Wednesday evening in Utah against the Jazz, the Trail Blazers played what is likely their dress rehearsal for the regular season. Outside of an injury to Hassan Whiteside the execution probably went about as well as Coach Terry Stotts hoped it would.
Damian Lillard and company got off to the kind of start one hopes happens 82 times this season. They played fast, executed crisply and got what they wanted at every level. Dribble hand offs to move the defense, skip pass to blow up a rotation and a wide open three? Check. Working to get early deep position in the post to score quick on a mismatch? Yep. Poking and prodding off the bounce to finish at the rim or collapse the defense to kick out for another three? For sure. Portland’s offense looked like it was firing on all cylinders, and it actually had a couple more gears. That’s what happens when Lillard and CJ McCollum have single coverage after Zach Collins had 9 points in his first 9 minute shift. I’ll touch on Collins’ game a bit more shortly, but he was key in opening up the offense from the get go.
Defensively, Portland manged. They did enough to get a 14-point lead but then didn’t continue that trend as that dwindled to a 6-point edge by the end of the quarter. If Bojan Bogdanovic was able to drop a rock in the ocean that he was standing in, things could’ve been worse. Donovan Mitchell appears to have taken that next step: able to get wherever he wants, whenever he wants to. Buoyed by Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert, the Jazz have the firepower on both ends to ride out the storm and strike back. Tonight though, Portland did enough. In the early goings of the season, that’s going to likely be the case- feast on Lillard and McCollum’s production, have someone else step up and bend but don’t break defensively. One certainly hopes for more than that, but we don’t have anything to really put faith in just yet.
Lillard and McCollum continued their battles with Mitchell and Conley through the second and third quarters. Both duos looked fantastic and unstoppable at times. Dame and CJ were DEEP in their shot making bags early on. CJ talked some trash got in some faces, hit shots no one has business hitting. Meanwhile, Dame continued his trend of somehow finishing at the rim regularly on Rudy Gobert. When someone can explain the physics behind that, I’m all ears. The two things Portland does not have to worry about are those guys.
The trend of superstars carrying their respective teams pretty much carried the night. I’m not going to break down each quarter here because, well it’s preseason. My belief is that themes are more important than dissecting every possession.
So the backcourts were (insert fire and snorting faces emojis) very good. The frontcourt each had a supporting cast member. For the Jazz it was Gobert doing very Gobert things; rolling to the rim, putbacks, taking up space at finishing with 3 feet. As for the Blazers, Zach Collins found his jumper shoes.
Collins has shown glimpses of being a perimeter threat at times early in his career. When he’s good, everything is quiet. By that I mean, it’s a very simple motion that doesn’t have any hesitation. No toe taps, no hitches, no second guessing just let it fly baby. That’s what the Blazers got tonight. That guy can be really effective on a nightly basis. Collins got to his spots, in the midrange and pulled nearly immediately. The Jazz didn’t know how to react or who to send to help so he was able to shoot over smaller defenders all night. Collins made it down floor early in the clock a couple times, got in deep and didn’t mess around. Instead he immediately went to work whether it was a quick seal and finish at the rim or shooting over the shoulder with the baby hook. For Collins’ offense right now, simple is good.
Well, we can’t mention the frontcourt and not mention Hassan Whiteside. Good news: Whiteside looked more engaged tonight...most of the time. He still had some moments that made you wonder what he was thinking in that moment but for the most part he ate up space, protected the rim and gobbled up rebounds. The screen setting is still rough, not really getting solid contact or rolling hard to the rim. Then the actual bad news, Whiteside picked up TWO injuries tonight. The first on a hustle play where he and Collins attempted to block the same shot- Whiteside got his finger smashed at the rim and looked to be cut enough to need a stitch or two. Then later, he rolled the same ankle he injured previously in camp- the same one he stated before the game was back to 100 percent.
With Pau Gasol not yet ready and now Whiteside on the mend, Portland’s frontcourt depth is getting thin to start the season. That leads to a team wide, possible issue. Outside of Whiteside, Portland hasn’t really shown the capacity to rebound all that well. Collins has 27 rebounds in 95 minutes and a career rebound rate of 12.2 percent - expecting him to fill that role probably isn’t fair. It’ll be interesting to see how that develops through the first quarter of the season.
As for the role players and bench guys tonight, Mario Hezonja had his most productive night of the preseason and he did it in ways that just wove into the game. He was Mr. Right Place at the right time all night long. Those kind of performances are the difference between wins and losses in mid-January. To say it’s welcome to have someone else capable of not only creating a shot but knocking one down, well it’s an understatement.
As a unit the bench crew were a little bit shaky on the defensive end- which, is to be expected-they are after all an entirely new unit. If we’re still discussing their inconsistencies in December, then it might be problematic. They did what was necessary tonight and managed to mix in some flashes of brilliance. Including a spinning drive by Anfernee Simons on Mike Conley that unabashedly made me smile.
Expect the Blazers to give an extended run to the camp invitees and the bench unit tomorrow against the Denver Nuggets as they need to head into the opener, again against the Nuggets, and need to have their full rotation healthy.