless you’ve been on Mars, in a cave, with your eyes shut and your fingers in your ears, the Trail Blazers’ ongoing troubles are not news. Acceptable defense is. CJ McCollum—who finished with a game-high 29 points—was pleased with the overall effort in Lillard’s absence, and noted that the team needs to continue focusing on the defensive end.
Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune points out that the Trail Blazers held the Raptors to their worst field goal percentage of the season:
Portland's defense was better Monday night against the most efficient offense in the league. The Raptors (22-8) shot a season-low .337 from the field and scored 17 points below their season average, yet still were able to pull out a franchise-record seventh straight road victory and their fourth straight triumph overall.
"We found a way to win," said coach Dwane Casey, whose streaking Raptors have won 14 of 16. "A few years ago, we would have kicked that one by about 15 or 20 (points)."
The Blazers took the Raptors to the final seconds even without their ringleader, point guard Damian Lillard, who missed his first game of the season with a sprained left ankle.
Dwight Jaynes of CSN NW highlights a fresh wrinkle in Portland’s defensive scheme that worked surprisingly well.
I was taken aback by the Trail Blazers aggressive play on pick-and-roll defense Monday night against the Toronto Raptors. And so were the Raptors.
The Trail Blazers showed a very aggressive double-team on the pick-and-roll ball handler very often when Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were handling the ball, effectively getting the ball out of their hands and even forcing a turnover once in a while. It's not a new tactic but one Portland has not often used in the past under Coach Terry Stotts. It's called a "blitz" in coaching parlance.
Mike Richman of The Oregonian also details the effectiveness of the Trail Blazers’ shift in pick-and-roll coverage:
Portland tweaked its defensive coverages against the Raptors, electing to trap Lowry and DeRozan when they tried to dribble around pick and rolls. In the first half, the Blazers' aggressive defense paid off as they hounded the Raptors' stars and Toronto couldn't take advantage out of the traps, starting just 1-for-10 from three-point range.
Perhaps more than anything, this suggests that head coach Terry Stotts is actively looking to make schematic changes—altering strategy based on opponent as usual, but exploring further beyond typical tactics. Blitzing the pick-and-roll worked wonders against the Chicago Bulls (the Trail Blazers’ second-most recent win, more than three weeks ago), so the repeated effectiveness tonight may make it a more common sighting. Look for Portland to play this way against shooting guards that shoot fewer threes, at least.
The Trail Blazers’ defensive focus will shift back to the frontcourt on Wednesday night, as they host DeMarcus Cousins and the Sacramento Kings. On offense, McCollum could light some fires; especially if Lillard continues to sit as expected. In his NBA career, McCollum has scored 30+ points each time he has played 30+ minutes against the Kings. The game tips off at 7:00 p.m. PST.