The Portland Trail Blazers defeated Haifa Maccabi 104-68 on Thursday evening, bringing their Preseason, 2019 record to 1-1. Several prominent Blazers, including starting guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, sat out the game for “load management”. The Blazers cruised to an easy victory anyway.
Along with the usual asterisk, caveat, note - whatever you want to call it for preseason action- add another one to it. Call it caveat squared for tonight’s Trail Blazers v Maccabi Haifa match up- that is unless you were really wondering where Norris Cole, James Young, and Brandon Rush were playing basketball these days. This will be the only mention of the opponents by name.
First note, the Blazers started Anfernee Simons, Kent Bazemore, Rodney Hood, Mario Hezonja and Zach Collins. If you’ve caught any of the Blazer’s Edge podcast the last month or so this is the lineup I expect to spend quite a bit of time together this season. It could shift depending on opponent, bumping Collins to the four and Mario to the three if Pau Gasol is needed. However - this unit gives Portland a lot of offensive flexibility with four ball handlers who can all create shots at multiple levels. Tonight we got a look at how that could perhaps play out execution and play-type wise with that unit on the floor.
Haifa was/is undermanned against NBA competition both by talent and size. Portland looked early to get Collins going in the post and the young big man....he... he had a rough time. On his first post up he failed to move a much smaller defender off his spot and fell away for a shot that wasn’t his best effort. Portland rebounded and re-posted him only to get his shot blocked by the defender. An audible “oof” came out from the crowd. The next possession they went back to him again, this time a simpler half-spin baby hook fell in. That was basically how Collins’ night went offensively.
Anytime Collins avoided contact and went quickly, he was mostly successful. Anytime he tried to out-muscle or get past opponents, he lost the body up or got the ball knocked away. His shot was blocked in the post at least three times- possibly four. Game 1 of the preseason against the Denver Nuggets saw a very clean, and much simpler jumper from Collins - clearly the result of summer work. Game 2 showed his post game is still very limited and he still isn’t sure how to use his body effectively on that end.
Defensively, Collins displayed the personification of verticality a half dozen times. Only once did he commit one of those “what are you doing” type fouls where a young player is perhaps a bit overzealous.
On the flip side, after a poor shooting night in Game 1 for Simons, Game 2 saw him get comfortable from all over the floor. Simons slow-played the first half off ball, picking and choosing his moments. The 3rd quarter saw what most Blazer’s fans hope to see frequently this season- scoring spurts that erupt in the blink of an eye. After hitting a contested fadeaway three at the shot clock buzzer, Simons caught a kick out from Anthony Tolliver for another catch & shoot three, before coming down the court and getting all the way to the rim on the dribble drive. Three possessions, 8 points - and simple efficient greatness. Again, opponent strength but folks are beginning to see Simons’ skill as a shooter. Through two games he’s now hit 7 threes- showing he can score off the bounce and as a standstill shooter.
Hezonja finished with only 2 assists, but the tempo continued to push with the ball in his hand and he was responsible for getting Portland into the offense early and effectively. The dynamic between him and Simons, playing off each other reading where they need to be- as with Bazemore, you can see it developing little by little. There was also the time he took the ball coast-to-coast in a split second, jumping from outside the dotted line for a two handed dunk. If there’s a prop bet on dunks for the Blazers this year, take the over. Trust me.
Bazemore and Hood got run in this game much like Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum at Fanfest: two long shifts to keep the legs going and stay involved and they were out early. Both clearly over- matched their opponents and looked like they’ve been a part of the team for years. It’s truly amazing how quickly Bazemore seems to be picking things up on both ends.
Semi-real competition comes next for the Blazers as they head to Phoenix to play the Suns on Saturday.