The Trail Blazers opened their preseason schedule with 105-94 loss to the Nuggets in the historic confines of Veterans Memorial Coliseum. With Nikola Jokic sidelined for the contest, coach Mike Malone’s squad relied upon contributions from the Paul Millsap and newcomer Jerami Grant. Regardless of the loss, four Blazers reached double figures to open the preseason. Zach Collins, Anfernee Simons, Mario Hezonja and Skal Labissiere all crossed the double-digit point threshold on Tuesday night.
It was far from a regular season tilt, but there was some important trends that surfaced. Blazer’s Edge contributors Lindsay Hostetler and Steve Dewald were on hand to analyze the action that unfolded in the preseason opener.
Pace & Creativity
Lindsay: Mario Hezonja has an unreal ability to push the pace. Show-stopping dunks alongside neat passes and a quick dribble ensure that the second unit has the energy they need. It will be interesting to see how that plays out over the long run. Hezonja isn’t the only one with a motor in the potential second unit. Kent Bazemore has very active hands that keeps opponents on their toes. His aggressiveness is something to look forward to. Anyone who dives for the ball in preseason is worth watching.
Steve: It appears that the Blazers’ commitment to getting out on the break is more than just offseason lip service. As noted from the Fan Fest, Portland’s offense is quick to find the first eligible ball handler to get the ball moving after securing rebounds. It is early, but Hezonja looks like the player best positioned to benefit from the increased pace. Even in half court sets, the 24-year-old Croatian routinely sliced through the Nuggets’ defense for easy looks at the rim.
New Roles, New Wrinkles
Steve: Bazemore recorded a forgettable 1-7 shooting performance, but he shined on defense. The former Hawks wing snagged seven steals and made life miserable for opponents looking to poach points in the post. From anchoring himself properly to deftly poking the ball away, Bazemore turned away larger players with ease. Judging by tonight, I would expect Stotts to put Bazemore in a Turner-like role on defense when utilizing small-ball lineups.
Lindsay: Zach Collins has returned with a newly-developed mid-range game! He had a few good looks and a silky smooth shot just inside the three-point line. It looked faster than his attempts at the three, and he still seemed hesitant at the three-point line. With ten points overall, there are definitely things to look forward to in his developing game. There are obviously things to clean up given his performance in the third quarter, especially when he puts the ball on the floor, but those things will come in time.
Lindsay: There seemed to be a lot of tentativeness at times on the court, in direct contrast with the aggressiveness displayed by Hezonja and Bazemore. One of the potential issues underlying that is the natural lineup experimentation that happens in preseason. We saw Bazemore at the four and Hassan Whiteside at the five, and Whiteside looked timid in that role by comparison, which could be attributed to the time he missed with a sprained ankle. There was Collins and Anthony Tolliver to start the third quarter at the five and four, respectively, and Tolliver couldn’t seem to find his shot. Nine turnovers in the third didn’t help anyone find their rhythm. Once guys in this new-look Blazers squad know their role, perhaps that will subside.
Steve: It looked like Whiteside took his role as Jusuf Nurkic’s fill-in a little too literally, and not in a good way. The former Heat pivot settled for Nurk-like flip shots below the rim and looked rushed when playing with his back to the basket. Outside of Whiteside, it was clear that Tolliver was enduring an off night from beyond the arc.
Steve: From the newly-designed court to the vintage feel of the VMC, it was perfect way to start the 50-year anniversary season. On a real note, perhaps the best part of the night was the appreciation for the Moda Center I felt after about two hours inside the Blazers’ former home. The VMC is a key part of Portland’s history, but there is a reason why stadiums are updated with new layouts.
Lindsay: The night started off with the Trail Blazers coaching staff strolling in dressed in appropriately 70s garb, complete with Terry Stotts wearing a gold chain, which got the crowd rolling. Rip City gave Hassan Whiteside a loud and appreciative welcome. The more intimate setting of the Veterans Memorial Coliseum also seemed to be more social.
Dame & CJ Make a Cameo
Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum will rack up plenty of miles in the regular season, which factored into their combined 30 minutes of action against the Nuggets. McCollum notched seven points and Lillard added five of his own, but both players struggled to connect on their three-point attempts. The duo finished with a combined 1-8 mark from beyond the arc.
Anfernee Simons struggled to generate offense inside the arc, but still came away with 10 points. Outside of his own scoring total, he notched two assists as the first guard off the bench.
Rookie forward Nassir Little emerged from the bench in the second half to record eight points in 12 minutes. His aggressive style helped him earn seven attempts from the free throw line and he connected on all but one.
The Blazers return to action on Saturday to host the Suns in the Moda Center.