When the Portland Trail Blazers’ schedule for the 2017-18 season was released back in August, the first three games loomed large. Outside of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who commands respect from all opponents, the Phoenix Suns, Indiana Pacers, and Milwaukee Bucks weren’t inherently intimidating. Given Portland’s tendency to start seasons slowly, though, a trio of road games held ominous implications. Ominous morphed into awesome as the Blazers ended up breaking records in Phoenix and handling the Pacers easily before falling in a close contest with the Bucks to earn a 2-1 mark in the young NBA season.
Record doesn’t count for much this early in the year; see the Golden State Warriors and their 1-2 start, for instance. But the Blazers have played solid basketball in their first week, and the areas that they have seen success in bode well for the rest of the season. Without jumping too far ahead, let’s look at three reasons Portland’s performance could be sustainable.
The big story of the week is the way that the Blazers have been defending. I’m not going to cite team statistics here, because they’ll be heavily skewed due to the 48 point thrashing of Phoenix - well on track to be the worst team in the league. But the eye test reveals enough on its own. Blazer fans have known that Jusuf Nurkic gives the team a big body to help protect the paint. They’ve also known that a healthy Al-Farouq Aminu is the best combination defender on the team. But few expected Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum to display such active hands. Neither of Portland’s starting guards will ever be stellar defenders, especially since they both seem to die against the pick and roll, but both have shown major effort disrupting passes and trying to body up in one-on-one situations. They should be applauded for their effort. I’ve long maintained that if the Blazers could just be a top-15 defensive team they’ll be in good shape. So far, so good.
How about that supporting cast? Last season, the Blazers saw disappointing seasons from Evan Turner and Aminu, as well as a lack of real growth from Harkless. So far this season, all three players have been dialed in on both sides of the ball. Turner is locking down opponents while feasting in the mid-range. His comfort level compared to last season is like night and day, and it shows. Turner is no longer just alternating possessions with Lillard and McCollum; he’s actively taking control without disrupting the offense.
Besides looking focused on the defensive end, Aminu has taken to crashing the boards, averaging more than 11 per game so far. He’s also hit 44 percent of his 3-point attempts. While that sort of performance is virtually impossible to sustain, it brings up the possibility of a bounce-back season of 35-36 percent from beyond the arc, which would be more than acceptable.
Harkless has also hit over 40 percent of his looks from downtown on the young season. But Harkless has shown real value on the defensive end. He’s faced good scorers and managed to find that next gear that Blazer fans have been looking for.
Long Distance Shooting
A lot of people, myself included, thought that the Blazers were going to miss the threat of Allen Crabbe’s 3-point shooting. So far, the Blazers haven’t missed a beat, with the entire team stepping up to bomb away from beyond the arc. Shooting 48 percent from the 3-point line three games into the season is unsustainable. The way they’re getting looks - and who they’re getting them from - can be replicated throughout the year. Lillard and McCollum get any shots they want. Aminu and Harkless have gotten clean looks, and Pat Connaughton and Shabazz Napier have struck true when open. Even Evan Turner has looked good taking his corner 3-pointer.
With the opening three-game road trip over, they now play 10 of their next 11 games in the Moda Center. All signs are pointing to the Blazers getting off to the hot start that they have failed to do in each of the last two seasons. The way the team is playing together and executing on the defensive end feels like it’s the real deal, not fool’s gold...a welcome sign in Portland.