The Trail Blazers erased a lengthy postseason drought by marching past the Thunder in the first round, and they have already registered a road win against the Nuggets in the Western Conference Semifinals. Portland’s bout of positive results has opened a clear path to the conference finals and simultaneously shifted long-standing narratives that have followed coach Terry Stotts’ squad through recent years. The Blazers’ persona as a flashy regular season team that lacked the grit to make noise when it matters the most has rapidly shifted to a team poised to give the most talented teams fits.
Alongside a list of individual improvements, this sea-change for the Blazers has shown once again that the old sports adage of “winning cures everything” still rings true. Here is a look at the players that have shattered existing narratives with their solid performances in the playoffs.
Offense-Only Backcourt Applies the Pressure
Portland’s backcourt has garnered plenty of criticism in regards to shoddy defense since Wesley Matthews left town. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have dazzled on offense, but they are often targeted on defense in high-pressure situations. Maligned for their lack of size and defensive acumen, the mainstream praise for the Blazers’ backcourt often ends at their entertainment value. That has not been the case in the 2019 NBA Playoffs.
Lillard has been disruptive on defense and avoided the screens that once held him up. Through seven games, he is averaging 2.1 steals. That is exactly one steal more than his regular season average. Outside of Lillard’s ball-hawking, he has done a superb job of stymieing larger opponents that try to post him up.
Russell Westbrook ran into Lillard’s defense on several occasions in the first round. But none of those tussles were as pretty as this series from Lillard:
McCollum’s exploits are less noticeable but noteworthy nonetheless. He made things miserable for the Thunder’s Terrance Ferguson, and he has done a better job of getting into the mix for defensive rebounds. Currently, McCollum trails only Enes Kanter and Al-Farouq Aminu on the Blazers’ postseason leaderboard for defensive rebounds per game.
Coming into this year’s playoffs, Rodney Hood’s postseason history was largely a footnote. He was a complete afterthought during the Cavaliers’ run to the NBA Finals last year and he failed to leave a lasting impression with the Jazz prior to that. Hood has often been labelled as a talented player with a penchant for disappearing in big moments. After five games against the Thunder, it appeared that Hood’s reputation was destined to stick. He passed out of favorable shots and failed to establish himself on offense.
On this play, Hood opted to defer to McCollum before settling on a three-point attempt.
Luckily for the Blazers, Hood has snapped out of his funk against the Nuggets. He turned in two double-digit performances and is once again shooting with confidence from beyond the arc.
Here is the same look from beyond the arc, but this time Hood doesn’t hesitate in a big moment.
Kanter’s defensive deficiencies have been discussed ad nauseam, so I’ll spare you the full premise. Despite his reputation, the Blazers’ stand-in center has done his best to fill a Nurkic-sized hole in the post. It can be ugly at times, but Kanter has looked competent defending pick-and-roll sets.
On this play he slides over to cut off Dennis Schroder’s path to the rim and gets back just in time to block Steven Adams’ shot.
Even with an ailing shoulder, Kanter has routinely applied pressure to the Nuggets’ pick-and-roll offense. In this clip, Kanter slides over to halt Gary Harris’ progress and recovers to bother Nikola Jokic’s attempt from inside the paint.
Things won’t get easier for Kanter against Jokic as the series against the Nuggets progresses, but you have to tip your cap to the determination that the big fella has displayed on defense.
We want to hear from you. What narrative-shifting improvements have captured your attention during the Blazers’ current postseason run? Let us know in the comments.