The Trail Blazers hope to bounce back tonight from their disappointing 97-95 loss to the Pelicans on Saturday. For Blazers fans, there was a little bit to like in game one (yay defense!) and a lot to dislike (boo 3-point shooting!). I’ve picked out five key stats from game one that will play a major role tonight, and for the rest of the series.
29 Fastbreak Points and 46 Points in the Paint
The Pelicans and Blazers are polar opposites offensively. New Orleans scores with high pace, lots of assists, and by pounding the ball into the paint. The Blazers, in contrast, are slow, dominate the glass, and shoot a relatively high number of 3-pointers. It’d be hard to find two playoff teams with more disparate styles.
Despite that, the two teams had identical offensive ratings of 107.7 since the all-star break and nearly identical records (17-7 for the Blazers, 17-8 for New Orleans). Both styles of offense have been effective — they’re just wildly different.
With that in mind, it’s almost UMBC-upsets-Virginia shocking that the Blazers beat the Pelicans in fastbreak points (29-17), points in the paint (46-44), and held the game to 97 possessions and STILL lost. Bottom line is that game one was weird, and if the Blazers continue to control the pace and find ways to score inside they will stay competitive in this series.
99 Possessions, 97 Points
Anthony Davis is a monster. Some Frankenstein-like amalgamation of long limbs, coordination, athleticism, insane basketball skill, and a unibrow. Not surprisingly, he torched the Blazers for 35 points on 26 shots on Saturday.
But here’s the thing: I don’t think Blazers coach Terry Stotts cares. The Portland defense all season has been predicated on a conservative approach, single teaming superstars and letting them get their points while limiting the effectiveness of bench players. The plan occasionally backfires (hi, Bradley Beal), and the fans and TNT analysts will scoff in disgust, but that conservative approach helped the Blazers to the No. 4 post-All-star break defensive rating in the NBA (102.2).
And the defense was even statistically better on Saturday, holding the Pelicans to 97 points on 99.34 possessions (98.6 defensive rating). Only the Pacers, Pelicans, Warriors, and Celtics have equivalent or better defensive ratings than the Blazers so far in the playoffs. Those teams are a combined 5-0 and have outscored their opponents by more than 12 points per game.
Davis may have put up some gaudy numbers, but he’s not the reason the Blazers lost. If Portland continues to play defense at that level they will be in position to win nearly every night, even if Davis averages nearly 40 points per game.
There’s a caveat to the above point about defense: The Blazers are going to need to harass Rajon Rondo. I’ve hammered the point before on Blazer’s Edge that assists/ball movement don’t correlate with good offense, but that didn’t hold up with Rondo in game one. His passing created easy scoring opportunities when the defense had otherwise done its job on several plays.
Poor Pat Caughnaughton didn't stand a chance on this one. He does his best to force Davis into a weird position that's tough to get a pass, but Rondo was on his game in a major way & finds Davis with ease. He finishes with an easy layup right over Pat pic.twitter.com/COKQiY0XgG— The Charity Stripe (@_charitystripe) April 17, 2018
Rondo’s ability to orchestrate buckets out of nothing, to the tune of 17 assists, was the one glaring weakness of the Blazers defense.
The Blazers not named CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard were a combined 4-20 on 3-pointers in game one. When opposing defenses clamp down on Dame and CJ the Blazers role players must hit their outside shots. It’s been repeated ad infinitum during the season for good reason.
When guys like Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless, and Shabazz Napier are canning triples the Blazers can hang with the Rockets, even if McCollum and Lillard can’t buy a bucket. But when they’re missing, the Blazers will struggle to 36 first half points against the Pelicans.
ESPN’s Kevin Pelton argued on Twitter that it’s a distinct possibility shooting will improve tonight:
If you weight by shot attempts, those players shot 34.5 percent in the regular season and those attempts were probably more open than usual, so I would expect it will.— Kevin Pelton (@kpelton) April 15, 2018
More than anything else, the Blazers playoff fate will likely come down to whether or not they can drain open triples, as Pelton predicts.
The Blazers were decisively outplayed for much of the first game against the Pelicans, but they have several avenues for improvement that could lead to victory tonight. If they continue to control the pace and play a high level of defense, regardless of Davis’ scoring output, and knock down more open jumpers they’ll be in good position to head back to New Orleans with the series tied 1-1.