The Portland Trail Blazers showed plenty of positive (and familiar) signs in their first preseason game of 2018-19 against the Toronto Raptors. Damian Lillard canned deep threes, CJ McCollum went to work off the bounce, visiting announcers called Meyers, “Miles” Leonard multiple times... it was like old home week. In the midst of the mundane, here are a few standout differences to pay attention to as the new season gets underway.
The Blazers came out and put more pressure on the ball, in passing lanes and on pick and roll action than I can remember in a long while. It wasn’t the Bad Boy Pistons or the Grit & Grind Grizzlies, but it was clear that Coach Terry Stotts wants to be more aggressive on that end.
It may be nothing, but early on it appeared that Jusuf Nurkic was pushing up substantially higher on pick and roll coverage than I’ve seen in the past. Definitely something to keep an eye on.
Shooting More 3’s
Jusuf Nurkic is taking and making 3’s. That alone should let you know that nearly everyone has the green light to take long shots.
At Trail Blazers Media Day the constant theme was continuity and three-point shooting. Even with non-shooters on the floor for long stretches, Portland still got up 31 shots from deep up, connecting on 12 (38 percent).
Lillard and McCollum are going to get their shots in from deep and they’ll do just fine. The Blazers need other players to show up from deep nightly. Tonight Portland showed possible depth in shooting. Leonard (3-4), Stauskas (1-4), Nurkic (1-2), Curry (1-1), Trent Jr. (2-5) and Aminu (1-2) all chipped in from deep - leading to much better floor balance and spacing. This is a cyclical boost; it opens the floor for Dame and CJ, who in turn opens the floor for the others. If the “others” can knock down shots from deep nightly the offense should kick up a tick from last year.
Nik Stauskas looked really aggressive offensively and seemed like he was trying defensively as well. For someone who’s probably your 8th-10th guy off the bench, I’m totally okay with that. If Stauskas takes and makes the open 3’s, creates off the dribble drive (like that right side drive with the wrap around pass to Leonard in the corner for a 3-and-1?!), and competes on the defensive end, he’ll be fine.
Seth Curry came in later than I anticipated. It appears that Stotts may keep Dame and CJ in together longer to start the game, opting to go away from the stagger and then bring in a true second unit. That will mean Curry gets on the floor later but he could be featured more, as he’s a peg higher on the board then. Tonight was Curry’s first real game action in a year, so it wasn’t surprising to see him fighting things a little bit. Preseason may mean more to him as far as impact goes than anyone else this year.
Jusuf Nurkic looked good. He wasn’t dominant and there was even a “what are you doing” moment (don’t jump at 3-point shooters kids) but otherwise he looked good. He wasn’t off balance in the paint, he worked for offensive rebounds (really nice to see), and he showed good post control without going to a flippy shot even one time. Also, he hit a three???? (waits for standing ovation to fall off) Ahem... yeah that’s a pretty decent night. I’d like to see some more aggressiveness on both ends and perhaps a few more wise decisions on the defensive end- but all in all, good stuff.
Meyers Leonard did good things tonight and I’m excited for that. Tonight Leonard showed that he can be effective as a floor spacer and he can push big dudes around in the paint. Poor Greg Monroe got thrown down at least 3 times by my count. The Blazers need a) floor spacing from their frontcourt and b) physicality in their team. Leonard might be able to provide that. Personally, all I’m taking from this game is that Leonard took most of the shots he should’ve taken, made sound defensive decisions, and never looked lost. Kudos big fella. Here’s hoping for more this season.
The Young Guys
Anfernee Simons has an NBA ready skill: he can get his shot off with relative ease from nearly every level. Every time I watch him it becomes more and more apparent that he’s already very good in that capacity. Beyond that? I have no clue, but it’s a solid foundation to work from.
Gary Trent Jr. looked the part tonight on both ends. You can see why so many Blazers veterans say he looks ready to compete on both ends. Physically he’s there and he’s not lacking confidence. He fell a bit short with the shooting, but the aggressiveness is a promising sign.
Zach Collins had a bit of a rough outing. At this point I’m wondering if he’s just like a ‘65 Ford Fairlane, taking a while to warm up on a cold morning. This isn’t some knee jerk reaction. He started slow in 2017 Summer League and then into the season. He struggled again this Summer League and his first outing here wasn’t the setting the world on fire. I’m not worried or panicked, but it feels like it may take a few weeks or months for Collins to work into the groove. That’s fine in a sense. He’s still a really young player; there’s no real rush. However, it appears that Portland is placing a lot of faith in him early on as a relatively big piece of the frontcourt. He’s going to have to get going pretty quickly.
What did you notice as the Blazers played the Raptors? Contribute your observations below!