The Portland Trail Blazers took down the Detroit Pistons on Saturday night, using a bucketful of points from Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, plus a new franchise record for rebounding from Enes Kanter, to earn a 118-103 victory.
You can read a quarter-by-quarter account of the game in Ryan Rosback’s Instant Recap.
Even though the opponent was fairly weak and a victory expected, there were still plenty of things to pull from the win. Among them were these...
Why the Defense Isn’t Working
It didn’t show up overtly against the Pistons because...Pistons. They’re not exactly the Brooklyn Nets in terms of firepower. But in micro moments tonight, we saw why Portland’s defense doesn’t produce results.
The Blazers are actually pretty good at defending the three-point arc IF they’re already in place to defend when the shot comes up. Even though they lack height and defensive prowess on the perimeter, they have good, quick hands. They can easily interfere with the ball-raising motion of the shooter, if not directly preventing it.
Trouble ensues when the opponent attempts almost anything else. The Blazers are not good on the perimeter when they have to close. Their straight-ahead speed isn’t blinding and their lateral reaction time isn’t that quick. A simple screen or drive and dish is enough to create chaos.
If the perimeter screen involves Robert Covington, Portland is probably OK. He’s the one regular rotation player with enough length, athleticism, and defensive instinct to handle them. Anything the guards or centers have to do is doomed almost from the start. The guards aren’t aggressive and effective enough on defense; the centers lack mobility. The Blazers aren’t able to close distance to the shooter if they play behind the screen. The guards going over the screen leaves a big man exposed, making dribble penetration easy.
Drives are even worse. The Blazers have no backstop. Kanter, for all his willingness, just isn’t impactful at the point of contact. Anybody can lay in the ball over or around him. The Blazers could take care of this with crisp rotations, pinching the dribbler before he reaches the point of no return, but they’re also infernally bad at this aspect of the game. You could hold a circus—complete with with elephants, popcorn, and a trapeze act—in the space they leave. Covington and Derrick Jones, Jr. are occasional exceptions, but seldom are both involved in the same play.
The Blazers do find success when they shade down with multiple defenders. It usually takes three of them to crowd out two opponents near the bucket. This leaves them in good shape for the rebound off of short shots, which is great. It also exposes their last weakness, though. Not only are they slow getting back to the three-point arc, as mentioned above, they’r undersized. That, plus a lack of athleticism from everyone but selected forwards, plus NBA rules that make closing out effectively difficult, combine to render their perimeter recovery all but useless. When the ball goes inside out against a collapsing Portland “D”, they have to pray that the opponent bricks an open look. They can’t stop the shot once the ball goes above the opponent’s shoulders.
Summed up: Portland can inhibit opponents at given spots on the court: on the perimeter by playing straight up, on the interior by committing multiple men. When the ball moves, either via pass or dribble, they usually don’t respond and recover well enough to stop it, and when they do, their lack of size and defensive acumen gets exposed.
This is the NBA. Players and coaches are good. Being able to defend one or two things against a prepared opponent is exactly the same as being able to defend zero things. And there you go.
Damian Lillard’s Penetration
Damian Lillard gets plenty of credit for his three-point shooting, and appropriately so. He went 4-8 tonight. 50% isn’t too shabby from the arc.
But Lillard’s ability to penetrate off the dribble using either hand, going in either direction, is just as critical to making him a superstar. He dunked like crazy in the first half versus the Pistons, never getting to the rim the same way twice. Whichever way Detroit overplayed him, he went the other. By the time they recovered from their misjudgment, it was too late.
Watching this is a little bit like watching an orchestra conductor get down from the podium, walk over to a random section, picking up an instrument, and playing it perfectly. Lillard is much more than he seems, and it’s amazing.
Another underrated part of Portland’s offense is the number of “sticky” scorers, by which I mean “scorers that defenders cannot leave, who occupy at least one man at all times”. Lillard and McCollum both qualify, of course, but Norman Powell does too. This limits what the opponent can do defensively. All those wonderful schemes to pinch or shade down now require extra rotations to the guys they can’t leave alone. Practically speaking, opponents are often limited to one or two players to provide help...the two that aren’t watching Portland’s three guards. When opponents use the center as one of those help people, well, that’s part of how Enes Kanter goes off on a franchise-record rebounding spree. When they use a forward, that’s an open corner three for Covington or a baseline dunk for Derrick Jones, Jr.
Fast Food Drive-In
Portland scored only 9 points on the break tonight, but they played fast and those 9 points were effective in keeping momentum heading their way. Powell is a one-man threat on the run, either receiving or taking the ball upcourt. Since Powell came, Lillard is also looking more to start the offense running. This is a good thing for the Blazers. It keeps the opponent off-balance.
Disturbingly, Detroit score 22 on the break, which exposes another Portland weakness on defense. The Blazers have been in the Top 5 of the NBA in fast break defense during most of the Terry Stotts era. Prior to this season, they never allowed opponents to run. Opening up their own game lets the opposition to do the same. Portland now ranks 23rd in the league in fast break points allowed.
Carmelo Anthony scored 11 points in this one. He was devastating in the first half, draining shots that would make mere mortals quail. There’s a pattern to his effectiveness. If ‘Melo can stand still, either facing up with with the catch-and-shoot or staying solid in the post with his back to the basket, he looks great. If defenders make him move, his shots don’t look nearly as pure. Detroit didn’t move him much tonight. They paid.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson got his first 7 minutes of action in a Portland uniform tonight. He attempted one broken jumper, made a free throw, and committed 4 fouls. It was an inauspicious start, EXCEPT... he already looks like the second or third best defender on the team, especially at the point of attack. Make of that what you will.
Little’s Big Outing
Nassir Little is not a shabby defender himself. He’s not consistent yet, but he moves his feet and knows his stuff. Shooting 5-5 for 11 points in 24 minutes raises his stock too. Just keep an eye on this guy.
Center of Record
Enes Kanter’s 30 rebounds set a franchise record that’s four decades old. It was a huge night for him with 24 points, 30 rebounds, 12 offensive rebounds, with 2 blocks and 2 assists. You can’t fault his effort or spirit whenever he takes the hardwood. It’s nice to see that dedication rewarded with a mark like this. Congratulations, Enes. We see you.
The Blazers welcome the Miami Heat tomorrow with the tip scheduled for 7:00, Pacific.