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Trail Blazers Thriving With Defense-First Mentality

Vice Sports’ Michael Pina dives into the Blazers’ defensive transformation.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Trail Blazers are presently 13-8 and sit atop the Northwest Division after the early portion of the 2017-18 NBA season. Portland’s climb up the leaderboard has relied upon competent defense, which is somewhat surprising given their identity as an offensive team. This transformation from an offense-first team to a sound defensive team caught the attention of Vice Sports’ Michael Pina.

Pina took a closer look at the refocused Blazers during Portland’s latest five-game road trip.

Yet somehow, instead of standing on the shoulders of two missile-launching shotmakers, the Blazers have won 13 games and elevated their overall stature by deploying one of the NBA’s stingiest defenses. According to Cleaning the Glass, they're currently allowing 100.7 points per 100 possessions, which is bested only by the Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder.

Given the fact that there was no major change in personnel, and only slight tweaks to their conservative scheme, sustainability is deservedly called into question. Is this a mirage or a leap? And how far can a stabilized Trail Blazers squad go in the Western Conference playoffs if they preserve a top-three defense throughout the regular season?

Instead of making wholesale changes to their scheme and personnel, head coach Terry Stotts preached consistency over the offseason. Stotts shared his thoughts on the matter with Pina while the team was in New York:

“Our focus [heading into this season] was not necessarily making wholesale changes, but just being more consistent,” Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said before last night's game against the New York Knicks. “We looked at some of the stats last year, where we could improve, and debated about making some changes—maybe being aggressive, trying to create more turnovers—but we ended up just trying to do what we do and being consistent with it.”

Along with consistency, the Blazers have also focused on improving their communication and film study. Damian Lillard described Portland’s new approach to Vice Sports:

“We communicate through other team’s plays. In shootaround everybody’s like ‘What’s the name of that play?’ We communicate amongst each other in how we’re gonna guard it. ‘Let’s talk about this, let’s talk about that,’” Lillard said. “So not only is the communication up ten levels, and the activity is up ten levels, but we’re doing our homework. We know what’s coming before the game. We’re watching clips on our iPads. We’re studying them. We’re doing the stuff that it takes to be a good defensive team.”

Adjustments aside, improved play from CJ McCollum and Lillard have played an integral part in Portland’s improvements on defense. Pina described the strides made by the Blazers’ backcourt with the following:

Scheme, execution, and effort are all significant ingredients found in any good defense, but so too are quality individuals. Lillard and McCollum were once scapegoats thanks to their one-dimensional reputations, but when both are on the floor Portland allows only 102 points per 100 possessions, a figure still good enough to rank in the top ten. Each has been feisty while maintaining composure, and a relentlessness unseen in the past.

Outside of the backcourt, Jusuf Nurkic has been a steady force in Portland’s frontcourt.

And then there’s Nurkic, the inside presence who simultaneously has no place in a modern league that's exterminating cement-footed big men, and also rank 16th in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. The 23-year-old shores up the paint, slides from one block to the next, and does a decent job putting out fires whenever they pop up elsewhere on the floor.

To read Pina’s full story follow this link.