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The Trail Blazers Are Built to Compete Better in the Playoffs

Portland may have only incrementally improved on paper, but they’re playing in a way that will help them in April.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

After the Portland Trail Blazers were swept out of the 2018-NBA Playoffs by the New Orleans Pelicans, Blazers President of Basketball Operations Neil Olshey said that the team wanted to acquire “playoff caliber guys.” So when he let Portland’s top reserves go and replaced them with Seth Curry and Nik Stauskas, a lot of people were left scratching their heads. Olshey went for low-cost guys that complement the rest of the roster. So far, it’s had an impact. It might in April as well.

There’s no guarantee the Blazers will make the Western Conference Finals, or even win a series. Despite early season success, they’re only 13 game into a long NBA season. A lot can happen to a team between November and March. But we can look at the issues that plagued them during their four-game sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans and see how the team has adapted their style of play thus far in 2018-19.

Playoff basketball traditionally sees a slower tempo. Defenses are able to key in on specific players. If you can’t adjust quickly, you’re done.

Last season the Pelicans (already a bad matchup for Portland) keyed in on Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo pressed up top; Anthony Davis managed the Blazers’ pick-and-roll deftly. They committed to forcing someone else on Portland’s roster to beat them offensively and, no surprise, no one could. Stars take over games down the stretch of playoff games, but they need teammates to get them in position to do so. Portland never got there. They simply didn’t have anyone step up.

This season, the Blazers are getting 3-point shooting from all over the place. Jake Layman, Nik Stauskas, Seth Curry, and Zach Collins are all shooting 40 percent or better. Al-Farouq Aminu is hitting a reasonable 34 percent from beyond the arc. Meyers Leonard near 35 percent. The Blazers field more, and better, outside options than they did last season. When teams try to replicate the Pelicans’ strategy (which itself was a variation of the Clippers’ playoff strategy several years ago), they’ll find it much less effective with shooters all over the floor.

Jusuf Nurkic is a ground-bound, classic big man who plays well against most fellow centers (short of hyper-athletic Anthony Davis). His size becomes a weakness when teams go small. It’s not his fault, he just can’t hang with quicker players on the perimeter. But with Zach Collins’ emergence, the Blazers now have a player that can hang with smaller, quicker bigs without sacrificing much on the offensive side of the ball.

Evan Turner is running the second unit with an effectiveness that fans haven’t seen from him since his time in Boston. Lillard and McCollum are playing fewer minutes this season, presumably leaving them fresher come playoffs time. In the past, that would have spelled disaster. In 2018-19 there’s no longer a sense of impending doom whenever Portland’s bench comes in.

Through the early part of the season, it’s clear that the Blazers have addressed many of the issues that caused them to be the first team eliminated from the playoffs last spring. Nobody can predict what’s in store next May, but through mid-November at least, hope remains alive.