The Portland Trail Blazers came into their first preseason game of the 2021-22 campaign with a new coach, a new look, and a whole bunch of new candidates auditioning for playing time off the bench. Their offense looked revamped, though in need of fine tuning. Their defense didn’t click. As a result, the Golden State Warriors ran away with the game, 121-107.
Scores and runs don’t matter much in preseason, so here’s the short version of the story.
The Blazers came out of the gate with a combo of slouch and ouch, falling behind early 18-8 to a Warriors team hitting deep shots. A couple of long strikes from Jusuf Nurkic and Robert Covington closed that gap, then CJ McCollum went ham. Golden State started missing open threes, allowing CJ’s scoring to tell. The Warriors led 26-25 after one.
Though the Blazers favored cuts and drives throughout the first half, Damian Lillard showed them some old-school scoring in the second period, hitting 5 of 5 threes in the period. Nothing the Warriors did could beat that. The score was tied at 60 at the half.
Lillard and McCollum weren’t slated to play in the second half. That took the teeth out of Portland’s point production. For a long stretch, their turnovers nearly equaled their shots hit. The defense didn’t get any better either. This left the Warriors running like normal while the Blazers scored like Barnacle Boy on Bumble.
Portland’s 14th Unit had a few moments in the fourth, but after giving up 40 in the third period, it hardly mattered.
The Blazers’ new offense is pure Brutus “The Barber” Beefcake: strutting and cutting all over the place. They dive to the hoop off of screens. As soon as an off-ball defender turns his head, his man will be on the way to the cup. The occasional drive by Norman Powell or CJ McCollum salts the whole. It’s abundantly clear that—Lillard aside—the offensive focus has inverted. Drives and cuts are used to set up threes rather than threes being used to spread the floor for (mostly non-existent) penetration.
The usual suspects facilitated the cuts and passes in this game, but Jusuf Nurkic provided a semi-unexpected benefit high on the floor. He found passing angles and hit shots from distance, making the Blazers legitimate scoring threats whenever he had the ball up there. He becomes an instant weapon when setting screens this way, with his pop setting up a scoring or passing opportunity.
Larry Nance, Jr. didn’t have a huge effect on this game, but from Moment One it’s apparent he moves at a different speed, and with more grace, than the rest of the Blazers. Let’s hope he doesn’t get sludged up into Portland’s Cream o’ Wheat, second-gear team tempo.
Cody Zeller’s screens are already as good as advertised. He’s going to be the next Joel Przybilla, a sneak up on you center.
Norman Powell obviously benefits from the towards-the-rim offensive focus, but he looked like a legitimate three-point threat tonight too.
Anfernee Simons had a Jekyll and Hyde outing at point guard. He began where he left off last season: scoring at every opportunity. After a few shots, he seemed to remember himself and looked to dish the ball. He made a few plays but never settled into the passing role comfortably, missing teammates semi-regularly. BUT he scored like hotcakes and looked better on defense. This is a work in progress, but progress for Simons is good!
The Blazers started the game as they promised they would, making Nurkic a focus in the halfcourt offense. In the middle of the floor, with his back to the basket, he looked slow and indecisive. He bobbled the ball repeatedly, got stripped, and couldn’t make good passes. The entire offense gummed up when the ball stayed in Nurk’s hands low.
Without the starting guards on the floor in the third, Nurk wasn’t that useful. It looks like he’s better playing off of them than they will be playing off of him.
As might be expected, the Blazers lacked defensive continuity. They employed their new strategy of sending bigs out to meet screens instead of dropping back into the lane. With quicker players like Robert Covington and Nance, Jr., they looked presentable. Nurkic went from bad in the first period to mostly passable—with intermittent impotence—later on. Except when the ball went to the rim, his teammates weren’t that quick on the rotations either. The Warriors got to move the ball wherever they wanted. A mobile, engaged Nurkic was absolutely critical to any defensive success the Blazers had.
Also “as might be expected”, the Blazers turned over the ball like it was molten lead covered in poison peanut butter. This offense is New to Portland, but it’s hardly new. As soon as the Lillard/McCollum threat was gone, Portland’s options became 100% predictable. The Warriors read them easily, eventually forcing the Blazers into solo jumpers or awkward pass attempts. Not having a plethora of quick players (or quick reads) narrowed the window for effective execution to impossible levels. The starting guards will take care of much of this, but Portland might be vulnerable to teams who remember how to defend plays conceived before the three-point era.
P.S. If the Blazers wanted to move faster, they sure didn’t show it tonight. They scored 5 fast break points for the game in a chaotic preseason outing. Ugh.
Portland’s three-point defense resembled the late Stan Lee’s notebook: super sketchy. Half the time, they just gave up the shot. (Keep in mind, the Warriors like those looks...it’s one of their main foci. They attempted 69 from deep tonight.) Even when the Blazers closed out at the arc, they had all the intimidation power of a soggy zucchini. Portland’s perimeter defenders might as well have been two feet shorter than they actually are for all the attention Golden State shooters paid to them. If they don’t get more crisp, aggressive, and authoritative at the arc, their offense may not be able to keep up with the opponent’s.
The Blazers have a week to work on things before facing the Sacramento Kings in Preseason Game 2 next Monday at 7:00, Pacific.