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Wagner: Defense Key in Blazers Climbing up Standings

Kyle Wagner of FiveThirtyEight looks to answer the question: “Are the Trail Blazers for real?”

NBA: New York Knicks at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers (39-26) are third in the Western Conference, which has easily surpassed expectations from the beginning of the season. Yet, the Blazers aren’t doing it behind an elite offense like prior seasons; they’re banking on an improved defense instead to keep them in games and limit opponents.

Kyle Wagner of FiveThirtyEight breaks down Portland’s impressive defensive numbers:

The curious thing is the Blazers have done this without many of the obvious tells of a good defense. They don’t force many turnovers (third-fewest per 100 possessions); they give up free throws at an average rate; they are average to below-average defending the pick-and-roll and drives, according to data from Second Spectrum; and they don’t block an extreme number of shots or keep opponents out of the paint...

What Portland does do is stay in good position and limit high-value shots. According to Second Spectrum’s quantified shot quality stat, which takes into account shooter and defender position, as well as other variables, the Blazers give up the lowest quality shots of any defense in the league, at an implied 49.5 effective field goal percentage. This is in part because the team denies 3-point attempts, ranking fourth in opponent 3-point attempts per game, and keeps high-value corner-three attempts down.

Coming back to the offense, its rocky performance is making Lillard look incredible (and he has been). He’s single-handedly willing the team into wins. But he needs a team effort come playoff time:

Aside from Lillard and McCollum, no other Blazer can produce on the drive, which makes creating space difficult for this offense. Bad things happen when Shabazz Napier and Evan Turner drive. And insofar as the Blazers even have a post game, it’s not one that anyone would want to claim.

The Blazers have one of the harder schedules remaining in the Western Conference playoff race and will have to rely not only on Lillard and McCollum to continue to lift an otherwise leaden offense, but also young players like rookie Zach Collins and Pat Connaughton to continue contributing through a playoff push.

After a back-to-back against lower teams in the Lakers and Knicks, Portland will face the Warriors on Friday. They still have games against the Cavaliers, Rockets and Celtics and left on their testing March schedule, too.

You can read the rest of Wagner’s piece here.