The Portland Trail Blazers should have been able to defeat a Philadelphia 76’ers team short its three best players tonight. Instead Portland played inconsistently, bailing out into patterns all too familiar to those who have watched them meander into mediocrity the past couple seasons. If Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and the strongest lineup 3-8 that the Blazers have fielded in years can’t dominate a bunch of Sixers reserves, they probably have some explaining to do.
However the team itself explains it, here are the key points that ended up typifying the 113-103 loss.
If you missed the game, you can find our quarter-by-quarter rundown here.
Raise Your Guard!
You would think on a night when all three of Portland’s starting guards (Norman Powell is one, no matter what the position name says) scored 20+, with Anfernee Simons scoring 17 off the bench, Portland’s offense would have been ideal. That was not the case.
Norman Powell shot 8-12 for 22 points, Simons 7-12 to get his 17. But Damian Lillard shot only 7-20, 2-9 from distance and CJ McCollum 8-20, 3-8.
The Blazers paid for the 79 points scored by the quartet with 64 shots. That’s not totally gruesome, unless you consider that Portland attempted only 84 shots total. The guards were responsible for 75% of the shot attempts but only scored 79 points between them.
84 shots is a low number for Portland, especially with a relatively pedestrian 14 turnovers and a downright paltry 18 free throw attempts. They weren’t losing shot attempts. Dominating the offense, the guards also slowed it down. Even though technically you could say this game demonstrated the power of Portland’s multi-pronged backcourt attack, 103 points on the scoreboard weren’t nearly enough to show for it.
On the Rebound
It’s early in the season, but rebounding is already showing up as a critical strength for the Blazers. That hasn’t been true for a number of years. It’s a welcome sight.
Jusuf Nurkic, Nassir Little, and Larry Nance, Jr. lead the attack, but the guards are getting in on the action too. Whatever else is happening, the team is together in this.
The Blazers prosper when they dominate the glass. When the rebounding battle is more even, they lose one of their main advantages. It’s also a pretty good indication that their energy is waning.
If you want energy, look no further than Portland’s second unit. Nassir Little and Larry Nance, Jr. continue to light up the defensive end of the floor every time their sneakers hit it. Mobility, passion, and commitment abound, as well as a few good straight-up stands in Little’s case. The momentum bleeds over to guys like Nurkic and Simons too. You can see them amp up with eager defenders next to them.
On the other hand, even Portland’s best defensive lineups often resemble Rosco P Coltrane of Dukes of Hazzard fame, chasing everything that moves while cackling, “Hee! Hee! Hee! I’m in hot pursuit!”
It’s about as effective too.
The bench squad kept it up pretty well in the first half, but by the time Portland ran a four-guard lineup into scramble mode in the fourth quarter, even the inexperienced Sixers reserve squad started looking like Bo and Luke Duke. They’d threaten, watch the defense charge, then pass around it for ridiculously easy looks. Philly streaked off with the moonshine; the Blazers ended up upside-down in the water, wheels spinning futilely.
But No “D” in “First Unit”
For whatever reason, Portland’s starters do not share the acumen and the passion of their defensive counterparts on the bench.
Last night they gave up a million and two three-pointers to the Charlotte Hornets. Tonight they cleared that up, allowing only 13 makes on 36 attempts from the arc, a 36.1% success rate.
Not so fast, though. Every time Portland’s starters played together, the Sixers feasted on shots at the rim. Centers, cutters, drivers... off the pass or off the dribble... Portland treated Philly to a layup buffet.
In the first half the Blazers got saved, as the refs called almost no fouls on them. It was almost halftime before Philly attempted a free throw. That limited the damage. The whistles normalized in the second half. With the extra foul shot attached, those layup attempts became de facto three-pointers.
Damian Lillard was the first to crumble on defense. Opponents drove on him mercilessly in the second half. He didn’t look good. CJ McCollum soon followed. Any help the Blazers tried to offer their stars got detoured by whistles and/or passes. The Sixers’ plan of attack was well-worn, but it worked.
I’m Not Paranoid, Everyone Is Out to Get Me
Without Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris, and Ben Simmons, Philadelphia fielded approximately zero scoring threats. Nobody in their uniform required more than stout single coverage to manage.
Somehow the Blazers made that addition look like calculus, allowing 51.8% shooting from the field.
The damage was widespread. Andre Drummond finished the game just 3 assists short of a triple-double. Veteran journeyman Georges Niang (Who???) scored 21 points. Seth Curry went 10-17 from the field and all 7 of his misses came from the arc, where he’s actually good.
It’s like the Blazers are inventing ways to turn opponents into Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, and Jaylen Brown. This is a good skill if you’re producing movies in the Marvel Universe, where the most insignificant characters from Page 37 of a 1970’s pulp comic suddenly become world-dominating stars. (“Thank God you’re here, Potato Bug Kid!”) If you’re trying to play defense in the NBA, it’s not quite as useful.
We knew turnovers, committed and forced, were going to be a critical tipping point this season. That remains true from a theoretical standpoint. Practically, the Blazers don’t quite have it all figured out yet.
On their own end, Portland is good at taking care of the ball as long as they do what they’ve always done: let guards score, mostly in isolation. That typified their second-half offense tonight. They had few turnover problems during those stretches.
During the first half, they tried to play faster and more pass-heavy. That looked like a Pachinko machine with balls flying everywhere.
The same principle held for the fractured Sixers. Portland’s bench defenders forced a reasonable amount of chaos on their foes, converting turnovers into quick pushes down the floor. But as soon as Philly settled down, those opportunities faded, along with Portland’s defensive potency.
So...are the Blazers running a devil-may-care, frenzied, turnover-generating defense or a more tub-of-margarine, “This won’t win awards but it’s something,” scheme? Even they don’t seem to know yet. It depends on who takes the floor right now. Sometimes it’s half of each. That’s just a mess.
Similarly, are the Blazers committed to learning how to screen and pass on offense, or are they going to revert to a safer, guard-based offense when the game gets tight? If they don’t get fluid in the first method, all they’re doing is creating more opportunities for mistakes. They might as well minimize those by dancing with what brung them. But will that be enough—or even work anymore—particularly with four guards who specialize in scoring and no way to get enough attempts up to please all of them?
Either way, watching them play is just a little weird right now.
We’re already raised an eyebrow at some of the things that went wrong in this game. Let’s look at a few that went right.
Larry Nance, Jr. is always aggressive on defense. In the first and third quarters he was also aggressive on offense, playing free and easy, shooting without remorse. He’s not a pure offensive player, but he’s got to get comfortable on that end in order to acclimate.
Whatever is going on with Players 1-5 in Portland’s rotation, Players 6 and 7 are soaring. Anfernee Simons continued his roll (and role) from last night, shooting and scoring in every manner practical. His offense is reaching a level of beauty so far reserved only for McCollum and Lillard. Whatever is clicking in him, the Blazers should encourage it.
Nassir Little has left a mark on the floor for the last few games. He did it again tonight. 8 rebounds and nice defensive mobility in 20 minutes of play speak well of him. Like Nance, he’s becoming increasingly comfortable on the offensive end of the floor.
The Blazers are going to have to find a way to get the energy-defense-cheekiness that Little and LNJ bring to the floor into the first unit. They’re the spark the team needs.
Norman Powell was pretty spark-filled himself, as his 8-12 shooting attests. He’s a natural driver, but tonight his hands were ready on every catch at the arc. He didn’t hesitate or look for alternatives. When he saw the chance, he took it. That was nice.
The Blazers visit Cleveland to face the Cavaliers on Wednesday at 4:00 PM, Pacific