The Portland Trail Blazers fell 124-121 to the Sacramento Kings on opening night of the 2021-22 regular season. The effort was spotty, the results equally so. If you’d like a quarter-by-quarter rundown of how the game unfolded, you can find our Instant Recap right here. Here’s the systematic analysis of Portland’s performance in Game 1.
After spending most of the 2020-21 season bemoaning the myriad ways their defense went wrong, the 2021-22 Trail Blazers exhibited only two issues in their first game: defending outside and defending inside.
Of the two, the inside defense was far more telling. It’s one thing when noted driver De’Aaron Fox (and his brand-new 10 Pounds of Muscle) turns your defense into hash. Fox had 27 on the evening, 17 from the paint and foul line. When Harrison Barnes and Richaun Holmes are also making you look silly, you may have a problem.
Portland’s big defenders did not look strong tonight. They didn’t block shots. They didn’t stop many either. They did foul on many non-converted interior attempts. So did the trailing guards and forwards. If “Hack Like Nearsighted Vikings” was on Portland’s defensive whiteboard tonight, nobody would be surprised. The Kings attempted 29 foul shots and scored 46 in the paint. At times, it seemed like a million of each.
With Portland’s defense collapsing inside, most of Sacramento’s 41 three-point attempts were wide open. After missing most of them in the first half, they heated up in the second, finishing 17-41, 41.5%, from the arc.
Let’s add this up. The Kings scored 46 in the lane, 23 at the foul line, and 51 on threes. That adds up to 120 points.
They scored 124 total.
That means 96.8% of their points came from premium spots. Portland was just above the 93% mark themselves, but the Kings stink at defense, so yeah. Guess who else might?
Saying the Blazers are a hot mess on defense right now is giving them too much credit. They’re a lukewarm mess at best. They have no idea how to help each other. They have no great defenders on the ball. They’re not forcing turnovers and they’re not defending threes. If they don’t get the scheme aligned, don’t expect them to have much success.
One of Portland’s goals this year is turning defense into offense, forcing turnovers and running off of them. If that’s going to happen, they’ll have to coax more than 10 TO’s from their opponent. And they SURE as heck won’t want to get beat 20-2 in transition points like they did tonight.
The first rule of defending is, “We get back on defense.” The second rule of defending is, “If we don’t get back on defense, somebody BETTER talk about not getting back on defense, because we won’t survive a -18 margin every night.”
The Blazers scored 58 in the paint tonight, a huge number. CJ McCollum, in particular, looked committed to scoring inside, either in the lane proper or in the closer midrange regions. That was great, as was their 48.5% overall shooting percentage.
Unfortunately, their three-point shooting has all the rhythm of a drunken tree sloth. This was a problem in preseason too. The Blazers aren’t getting the ball up cleanly off the catch. Half of their threes seem like bail-out afterthoughts. They missed some of their good attempts too, but when you move players, change up how they get into their shot, and reduce the frequency, there’s going to be an adjustment period.
Portland heated up in the second half to save their percentage, but they still shot only 12-35, 34.3%, from the arc tonight. Damian Lillard was 0-9. That didn’t help.
Cross Elaine Benes dancing and Shaq at the foul line and you’ll have a rough idea of the awkwardness of Portland’s offense right now. The high shooting percentage is like a nice dress covering up the flaws.
Jusuf Nurkic finished the game with an impressive 20 points and 14 rebounds on 6-10 shooting. He had a great fourth quarter defensively, largely because the refs swallowed their whistles for much of the period, letting players bump and smack freely. If they hadn’t, he would have fouled out.
The strong finish made up for an anemic start for the big guy. He has to provide a strong pillar around which Portland’s help defenders can operate. That’s not even close to happening.
Nurk’s offense was better than his defense. The Blazers used his screens throughout the game. They hit him on the run in the second half, allowing him to score and pass quickly. Under those conditions, he looked good. Otherwise, he’s still unsteady.
Every Blazers guard did something noteworthy tonight.
Lillard shot only 8-24, but he seemed intent on getting other players involved until the game got out of hand. He notched 11 assists against a single turnover.
McCollum scored 34 on 14-24 shooting. He looked more comfortable than anyone else in the new Billups offense, likely because he’s a natural mid-range player. He went inside early, then parlayed that success into three-pointers late. He ended up 6-11 from distance. He also dished 5 assists, though he added 5 turnovers.
Norman Powell took advantage of limited opportunities, driving to the cup and shooting threes when open. He missed most of his attempts, going 3-9 from the field. But he still played strong, earning 8 foul shots, converting 7.
Anfernee Simons shot 5-6 for 11 points in 18 minutes off the bench. He had 4 assists and only 1 turnover, looking comfortable with the ball in his hands.
Here’s the thing. For all the praise, these four sums didn’t add up to a much greater whole. McCollum was brilliant, but the Blazers covered up second-unit deficiencies by putting the ball in his hands instead of Simons’. At least he only played 35 minutes. Lillard played 40. The Blazers had to take giant chomps out of Sacramento’s weak second unit—burning their own starter minutes to do so—just to make up the huge deficit they left themselves.
Most importantly of all, none of the guards—individually or collectively—made much difference on defense. The Kings choked away much of their lead in the fourth quarter, sure, but if that was all due to Portland’s superior defense, where was it the whole game long?
In reality, Sacramento got a case of Young-Team-itis or the Blazers would have been down 30 by the end of the third and never closed the gap after.
If there was supposed to be a big change in effort or effectiveness on defense, it didn’t happen. The guards are the potential growth curve on that end. None of them grew much.
Larry Nance, Jr. and Cody Zeller both played their first games in Portland uniforms tonight. Nance, Jr. collected 4 fouls in 17 minutes, effectively removing himself from play. Zeller set a couple of good picks and had 6 rebounds in 19 minutes.
Both players depend on teammates to make their skills count. There just wasn’t enough infrastructure on Portland’s end to see what the new guys are capable of becoming. They had a couple nice moments, but were basically ineffective. That’s not entirely their fault.
Portland’s coaching staff played only nine players tonight. Nassir Little and Robert Covington round out the group mentioned above. Covington didn’t hit enough threes to look good on offense. He was fine on defense, for all the difference it made. Little was aggressive and looked heaps better than he did in preseason.
It’ll be interesting to see whether the Blazers can keep the rotation that short. Granted, the list of players below this point is sketchy. Even so, it’ll be a nightmare if the Blazers keep falling behind, then have to play their best players big minutes just to catch up. They’re a top-heavy team, but they need some kind of 10th Man, or at least bigger minutes from their 6th and 7th, to survive a long season.
What Are We Doing?
After seeing the Blazers play in preseason, we knew the regular season start would be rough. Nothing will be determined after one game, or even one month.
Still, giving up 100 points to the Kings after three quarters on opening night is a slap in the face.
At some point, the Blazers will need to prove that they can succeed with this roster and this system. You can see what they want to do. They actually did some of it (high percentage, more inside shots, Nurkic playing a key part in the offense). Other theoretical improvements were nowhere to be seen.
After four preseason games and one regular-season start. they Blazers remain in a murky gray area. It’s possible they’re just not good at the aspects that aren’t working. It’s also possible that this isn’t what they should be doing in the first place. Figuring out which one of those is true, and/or compensating for same, will be a major task over the next few weeks. If it’s one or the other, they can probably adjust. If it’s both, hoo boy. Prepare for a long season.
The Blazers will face the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night at 7:00 PM, Pacific.