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Blizzard Hits Vegas as Last-Seeded Blazers Topple First-Place Raptors in 2017 NBA Summer League Playoffs

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Injured Blazers show why they’re more than the sum of their parts.

NBA: Summer League-Portland Trailblazers at Boston Celtics Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 NBA Summer League got a minor shock tonight as the 16th-seeded Portland Trail Blazers defeated the 1st-seeded Toronto Raptors 91-85 to advance to the quarterfinals of the playoff bracket. Long-time podcast partner Dan Marang joined Dave Deckard for a free-form recap of this game, sharing their often-insightful, sometimes-crazy analysis of the Blazers, the action, and Summer League as a whole.

First Quarter

DD: At least we get the Raptors tonight. That’s different. These games have seemed kind of same-ish to me. Fall behind early, try to make a comeback, succeed or fail. Fall behind again next game.

At least they’re not falling behind. Everybody is missing everything early. Toronto’s misses aren’t Portland’s fault though. They’re wide open on the perimeter and bricking.

DM: This is probably a good thing for Blazer’s fans when it comes to Caleb Swanigan. The Raptors have a ton of length across the frontline and if there’s a weakness in Swanigan’s game it’s been length. If you’re looking for things to take away it’s how Swanigan reacts to playing out of position and against longer and even more mobile defenders.

With a few games under their belt, Portland is firing on a few more cylinders which is nice to see. Even if the ball isn’t always going in, it bares a stronger resemblance to an organized semi-ish professional game and less highly skilled pick up contest.

DD: It’s 12-4, Blazers now. Highly skilled indeed! The Blazers have been feasting inside this entire tournament. Summer League is nice...if a guy has a skill or a big body, he can usually take advantage. In Portland’s case, they have plenty of bigger guys and they’ve looked pretty comfortable in the paint this week.

I have noticed a disturbing lack of finishing power at the rim from almost every big who’s even remotely defended. That’s true not only of Portland players but of their opponents. I despair of ever seeing great post players again. It’s like, “Good position...yeah. Big body...yeah! Spin and chuck! YEAH! But WHAT THE HECK WAS THAT SHOT ATTEMPT? IT LOOKED LIKE MY CAT BARFING A HAIRBALL!”

DM: Summer League is a magical place where a single above-average to great skill can make you stand out....

DD: Byeeeecchhhhh...Byeeeecchhhhhhhh... BYEEEECCCCCHHHHHHHH... Spinning half-hook shot!

DM: Hey I didn’t say it was always going to stand out in a good way. That was more skinny jeans at the first day at work type stuff there. Sure, you can do it but it’s probably not wise.

DD: And just like that the Raptors connect on a couple threes and they’re up 17-14. This is the problem with Portland’s Summer League squad. They play pretty good defense, but they can’t score enough to keep safe. A couple long balls and a layup and the game is right back in the opponent’s hands.

DM: Yeah Portland is kind of an enigma at Summer League. Typically there’s a handful of guys on every roster who can break down a defender and hit from behind the arc. Portland really doesn’t have anyone out there that can do either. (Sorry, Jake Layman!) So they find themselves playing basketball from a former generation, playing inside-out with more inside than out, and not a whole lot of pick and roll. That limits what they can do offensively and leads to these scoring droughts.

DD: You know how a store starts going out of business and they bring in the liquidators, but for the first couple weeks they bump everything up to full price and then take 40% off, which ends up being the same price it was before? Portland’s defense features those same kind of fake close-outs. Watching them defend the arc is painful.

DM: Yeah Portland’s guards are really hesitant to close out on the perimeter and the only big who’s really showing from the paint is Swanigan. But he’s out of position at the center spot and from there it just falls apart. One rotation is doable, two rotations is theoretical mathematics. Man...that sounds strangely familiar.

DD: BUT...the Blazers did NOT start slowly in this game and as a result, they lead 21-19 after one. Well done!

Second Quarter

DM: With Swanigan off the floor here, the only thing I’m really watchingDM: are guys like R.J. Hunter and Jorge Gutierrez to see if either of those guys deserve that last roster spot if Portland opts to move on from Pat Connaughton. Either of them catching an eye, half an eye maybe?

DD: If that spot comes open, it’ll have to be the result of a trade, not cutting Connaughton to play one of the guys from Summer League. They’re just not standing out enough...which is fine. They’re not supposed to. They’re trying to catch on as a 13th-15th player on somebody’s roster. But the Blazers already have 14 guaranteed and Pat is as good as, if not better than, these other guys. If the Blazers end up with extra holes because they moved someone, I could see them taking a flyer on a player they’re familiar with, but you don’t make a specific move for these guys, I don’t think.

DM: So Jake Layman just picked up back to back blocks on jumpers. That’s really all I have here because Portland’s offense is mostly; pass, pass, bobble, gather, turnover. Rinse. Repeat. They’re doing a good job of getting back defensively after the turnover, so they’ve got that going for them.DM:

DD: The offense is a little harsh but they’re at least staying ahead of the opponent, 34-30 as we speak. Tough question whether you’d rather be Portland, whose players have trouble generating open shots, or Toronto who get open shots but can’t hit them. But yes...Layman has been shining since Connaughton and Zach Collins went down. He seems like he’s taken the burden on his shoulders, even more than Swanigan has.

DM: Layman has certainly stepped his game up, I just wishDM: that Toronto would notice that and back off of Swanigan a bit. He has at least 3 sets of eyes on him every time he catches the ball. When he tries to put it on the floor there’s a hand reaching in from either side. It’s really limiting his effectiveness. Could be a good time for Portland to look at some 2-man game with Layman and Swanigan with some dribble handoffs. Yeah, yeah, yeah... Summer League, I get it. But still, it would be nice to see that kind of adaptation.

DD: I once sat beside the late, great Jerome Kersey who lamented long and hard about the ability of young, Summer League players to see the floor, perceive openings, and adapt. It’s hard to remember that even being on that floor is an adaptation for many of them. High-level NCAA play is great, but many of these players have not faced opposing lines as big or quick as they. Nobody makes Summer League without some combination of size, skill, and quickness. You can see the wheels turning in guys’ heads. “OK...make my move...beat my man... auuugh! Where did you come from?!?” The game moves fast when you’re not used to it.

DM: And the Basketball Gods have smiled upon us! Early offense and Swanigan in space leads to a wide open, and dare I say, very nice looking three-pointer from straight on. Blazer’s follow that up with an early drive from Swanigan leading to an interior slip pass to the cutter, and then ANOTHER dump off pass, which ends up with another 2-points for Portland.

DD: These Summer League Blazers are all about momentum. Nothing...nothing...nothing... ALL THE POINTS. Opponents can’t get overconfident, I guess.

DM: That was a very well executed play there to close out the remaining seconds in the first half. Layman ran the baseline from right to left to slide the defense as Swanigan comes up to initiate the pick and roll up top. Layman’s gravity pulls the help defender away and Swanigan is free to pop into space for the 12-footer. That’s as about as good as it gets at Summer League.

What separates Swanigan from a lot of the “gritty rebounders” is his ability to knock down a shot. We’ve seen it plenty of times here at Summer League. He can hit it from all over- but it appears he really likes to sit on those elbows and above the break. That’s a translatable skill set that goes beyond Las Vegas.

DD: Score tied 44-44 at the half.

I do wonder whether Swanigan will get time and space for his release when he faces main-league lineups. He’ll always get opportunities for threes but if he’s farther in, I worry that his setup might be slow and his release a little low.

DM: I haven’t seen him get rushed or bothered yet, but there is reason for caution. His gather-to-shot time is a bit drawn out. That however can be countered a bit by making the right decision fast enough. It will also depend on who’s on the floor with him. Enough guys spreading the court will make defenders hesitant to chase out after him. But if it’s Evan Turner in one corner and Al-Farouq Aminu in the other, welp.

Third Quarter

DM: Right on cue, Swanigan tries to gather and shoot over Jakob Poetl from 15-feet and the shot fell two feet short. Let’s file that in the box later for “things we hope to change before the season.” Man, we need a different name for that box.

DD: Now Swanigan sits down with fouls. He collects them like fidget spinners. I guess he could become another Mark Bryant but I actually wonder if playing against bigger players will help disguise his thumping and bumping. I’m curious to see if he can exercise his frame and form against big-time opponents or whether it’ll be a guy who’s used to tossing hay bales all of a sudden trying to lift a dump truck.

DM: I know it sounds weird but his fouls are the right kind of fouls from where I sit. They’re not the out of position reach or an ill-timed gamble. Instead it’s effort. Constantly fighting for position or chasing down a loose ball. The instincts are right, just need to be channeled a bit better.

You may be on to something with putting him on bigger bodies. There are players who play with contact and then are players who players who thrive on it. For Swanigan, contact is like oxygen. The more he gets, the more energy he generates.

DD: Speaking of oxygen, there’s none in the building right now. The Raptors are 2-8 in the period, the Blazers 2-9. Yet somehow Toronto has a 5-point lead. While we’re busy talking about Swanigan’s pro prospects the refs are busy blowing whistles and sending people to the line. Welcome to Summer League.

OHHH...and now two more free throws! Toronto up 7, 57-51! There’s nothing to get the blood pumping like a pair of made free throws.

Summer League suggestion: instead of two free throws, players have to shoot a halfcourt shot to score off of fouls.

And MORE free throws! 58-53 now! The Raptors are on a 12-3 run or something and it’s 100% built on charity tosses. This is like paying to see Katy Perry in concert and she spends half of it playing, “Lightly Row” on the violin, practicing the Suzuki method.

DM: First of all, are you making me Google Katy Perry songs? Because I’m not sure I’m there yet. Secondly, at this point in Summer League if you’re still in Las Vegas you’re more or less paying the price of admission to get inside a fully air conditioned building. Which if you think about it, it makes sense that the refs would draw out the game as long as possible with trips to the stripe.

That conversation during the timeout between the officials wasn’t about pace of play, it was “time of day.” As in, it’s still 100 degrees outside and it’s nearly 9 PM. That’s about the only way I can justify having this many fouls called in a Summer League game. Sue me.

DD: While you were typing that we got some actual scoring...running up and down, some inside play. Speaking of running, I am impressed how Portland’s bigger players get up and down the court. Their lateral quickness isn’t special but they get back on defense.

DM: That’s something to take from Summer League- effort. Whether it’s the #1 overall pick or the last guy signed to a roster these guys are eager to prove and to please. In Portland’s case none of these guys have a shot to make Portland’s roster but someone, somewhere is watching and while they may lack in skill here or there they have to show that they’re willing to work if they want to land somewhere.

Mixed into that effort back and forth Portland has managed to close the gap at the end of the third quarter.

DD: And Nick Johnson hits a three—worth the equivalent of THREE WHOLE FREE THROWS—to cut Toronto’s lead to 68-67 heading home! Also Swanigan had a pretty nice close-out there. Way to finish strong!

DM: We may get to see an entertaining contest down the stretch.

Fourth Quarter

DM: And we’re off to a rousing start to the 4th quarter with...more free throws!

And a travel.

Throw in a 3-second violation and someone will probably hit a trifecta at Caesar’s Palace.

DD: Mmmmm... Caesar’s Palace buffet.

Dangit! You distracted me from the action! The Blazers are actually hitting a couple of shots. They were a fourth-quarter team last night. Can lightning strike twice?

Also Jarnell Stokes is a big guy.

DM: Good things are happening for Portland when they’re playing through and around Layman and Swanigan. The supporting players are stepping up and hitting shots all over the floor right now. Hunter was the recipient of a wide open look from three after Swanigan worked the pick and roll. While big guy Jarnell Stokes got out in the open floor and cashed in on the early outlet off the Swanigan rebound.

Just like that, Portland sparks an 8-0 run!

DD: Hitting 5 of 7 shots! OK...confession time: even if it’s Summer League, I still get excited over nice play. I love it when players succeed.

DM: I have no idea what you’re talking abo- OH MY GOD WHAT A PASS BY SWANIGAN- how do you miss that layup Jorge?! Ahem... as I was saying. I try to take a more nuanced and balanced view to Summer League. Ya know, don’t get too excited.

DD: That’s why we all call you Balanced Dan.

This is a nice, nice quarter so far. The Blazers are working the ball to each other well. Do you think that’s become a part of Portland’s culture now? It wasn’t always like that. I remember Sebastian Telfair Summer Leagues vividly. But now it seems like everyone in the franchise’s orbit plays unselfishly...or at least passes when needed.

DM: It all starts at the top from Neil Olshey to Terry Stotts, and on to Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. It trickles down through the organization all the way to the bottom. Call it “trickle down passonomics” or something like that. While no one on Portland’s roster, regular season or Summer League, is going to average 10 assists there’s no one who’s really selfish. Passing from multiple positions may not be a premium but it’s as close as it gets.

DD: Look who’s getting the free throws now! The league must have replaced those Evil Canadian refs from the third quarter with some genuine ‘Merican refs in the fourth. Swanigan just tried to make six moves with his back to the basket and got picked clean by a guard from the back side, but... TWEET! ‘Bout time. Blazers lead 83-78. Dreams of a Summer League championship are still alive!

DM: See the optimist in me wants to take that as, “hey at least Swanigan has 6-plus post moves.” The pessimist in me is sitting here still screaming at the TV to make a move and go or pass the bleeping ball.

DD: Well, I kind of misspoke. Those 6 moves were all “turn left, get stuck, turn right, get stuck”. It was like a newb playing Street Fighter and just pressing “X-Y” repeatedly.

Does Caleb have a Konami code?

Despite that little bit of futility, the Blazers are up 85-82 with 1:37 remaining. Come on, Portland!

DM: That settles it. Next year’s Summer League shirts I’m having made will read: “Summer League: Where newbs come to button mash.”

DD: I’m just going to sit in media row, point a wireless controller at the court, and press buttons. I’ll get somebody from Pounding the Rock to sit across the court and do the same. Then we can trash talk each other all game long.

This Summer League game has EVERYTHING! They’re actually going to a replay review! It’ll probably lead to...free throws! And time outs!

Oh God...the refs are huddling to discuss the review. GAME FLOW!

DM: Prior to the unicorn that is the Summer League replay review, Portland again ran a nice set with some decoy action and Swanigan in the pick and pop that resulted in another great look for the big man. That level of adapting to the game we discussed early on is actually taking place.

DD: 53 seconds left, Toronto ball, Blazers lead by 3... TORONTO MISS! Score now, please, Blazers! Johnson with a horrible contested jumper but I TOLD YOU JARNELL STOKES WAS A BIG MAN! He rebounds the airball on one side of the rim, ducks under, and dipsy-doodles it up the other side with the AND-ONE! STOOOOKKKKKES!

Blazers by 6! 18.7 left! We are ALL STOKED!

DM: The only thing missing here is the music and smooth tones of Kevin Calabro extolling the awesomeness of The Closers!

DD: Don’t forget the snappy analysis of my man Lamar Hurd! He’s jumping off the Stratosphere if the Blazers win a title. He said so!

Oh no. Toronto three. The lead is only 88-85. Do not make me sad about this game, Portland.

Foul! Blazers make 1 of 2. Then Toronto misses a three!

DM: And who snags the rebound? Swanigan. Of course.

DD: He hit the free throws too! And time runs out! PORTLAND WINS! PORTLAND WINS! I have not felt this excited since I found a forgotten, fully-made chili dog in the back of my fridge last Wednesday!

DM: The Summer League Blazers put five....one, two, three, four, FIVE guys into double figures. Led by Nick Johnson’s second half onslaught in which he scored all of his 17 points. Meanwhile, Mr. Double-Double (not to be confused with THE Double-Double from In-N-Out Burger) Caleb Swanigan does it again with 13 points and 11 rebounds while hitting 50 percent from the field.

DD: Swan does have an In-N-Out offensive game.

DM: That’s it, he’s a Double-Double...

DD: With extra sauce?

DM: And grilled onions.

DD: Dangit, Marang! I’m hungry now! And there’s no chili dogs left in the vegetable crisper! Let’s give the stats and links and get something to eat. Thanks for sitting in tonight!

DM: Hey, we’ve got at least one more of these. May want to make a run to whatever store sells ready made chili-dogs...wherever this place is.

DD: I bet Whole Foods does.

DM: Until next time!

DD: Thanks, Dan!

Stats and Links

Boxscore

Nick Johnson 6-9 shooting, 3-3 from distance, 17 points...all in the second half.

Jarnell Stokes 6-8, 13 points and the game-icing rebound put-back.

Jake Layman, R.J. Hunter, and Caleb Swanigan all shoot 50% from the field, Swanigan adding 11 rebounds.

Portland shoots 49% overall, 47% from the arc, holding Toronto to 31% and 20% respectively. Wow.

Up Next

The Blazers will face the San Antonio Spurs in the quarterfinals of the playoff bracket Saturday at 1:00 PM, Pacific. It’s a quick turn-around, but these guys are young. Portland lost to the Spurs on Tuesday, 99-85.