No matter the outcome, the Portland Trail Blazer’s offense has been there throughout the 2018-19 regular season. In wins, Portland is averaging 116.1 points per game,in losses 115.5. Whether it’s the starters or the bench, they’re finding a way to run points up nightly. Flip that over to the defensive side, though, and the Blazers have more of an issue.
In Blazers wins, opponents are averaging a meager (by this year’s standards) 102.2 points per game. In losses it gets ugly REAL quick- with Portland giving up 121.3 a night. While much of the talk heading into the season was about Portland looking to add shooting and play with more pace, little attention was paid to the defense. It appeared Portland had moved its way to a more respectable and consistent defensive focus.
Contrary to that expectation, Portland has a collective problem right now on the defensive end. When the defense goes south, opponents are taking and making more threes (10 made in wins, 13 in losses- 31% in wins, 41% in losses). They’re getting to the line more and making more (20 attempts/15 makes in wins, 25 attempts/19 makes in losses). Overall shooting by opponents takes a drastic jump too (41% in wins, 47% in losses). So it’s hard to narrow down exactly one point of emphasis.
In losses to the Lakers, guys like LeBron James and Lonzo Ball getting hot from distance can skew things when they’re already beating you pretty heavily in transition and at the rim. So maybe the Blazer’s game plan of making bad or inconsistent shooters shoot (and them beating that plan) is a bit more excusable.
But there have been numerous points through all of Portland’s losses where breakdowns have occurred on the perimeter leading to open looks from three or clear lanes to the rim. This leaves Portland’s bigs to decide between giving up the lob or drop pass, or stepping up to take away the drive.
This may be a point where Portland is missing someone like Maurice Harkless more than expected. While Harkless can certainly be enigmatic, outside of Al-Farouq Aminu, he’s the only Blazer who can cover one through four on a nightly basis as a plus defender. Perhaps Harkless’ defensive versatility and effort are needed for Portland’s defensive shell to tighten. However, if Harkless is really THAT important for Portland on that side of the floor then the margin for error is going to get really tight.
This 6-game road trip should tell us a lot about where the Blazers are really sitting in the pecking order of the NBA. Was it just a good start on the season because Portland had that continuity from last season, or have they gotten a bit too comfortable in their ways?
After two sub-par defensive efforts against the Lakers and Timberwolves I would expect that the marching orders from Coach Stotts will be “defense, defense, defense” with a side order of “competing more” and “effort defensively.” The remaining four games of this trip could be a chance for Portland to right some defensive wrongs, or they could reinforce how badly they need help on the defensive side.