What do Trail Blazers’ scrimmages and a nice cut of steak have in common? They should both be taken with a grain of salt. Fine, that joke was a bit forced, but the point still stands: with scrimmages inside the bubble underway, overreacting to preseason games is in full force.
We already saw it happen in Bol Bol’s first game inside Denver’s giant lineup. Let’s be real, Bol Bol Bubble MVP does have a nice ring to it.
Given the unusual circumstances of beginning a season in the middle of a season, there’s a blurry line separating what to take away from the scrimmages and what to ignore. So, for Portland’s next two scrimmages, what should you watch for?
Fitness and health, especially for the Blazers, should be the primary takeaway. Jusuf Nurkic returned from a gruesome leg injury on Thursday and looked like the same imposing center that fans saw in March of 2019.
The Indiana Pacers didn’t play Myles Turner or Domantas Sabonis, so Nurkic didn’t have the usual stiff competition associated with facing playoff-caliber teams. However, it was apparent that Nurkic has recovered his athleticism and skill from before the injury. Even more importantly, he didn’t shy away from contact, illustrating that he’s cleared the mental hurdle of standard basketball movement after such a scarring injury.
Zach Collins also played his first game following an extended absence. Like his front court teammate, Collins didn’t avoid contact and defended with his usual intensity. His foot speed impressed as he stuck with guards on the perimeter and contested shots all over the court.
For the rest of the team, their health check focused on stamina. Two separate five-man units of starters and reserves played nearly all of the first two 10-minute quarters in Thursday’s scrimmage, respectively. Generally, none will stay on the floor for longer than that, so it appears as though the Blazers players are ready for 48 minutes of playoff intensity after the four-month hiatus.
The next takeaway is lineups and player combinations. The roster looks noticeably different than it did when the season paused in March due to Collins and Nurkic’s return and Ariza and Swanigan’s absences. Head coach Terry Stotts has the next two scrimmages to experiment with combinations of players and which five he wants on the floor to finish tight games.
He won’t be running the five starters – five reserves alternating units for the next two scrimmages, so now’s the time to key in on who’s playing well with who.
Stotts also said he'll be rotating players in Sunday's scrimmage similar to how he'd play a regular game, though he has not decided how many minutes he'll play the starters.— Casey Holdahl (@CHold) July 25, 2020
Finally, the third takeaway from these scrimmages is Portland’s defensive scheme. Hassan Whiteside and Stotts briefly discussed putting more pressure on the ball to adjust to an interior-oriented defense. In the scrimmage versus Indiana, the defense still struggled to force shooters off the three-point line and into the paint. The Blazers recorded seven blocks, but the Pacers made 13 of 33 (39.4%) three-pointers.
On the flip side, what should fans avoid overreacting to?
First: the fact that Portland’s near-complete roster lost to a Pacers squad lacking a true NBA-caliber center. Remember, these games don’t count for anything and are a time for players to get their feet back under them. Many player combinations have never shared the court with one another, so there’s going to be a learning curve for the Blazers.
Along those same lines, for the second scrimmage, don’t sweat shooting percentages too much. It’s not concerning that Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum shot a combined 1-for-9 from deep. If, by the third scrimmage, those percentages don’t show any improvement, fans can feel slightly concerned as an important matchup against the Grizzlies looms in the background.
Another non-takeaway: the all starters or all bench lineups. The bench doesn’t have enough shot creators or facilitators to consistently score—the young guys need some veteran assistance, likely from McCollum and Anthony.
The final part of the scrimmages to not put too much stock into: Wenyen Gabriel. Yes, his game versus Indiana was exciting. But he still has a lot to figure out on the court. He’s young and there’s certainly plenty of hope for his future, but the Blazers have a plethora of big men that have shown they can play meaningful minutes in crucial situations. Now is not the time to take a chance on a developing post player.
Given all that, if you take one thing away from this article, it’s to ENJOY THE GAMES. We haven’t had basketball in four months and should hopefully get some closure on this wacky season. So long as everyone in the bubble stays safe, just enjoy the basketball.