The Portland Trail Blazers and Charlotte Hornets played a festive game on Halloween. The Hornets dressed up like Marvel superheroes, shooting, swinging, and flying their way down the floor for four quarters. The Blazers dressed up in the classic K-Mart Batman outfit: sweet mask, fragile elastic string, decent-but-ill-fitting shirt, the jammy-bottom pants just suck. Though the Blazers had their gooey-candy moments, the kids in the cool duds prevailed 125-113.
If you missed the four-quarter rundown, you can find it here. Here’s the in-depth analysis of the game, plus its high and low points.
Three For All
Both teams were taking three-pointers like crazy, especially in the first half. Neither seemed inclined to miss. It wasn’t complex. Any bit of penetration drew in defenses committed to aggressive help. After that, 1-2 passes resulted in an open look for anyone who cared to set up for one.
After the starters got the floor warmed up in the first, Anferthree Simons showed up for the Blazers, hitting multiple triples in quick succession. He was just one Trail Blazer, though. All the Hornets were doing it.
Overall the teams shot 17-54 (Blazers) and 20-42 (Hornets) from distance respectively, combining for 96 attempts and 111 points from the arc.
Safe to say, allowing the opponent to shoot 48% from the arc is not part of Portland’s game plan.
If you want to see the difference between Portland’s offense this year and in years past—besides the obvious emphasis on the screen and roll—watch where they set up plays and penetrate.
Under Terry Stotts, Portland played in the shape of a “T”, with the pillar stretching from the rim to the top of the arc and the crossbar running along the baseline. The goal was to spread the defense far enough to get an open straight-away look for the ball-handler or penetration for a corner three...all shots coming at the ends of the T-line. They’d also play at the diagonals (Hello, CJ McCollum) but those attempts came off of the primary T-offense.
Under Chauncey Billups, the Blazers are starting at the diagonals with screens. The offense running along a “V” shape with its bottom point under the rim. The goal of attacking along the diagonals is to open up more passing lanes. They will also shoot corner and straight-away shots, but those attempts come of of the initial V-offense.
Basically, it’s a contrast between setting up open three-point shots (Stotts) versus penetration and passing lanes (Billups). We’ll have to wait a while for final results, but it’s interesting to watch the differences unfold.
The Blazers did better covering the arc in the second half of this game. The Hornets got a little three-happy, launching too often from distance. The Blazers pinched them when it mattered, and the home-run shots went away.
When that happened, Charlotte calmed down and tried a different tack. Their guards, particularly Ball, went inside. At that point, Portland’s lack of height and defensive acumen started to show. Pull-ups and layups fell when triples wouldn’t.
The Blazers did have some spectacular shut-downs when their help defenders got to the spot. Jusuf Nurkic, Larry Nance, Jr., and Nassir Little can create serious problems at any given point on the floor. But over-pursuit leaves them vulnerable. After the cavalry commits, nobody recovers quickly enough and nobody can rotate fast enough.
Charlotte took full advantage as the game unfolded. When their layups got blocked, the they went to short jumpers. When the Blazers got men in front of the jump shooters, the arc opened up again. Wherever the Blazers weren’t, the Hornets scored. On any given play, the Blazers were not somewhere.
Shoddy three-point coverage is problematic. but Portland’s inability to divert sustained pressure inside is distressing. They’re somewhat set up to do that and it’s not happening, despite pretty decent effort from their apt defenders.
The cumulative result was the Blazers passing out buckets like Halloween candy. The farther along the evening went, the worse it got. This was less than optimal.
Fourth Quarter Fade
Though the score read 89-88, Hornets at the end of three, the Blazers got mowed over in the fourth quarter.
Rebounding was the first red flag. Portland had sustained an edge, both in aggression and numbers, through the first 36 minutes. All of a sudden, Charlotte became the dominant glass tenders.
After that, inside scoring and transition ball picked up for the Hornets, along with foul shots. Then threes came free and easy and it all fell apart.
The Blazers tried to keep pace with jumpers and floaters that looked like the were coming off of tired legs.
This was the first night of a back-to-back, not the second. We’ll need to watch and see whether Portland going nine deep, with only one guard coming off the bench, is going to affect them. It shouldn’t this early in the season, but it’s hard to watch that second half and not think something is going on energy-wise.
The Hornets played like a young team tonight. They had boundless confidence and a near-naive energy. You’ve seen what it’s like when the game comes free and easy like that.
For much of the evening, the Blazers played similarly, the elder dogs running with the pups, not curbing the dash, letting them tire themselves out.
According to the script, Portland was supposed to lock down in the fourth, stopping the opponent’s silliness and teaching them what real basketball looks like. Instead the inverse happened. Not only did Charlotte keep up their energy, they played smarter than Portland did.
If the Blazers can’t throw the veteran switch, they can’t afford to get caught up in the run-and-fun style in the first place. If you can’t stop them later, you have to arrest the action sooner. It’s as simple as that. Except tonight it wasn’t, somehow.
Despite the loss, the Blazers showed several positive signs individually.
Anfernee Simons is a powerhouse off the bench when he makes scoring a priority. He wasn’t a mere microwave tonight, but a full nuclear meltdown. He parlayed 4 made threes in the first half into a 19-point, 6-9 shooting performance that would have brought the house down had his team been able to follow through with the win. When that shot falls, this guy is Big Time.
The Blazers also feature Little Time, as bench forward Nassir Little is showing every sign of coming into his own. He leads with defense...a prized quality in a young player. His help work was as effective as Larry Nance, Jr.’s tonight, and that’s saying something. Little also shot 2-3 from distance, scored 8 points, and grabbed 6 rebounds, 3 offensive. If we’re still talking like this in a month, Blazers fans should start to get excited. Even now, dreaming of a Little, Nance/Robert Covington, Jusuf Nurkic frontcourt should maybe evoke tingles?
Speaking of Nance, Jr., he’s still finding his way. Sometimes on Lego Masters they’ll throw a movement challenge at the builders. They’ll film the builds halfway through and inevitably someone will have a Technic piece hooked up to a motor, spinning off the side of the construction, moving furiously but not really connected to anything meaningful yet. That’s what Nance, Jr. looks like with the Blazers right now. If they can harness that motor—if his energy connects in time and space to the forwards and centers around him—this build could be good. It’s not happening yet, but fans should still appreciate how their new forward moves. He shot 4-5 in 18 minutes tonight with 8 points, 7 rebounds, a steal, and a block.
If you want to talk about appreciation...check out CJ McCollum. If Damian Lillard is like the Incredible Hulk on offense, McCollum is James Bond: never flustered, always with the right tool in hand, smoothly foiling opposing defenses and looking good doing it. Late-game pressure to make up a deficit messed up everybody’s offense tonight. CJ went only 3-9 in the final frame. Even then he connected on a pair of threes, though. Overall McCollum scored 25 with 8 assists. He’s playing the best offense of his career, and that’s saying a TON.
Damian Lillard is not looking as good, unfortunately. He’s not getting deep shots in rhythm. He’s not attempting at the same angles or distances he succeeded at last year. His shot looks great when he can take a couple dribbles, size up, set up, and release. Quick shots coming out of the flow of the offense just don’t look right. He went 5-20 against Charlotte, 2-14 from the arc, and it wasn’t about the defensive pressure. He did dish a dozen assists.
Speaking of pressure, neither Lillard or McCollum were able to put enough on their counterparts. LaMelo Ball had 27—2 more than McCollum—shooting 50% from the field. Terry Rozier managed 14, the same as Dame. Each shot 4-9 from distance.
An opposing backcourt shooting more efficiently than Dame and CJ is no big deal. When they shoot more efficiently AND outscore Portland’s guards, that’s an issue.
Norman Powell continues to find his way, much like Nance, Jr. He was super-aggressive in the first and third quarters, either attempting threes or cutting straight through the Hornets’ defense when they were looking elsewhere. In the even-numbered periods he either wasn’t on the floor or wasn’t noticeable there. Powell finished the game shooting 6-15, 2-9 from distance, for 14 points.
The scary thing about the evening isn’t just the loss, but that the Blazers have to turn around and play the Philadelphia 76’ers tomorrow. The contest begins at 4:00, Pacific. They’ll all need to play like saints to dodge the potential Halloween hangover.