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Blazers Should Be Thankful for Their Stingy Defense This Season

An improved defense has the Blazers keeping afloat in the West.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Milwaukee Bucks Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers are in the midst of an identity-swap of some sorts. Known for their offense—with offensive-minded guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum leading the way—defense is keeping the Blazers in games. But a mindset change starts at the top, and CBS’ Matt Moore recently told the Blazer’s Edge Podcast he is pleasantly surprised with McCollum’s defense this season.

A tough defense has come in handy with what most have called a relatively easy opening stretch to the season. The Blazers currently stand at 10-7, tied for No. 4 in the West. Zach Buckley of Bleacher Report says Portland should be thankful for defense getting them this far:

“What was your reaction to Jusuf Nurkic saying at media day that the Portland Trail Blazers needed to fix their “trash” defense? If it was anything like mine, it probably included a chuckle, a few nods and a thought along the lines of—Good luck with that, big fella.

And yet, one month into the season, the Blazers sit second in the defensive efficiency ranks, or 19 spots higher than where they ended last season. They’ve already held 11 opponents under the century mark, including each of their last five. In all of 2016-17, they only kept 21 teams below 100 points and never had a sub-100 stretch last longer than three contests.

This sample size is relatively tiny, and they haven’t faced murders’ row in terms of opposing offenses (just four games against top-10 attacks). But no club has provided more resistance at the point of attack. Portland leads everyone in opponents’ field-goal percentage at the rim (58.8) and within five feet (53.5).

Their backcourt still has cracks, but they have two of the league’s top 25 defenders by defensive real plus-minus in Nurkic (16th) and Al-Farouq Aminu (22nd), per Over the 184 minutes those two have shared, Portland has ceded just 95.3 points per 100 possessions, a rating last posted by the 2011-12 Chicago Bulls.”

Buckley does highlight an important point in all of this talk about Portland’s defense: the sample size is very small at this point. 17 games is not enough to gauge the Blazers as “elite” or any other top-ranking descriptor. We should hold off on those kind of compliments until the calendar flips to 2018.

Still, the Blazers are doing what they need to do right now. They’ve had some gut-wrenching close losses (against the Clippers on a Blake Griffin buzzer-beater, against the Jazz in OT after Lillard was blocked at the buzzer), but they’ve also had some impressive close wins (against the Lakers on Lillard’s buzzer-beater, against the Melo-less Thunder). And when their offense kicks it up a gear, like last Saturday at home against the Kings or against the Nuggets, wins get just that much easier.

Another point of hope comes when realizing much of Portland’s success has come without Al-Farouq Aminu. He’s not back quite yet, but it seems he’ll return just in time as the Blazers’ schedule picks up in opponent play.