The Portland Trail Blazers entered preseason Game 3 against the Phoenix Suns this afternoon ready to get their regular rotation players some time together on the floor. They managed that. Four of five starters played 20 minutes or more, getting great exposure on both ends. That exposure did not yield good things. The starters averaged a -23.2 plus-minus between them as the Blazers got housed by the Suns, 119-74. Portland committed 21 turnovers, shot 16% from the three-point arc, and generally died a slow death as Phoenix rained in threes and jammed home dunks. It was not a promising outing for a team looking to start the season hot in exactly one week.
Let’s talk about the defense, since that’s the primary improvement expected this season. There’s a definite change in defensive philosophy, especially against screens. We’ve talked about this before. Sending two defenders out against screens allows the Blazers to use mobility among their bigs (which they have) instead of relying on size and shot blocking (which they don’t).
Increased turnovers are the main product so far. They’re able to pinch the ball-handler, either poking it away or creating trickier passing situations. Now Portland can scope out the angles, get long arms/hands into the lane, and force the miscue.
Unfortunately, turnovers aren’t even beginning to make up for an utter lack of effectiveness otherwise. The Blazers are pretty good at the point of attack. They’re adequate after the initial pass following, as their first rotation is usually crisp. After that, they’re hopeless. They seem to have no idea how to adjust as a team after that initial defensive move. One more pass yields an open three for the opponent. If the Blazers close, one pass after that yields a dunk. And all that happens when the Blazers were trying on defense. Phoenix got a disturbing number of dunks and alley-oops out of their halfcourt offense in this game...literally the easiest shots imaginable. This should never happen against a team with defensive backbone, particularly when the same team is giving up open threes. If the Blazers are not guarding the arc and not guarding the rim, what exactly ARE they guarding?
Any advantage in turnovers generated is being offset by turnovers committed, which is a recurring theme so far this preseason. It isn’t just the dregs of the rotation, either. I never thought I’d say that Portland’s starting lineup looks lost out there on the floor, but...they kind of did. We’re talking about this on the Dave and Dia podcast this week (coming out tomorrow). When you go away from an isolation-based offense which keeps the ball in the hands of your most experienced, talented players, you’re going to lose efficiency. Every pass is another opportunity for a miscue. You hope to generate enough superior looks to overcome the risk/difference. That’s not happening for the Blazers right now. In essence, they’re incurring the penalty for their new style without reaping the benefits. One would presume that this will improve over time, but the Blazers have only one game remaining before contests start counting.
Speaking of offense, Portland’s baffling inability to hit three-point shots continued today. There’s not much to say except that they’re bricking shots they usually hit. Some of it might be rhythm; their starting guards are concentrating on more things and/or getting shots later in possessions than they used to. But their outlet shooters just aren’t hitting either. Once the Blazers got behind in the game, they tried to take it over with offense, as is their habit. Without the threes, they were firing blanks.
Jusuf Nurkic continues to be a pivotal player in Portland’s schemes. He did not get as many touches on offense as he did in the first preseason game. The Blazers weren’t forcing it to, or through, him. When he did catch in the middle, he turned decisively and tried to score quickly. That was a big improvement over the bobble-and-delay performance we saw earlier. Nurkic’s screens came hard and stuck opponents on multiple occasions. That was great. Even playing better, he still committed 5 turnovers.
On defense, the story was also mixed. Portland had NO interior defense when Nurkic sat. That recommends him highly. He looked slightly more spry getting out to screens and back to the rim when necessary. But he also picked up 5 fouls in 20 minutes. Like most things with the Blazers this fall, it’s two steps forward, four-and-a-half steps back.
Larry Nance, Jr. struggled with continuity today, committing turnovers and fouls while not shutting down the inside subbing for Nurk. He did play a little bit of point forward. It’ll be interesting to see if that experiment continues.
Dennis Smith, Jr. got a lot of run and may be on the inside track to grab a final roster spot.
Other than that, no startling developments came out of the game. It wasn’t supposed to be a startle-heavy day for them. This game was designed for the starting lineup and high-rotation players got run together, shifting into gear. The opportunity came. The gear shifting? Not so much. It was disturbing to see how poorly the main players meshed together compared to the Suns.
The Blazers get one more chance to tune up on Friday night against the Golden State Warriors. Let’s hope they take better advantage than they did today.
Portland and Golden State tip it off at 7:00 PM on Friday night.