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Blazers Defense Crumbles to Dust, Preseason Goes Boom

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Without Damian Lillard, the Blazers fall to Denver without a whimper.

Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

If the Portland Trail Blazers were hoping to exit the 2020 Preseason schedule on a positive note against the Denver Nuggets on Friday night, they did not get their wish. The game was less masterful orchestration than sad trombone symphony. Damian Lillard sat out the game, eliminating one of Portland’s main scorers. But lack of defense—not offense—was the crippling downfall. The Blazers got down early, dug the hole even deeper, then slunk their way to the finish of a dispiriting 129-96 loss.

If the Blazers are on the path to defensive improvement this year, they certainly didn’t show it during preseason play. Bad defense against Denver on Tuesday night turned into downright helpless defense tonight.

Portland was bad on close-outs at the three-point arc from the outset. They collapsed in the lane, but didn’t recover against shooters at any position or angle. Denver shot 41% from distance tonight. Most of their misses were unforced.

Just when you hoped it would get better, it got worse. The second unit couldn’t close off the interior either. As Denver began scoring at the cup as well as the arc, a decent lead ballooned to indomitable.

Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse again, it did. Portland’s defensive rebounding went to pot. When Denver started getting multiple attempts after misses, the margin went from indomitable to laughable.

At that point, the look in the eyes of Blazers players told the story more clearly than Triple H when John Cena shows up for the Royal Rumble. It was a combination of, “What the heck?” and, “It’s only preseason.” The problem was, the clock read early second quarter at that point, far too soon to get blown out of any game, even an exhibition one.

At no moment did the Nuggets look bothered by anything the Blazers did defensively. When an individual player made a good stand (rare), they simply passed it to wherever the defense was not. That’s the most disturbing take-away from all this. Between preseason motivation and lack of experience together, the Blazers could be excused for a lack of defensive cohesion, and thus efficiency. The Nuggets acted like Portland’s defense didn’t even exist. The Blazers did nothing about it. That’s not ok. It better be gut-check time for Portland in the locker room and on that plane.

I hesitate to blame a performance on any player; it’s preseason and the malaise was team-wide. Still, we cannot ignore how poorly Jusuf Nurkic performed tonight, and through much of the exhibition schedule. A couple weeks ago on the Dave and Dia podcast (shameless plug), we identified Nurkic as a key linking point for the defense. So far he’s been anything but. Though he returned from injury during the Orlando Bubble restart this summer, Nurk has spent most of the last two years on the shelf. It may be showing. He looks slow, heavy, almost listless. He’s trotting down the floor, walking through defensive possessions. He’s not just missing rotations, he’s utterly failing to make them. His perimeter coverage, closing out or on screens, is Whiteside-esque.

Portland still has problems with opposing dribblers getting past the guards. If the middle isn’t secure, disaster ensues. Enes Kanter isn’t much help in that department. Harry Giles isn’t ready to shoulder that kind of responsibility. If Nurkic isn’t on, the Blazers are in trouble.

Nurkic also suffered on offense tonight. Screens between him and the guards were poorly-executed. Possessions with Nurk up high, initiating plays, ended in turnovers.

CJ McCollum tried to fill the gap, lifting the team in Lillard’s absence. He made a couple fine individual plays but few team-sparking ones. His isolation moves were the equivalent of doggy paddling in an ocean storm. There was no way the Blazers were reaching land under those conditions.

The good news: Portland did evidence offensive threats at every position, when they bothered to use them. Robert Covington hit threes and Derrick Jones, Jr. attacked the rim with authority before leaving the game after a nasty fall in the third. Kanter didn’t help much aside from offensive rebounding, but at least he did that.

Carmelo Anthony had a frustrating night, seldom getting clean looks, getting ejected for arguing calls in the third period. If it was less a protest than abandoning ship at that point, well, that would have been appropriate. ‘Melo shot 0-7 for 3 points on the evening.

McCollum scored 26 points and Gary Trent, Jr. 18 to lead the Blazers. Kanter had 10, marking the only three Blazers in double figures.

Under most conditions, plus-minus is a garbage stat for individual outing. This game provides the exception. 8 of the 11 Portland players who checked onto the floor exited with double-digit negatives in plus-minus. Across the bench, only Keljin Blevins, who played 12 minutes, finished with better than a -15. That’s not ok.

The Blazers will come home to regroup before beginning the regular season next Wednesday against the Utah Jazz. The 1-3 preseason record means nothing. The lack of vital signs for the last week may. Head Coach Terry Stotts and Damian Lillard will need to grease up some paddles, shout, “Clear!”, and jolt this team into rhythm between now and then, otherwise the start of the 2020-21 regular season will be painful to watch.

Stay with Blazer’s Edge over the weekend and beginning of next week as we preview the season and get you ready for the games that count!

Boxscore (NSFW)

Many gifs of crying

Bulk Kleenex purchase

Uplifting article to distract you

Cute cat dance:

The Blazers will host the Jazz on Wednesday, December 23rd at the Moda Center at 7:00 PM, Pacific.