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Blazers’ Defense Suffers Preseason Jitters, Suns Cruise to Win

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The Suns connected on 24 three-pointers in a 134-118 victory over the Trail Blazers.

NBA: Preseason-Phoenix Suns at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers continued to shake off the cobwebs in a 134-118 loss to a Phoenix Suns team missing Devin Booker, Ricky Rubio and DeAndre Ayton. CJ McCollum led the team in scoring with 27 points in 31 minutes. Youngsters Zach Collins and Anfernee Simons chipped in with a combined for 29 points off the bench.

Phoenix shot 50.6 percent from the field and 53.3 percent from three en route to their second victory of preseason. Portland also shot well from the field, making 53.2 percent of their field goals, but didn’t knock down quite as many triples. They are now 1-2 in preseason, the only win coming against Haifa Maccabi Haifa on Thursday

Three-point defense

The most three-pointers made in a regular season game against the Blazers is 21. The NBA record for most threes in a game is 27. The Suns made 24 threes against the Blazers tonight.

Sure, a couple of those triples were helped by a lucky bounce or two, but a majority of them were wide open. Portland’s defensive rotations were not succinct. On several occasions, two Blazers players would end up on the same guy after an uncoordinated rotation and Phoenix would find the open man on the perimeter for an uncontested jumper.

Additionally, the Blazers’ guards struggled with screens. They either went under the screen and let hot-handed guys like Kelly Oubre Jr. or Tyler Johnson fire up an easy look from the top of the arc, or they wouldn’t fight through the screen and the Blazers’ big men wouldn’t jump out, leaving plenty of space for the ball handlers to shoot.

Turnovers galore

McCollum, Damian Lillard and Hassan Whiteside combined for 17 of Portland’s 22 turnovers tonight. For reference, the team averaged 13.8 turnovers per game last season.

Turnovers are expected from a group of guys unfamiliar with each other, so concern will only mount if these problems continue into the regular season.

Many of the turnovers came from forced passes, especially on pick and rolls. The team is playing faster than it has in the past, and a lot of dribbling is being done without looking up. The forced passes come as an escape plan when the shot isn’t available. There might have been an opening at some point, but the ball handler often didn’t see it in time and threw the ball into traffic.

Trouble getting to basket

Lillard and McCollum abused Jusuf Nurkic’s brick-wall screens last season to get open lanes to the hoop. With better-shooting wings in the corners this season, the backcourt needs to continue penetrating and drawing the defense in.

However, Whiteside, as well as the other thin-framed big men on the team, aren’t setting the same caliber screens as Nurkic. Defenders can shed the pick easily and step in front of Lillard or McCollum to prevent the drive. Against the Suns, Whiteside slipped several screens to roll to the hoop and failed to nudge the on-ball defender.

Until these issues get ironed out, it might work better for the dynamic backcourt to beat their man off the dribble and place Whiteside — or the other centers — at the rim. Lillard and McCollum can beat just about anyone in the league without the help of a screen, plus it gives them more options once they do reach the paint.

Portland’s ideal offense briefly appeared

With a new lineup comes a new style of offense. Through three preseason games, it’s clear that the Blazers want to play faster and allow more guys to handle the ball. In one highlight play, Portland demonstrated what its offense could look like if everything falls into place.

With Whiteside and Collins, Portland has an intimidating interior defense capable of generating transition offense with ferocious stops. Any other player on the floor can handle the ball on the break and help the Blazers capitalize on the numbers advantage for an easy bucket.

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The Blazers get a few days off before traveling to Utah to face the Jazz in their penultimate preseason game.