The Portland Trail Blazers barely snuck into the playoffs last season, but they did so on a blazing run helped by the arrival of Jusuf Nurkic. This season’s Blazers control their own destiny not just for the playoffs, but for home-court advantage in the loaded Western Conference. Given the turnaround, a handful of NBA.com writers gave their reasons as to why this year’s team is so different.
David Aldridge credits defense:
Portland has gone from awful last season (21st in the league in Defensive Rating at 107.8) to sterling this season (seventh in Defensive Rating, at 104.3). They’re fourth in the league in defensive field goal percentage allowed (.447, ahead of Utah, San Antonio and Toronto) and fifth in points allowed (103.2).
Steve Aschburner also points to defense:
And here’s something inside that improvement that might be overlooked: the Blazers are giving away fewer points in the form of free throws, an average of 4.7 fewer attempts and 4.2 fewer makes per game compared to 2016-17. They are fouling less, playing more honest and confident defense overall.
Shaun Powell looks at the supporting cast:
I think Damon Lillard and CJ McCollum are trusting their teammates more, and their teammates are repaying that trust with better decision-making and solid play when it counts.
Sekou Smith credits the supporting cast as well:
The improved play of their supporting cast is what sticks out about this crew. Coach Terry Stotts challenged them publicly earlier this season, a brilliant move in hindsight. And they’ve responded. They don’t need to carry the load, that’s what Lillard and McCollum do on the regular. They simply have to play their roles and trust the process, so to speak.
Portland’s supporting cast stepping up was a key factor in the Blazers almost beating the Houston Rockets. Without the shooting and defense provided by Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless, as the backcourt struggled, Tuesday night’s game could’ve been a much larger loss.