The Portland Trail Blazers just completed a surprising 4-1 east coast road trip, bringing their record up to 13-8 for the season. Along the way, they beat the Brooklyn Nets in the final seconds of a nip-and-tuck affair, completed a furious fourth quarter comeback against the Washington Wizards that would have made Brandon Roy proud, and thoroughly outclassed the New York Knicks.
Several interesting trends emerged during the trip for the Blazers – we’ll highlight four of them here.
Damian Lillard is a free throw machine
Damian Lillard has not shot the ball well this season; he is only averaging career lows 33 percent on 3-pointers and 42 percent on 2-pointers. He has improved over the last four games (40-for-83), but even for those games he’s shooting below league average from many spots on the court:
And yet, Lillard is still No. 7 in the NBA in scoring averaging 25.7 points per game.
After the game against Brooklyn on Friday, Lillard acknowledged his poor shooting but also told Blazer’s Edge he’s made an effort to stay effective even when his shot’s not falling.
“It was a rough start and I’ve had to figure out ways to impact the game and find a way to score when my team needs me to score,” said Lillard. “I’m shooting pretty poorly so far, but still finding a way to get 25 points per game.”
How has he done that? The answer is free throws. Lillard is No. 2 in the league in free throw attempts per game at 7.2 and has a career high free throw rate. Twenty-eight percent of Lillard’s points have come at the free throw line, No. 4 in the league among guards and ahead of notables like DeMar DeRozan and James Harden.
Lillard took his free throw shooting to another level on this road trip, averaging 8.4 makes per game with 93 percent accuracy. His shot may not be falling consistently, but the Blazers’ captain has found a way to guarantee he’ll stay among the league’s scoring leaders.
Vonleh Sneaking in for backdoor cuts
In addition to Lillard’s 25.7 points per game, the team’s starting center, Jusuf Nurkic, has also been playing well. The Bosnian Beast averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds over the last four games after a slow start to the season.
Lillard and Nurkic are so effective that they often create an offensive ripple effect that generates baskets for their teammates. During the road trip, fans saw Noah Vonleh take advantage of those ripples on a couple occasions. Take a look at these plays:
In both cases the defense sends two players to pressure Lillard. He is such a dynamic scorer that opposing teams have begun to do anything they can to get the ball out of his hands in pick and roll situations to disrupt the flow offense. If Lillard gets rid of the ball quickly, as he does in both of these examples, a third defender must temporarily slide over to cover Nurkic.
The Blazers have now forced three players to commit to guarding Lillard and Nurkic, leaving a teammate open. Vonleh, who has great instincts for positioning on the court as we’ve witnessed with his propensity for rebounding, now has room to make a cut for an easy score. Vonleh’s knack for spacing and chemistry with Nurkic should continue to make him a weakside threat whenever the Lillard/Nurkic pick and roll is in action.
Undefeated with Connaughton in the starting lineup
The Blazers are undefeated (3-0) with Pat Connaughton in the starting lineup this season. Head coach Terry Stotts said after the win over the Nets on Friday that he inserted Connaughton into the lineup because the Blazers needed spacing and because Connaughton offers consistency on defense.
It was the third lineup Stotts has tried since Al-Farouq Aminu sprained his ankle and has easily been the most effective. Connaughton’s stats aren’t flashy – he’s averaging 11 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 2.7 assists in 29 minutes as a starter – but he’s had his own ripple effect on his teammates.
The Blazers are almost shockingly more effective with Connaughton on the floor over the last three games, shooting 16 percent better from the field (56 percent vs. 40 percent) and averaging 17 more points per 100 possessions (125 vs. 108). [Stats via nbawowy.com]
It’s no secret why Connaughton has been effective – the defense can’t ignore him like they can so many of the Blazers’ other perimeter players. On this play, the Knicks try to trap Lillard and also overload the lane to prevent an easy pass to Nurkic. Connaughton is left wide open to predictable results:
It’s gotten to the point that Stotts is even involving Connaughton in pick and roll variants, rather than just running him off of flare screens. Impressive transformation for a player that was in danger of being cut this offseason!
The strong play from Connaughton and Vonleh does create one victim: Maurice Harkless. Vonleh has proven himself capable of creating the garbage baskets off cuts and putbacks that Harkless excelled at, while also being a better rebounder. Meanwhile, Connaughton is proving to be a better floor spacer than Harkless. If both continue playing well it’s unlikely that Harkless will get his wish for an expanded role in the offense.
The Blazers have been a terrible fastbreaking team all season. They did, however, manage 10 fastbreak points against the Grizzlies, and had several late transition baskets against the Nets.
The entire team has struggled to score at times this season but the reserves, especially, often lack firepower. Transition, or semi-transition baskets, could be a good way to take advantage of Evan Turner’s excellent passing skills while also getting the team some easy baskets. It remains to be seen whether or not the Blazers will be able to continue pushing the ball, but it’s a story line to watch going forward for the second unit.
Readers — what stood out to you during the road trip? Let us know in the comments!
Eric Griffith | @EricG_NBA