The Blazers trounced the Suns last night — it was literally the biggest opening night blowout in league history. Despite the laughable outcome, the game still revealed some questions about the Blazers that fans can watch for as the season progresses. Let’s dig in:
Where will the shooting come from?
Despite the hype around Pat Connaughton’s break-out game, and Shabazz Napier’s poor-man’s-Damian-Lillard routine, last night’s contest did not completely belie concerns about the Blazers’ outside shooting. Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless, and Evan Turner — all iffy shooters occupying major rotation spots — attempted only four 3-pointers.
At one point Aminu and Evan Turner played hot potato before Aminu put up one of the worst misses of the night, and that’s saying something given how poorly the Suns shot:
The Suns sagged off all three repeatedly, but the defense was so bad the Blazers could still score at will. Points will not come as easily against an even mediocre opponent if Harkless, Aminu, and Turner all struggle from deep — there’s a reason Allen Crabbe played major minutes last season despite being invisible on defense.
Hence Connaughton’s importance. If, in Crabbe’s absence, Connaughton (and Napier?) prove last night’s ascendance was more than a desert mirage, it could push the Blazers from playoff also-rans to contenders for the No. 5 seed.
Can Damian Lillard become more of a distributor?
Last season, Lillard transformed from a combo guard dual threat into an Iverson-esque score first menace. That was likely an intentional choice — given the team’s personnel, and Lillard’s scoring efficiency, it made sense for him to look to score as often as possible. CBS’ Matt Moore explained Lillard’s scoring style in great detail this summer.
The problem is that a score-first Lillard is easier to gameplan for in the playoffs, and, accordingly, Portland’s star has seen his playoff true shooting percentage fall by 30 points relative to his regular season numbers in each of the last two postseason.
Fans definitely saw some of the “score first” Lillard last night:
Notice that all four teammates on the court with Lillard were not even rotation-level NBA players last season. Given the team’s new rotation, can his teammates be trusted to score more efficiently this year, or will we see more Lillard takes like the one in the video above?
But the good news is that, in addition to solid play from several role players, the Blazers also showed several Nurkic-centric plays that suggested they will have a more diverse offense this year:
If these rotation and gameplan changes can be effective in future games, it will open the door for Lillard to transition back into a distributor role, and should improve the team’s playoff outlook.
How will Stotts use Swanigan?
Caleb Swanigan has pretty much proven he belongs in the rotation at this point. It’s dangerous to anoint a rookie as a rotation player after only one game, but check out this play:
The ferocity of the steal will grab attention, but his decision making afterward is equally noteworthy. After snatching the ball, Swanigan calmly dribbles downcourt, surveying the situation the whole way. He immediately stops once a defender challenges, but he has the court awareness to hesitate and find Napier for a triple.
That’s a veteran’s level of patience and awareness; Aminu and Harkless have turned the ball over countless times in similar situations.
And it’s not the first time Swanigan has proven himself a mature and deft passer:
He has the potential to become a multi-faceted threat on offense, and a tenacious rebounder. Head Coach Terry Stotts is likely salivating over possible ways to exploit Swanigan’s skillset. It will be interesting to see how Biggie is integrated into the offense as the season progresses.
Can the team defense improve?
The Blazers, without doubt, played good defense last night but the caveat is that the Suns rarely forced Portland into uncomfortable situations. Phoenix’s offense consisted primarily of isolation over-dribbling, which was easily handled by Portland’s athletes.
One-on-one defense, however, was not the Blazers’ problem last year; they have several solid individual defenders (Turner, Harkless, Aminu) who can shut down an isolation. However, they fell apart often when communication was required or the opponent forced multiple rotations. In short, they lacked defensive cohesiveness, and they had similar lapses on occasion last night:
The Blazers certainly have the athletes to be at least an average defensive team - but it’s an open question whether or not those athletes have learned to communicate and rotate as a unit. Fans will learn more tomorrow night when the Blazers face the Pacers in Indiana.