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Why the Blazers Looked So Good, Then So Bad, Against the Nuggets

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Is it coaching? Matchups? Or is something else at play?

NBA: Playoffs-Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers sailed through Game 1 of their series with the Denver Nuggets as if they were born to soar into the second round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs. In Game 2 they came crashing to earth like Icarus with a bag full of bowling balls. If submissions to the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag are any guide, that dichotomy is causing concern, and no little bit of angst, among Blazers fans. Let’s tackle a couple of their questions today as we anticipate the start of Game 3.

Dave,

I was so hopeful after we won the first game and the exact opposite after the second game. How does a team look so good then so bad? Which is the real Blazers?

Donna

Well, Donna, both are. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen something like this. It’s a little more dramatic because it’s the playoffs, but this year’s team lost 8 of 10, then won 8 of 10. They also did everything in between.

I think part of this is cultural. The Blazers are better underdogs than frontrunners. Obviously they’ve won playoffs series before, which means they can win from ahead, but it doesn’t seem as natural to them as battling in the face of adversity. If you tell them they can’t do something, they’re going to try their hardest to do it. Give them a little leeway, though, and they relax right into it. It’s almost like they get proud of themselves—or just expect that good results will repeat automatically—and they forget what got them there.

This squad lacks that gene that some teams have of putting opponents down and making sure they stay that way. Fair enough. The trade-off is that they need to be self-aware. Knowing that they tend to fumble away games they’re not emotionally invested in, they need to remind themselves about awareness, energy, and execution in those games, holding each other accountable with every player leading by example.

The Blazers are a bit too invested in high-fiving over three-pointers and fancy mid-range jumpers. I’d love to see them encourage and celebrate guys who set the screens or make a great defensive rotation...plus the guys who go to the floor to dig out a loose ball, of course. For my money, they need to be a bit less happy with who they are—let alone who they were yesterday—and a bit more invested in who they need to be.

The Blazers don’t succeed because they walk head and shoulders above everyone else. They win because they execute on offense and put energy into defense. Take away the execution and energy and you have what we saw on Monday night: one transcendent superstar playing on a team that is destined to lose to anyone who can take advantage of their defense...which, honestly, is any team worth their salt.

I believe will win this series. They could sure make life easier on themselves if they learned to play as precisely and aggressively when they’re ahead as when they perceive somebody insulting them.

Dave,

Can you really support the coaching in this series? Two games, two wildly different results. Were they really prepared in game two or are we ready to say that Terry Stotts is really bad at adjustments?

Jon

That’s fair, a little bit. I was disappointed with how the Blazers came out in the second game. I was wholly impressed with how they handled the first. I don’t think the coaching staff got stupid in 48 hours. I do think they bear some responsibility—culturally, if not schematically—for how the evening unfolded. I’d tab that as roughly 25% of the issue.

Another 25% belongs to the referees. That game was weirdly officiated. That’s different than saying it was biased; the refs didn’t cost Portland the game in any way, nor did they favor Denver. They were inconsistent and they blew a lot of whistles. Game 1 featured 32 fouls between the two teams. That rose to 52 in the second game, plus specious flagrants, plus techs,

Non-standard officiating contributed to a sense of chaos. It broke the rhythm of the game. Denver approached the contest with more sustained aggression and drive than the Blazers did. That powered them through the storm while the Blazers—other than Lillard—wandered in circles, trying to measure its dimensions. The opponents found themselves on the road when the fog hit; the Blazers had to search for it. Under those circumstances, as soon as the Blazers got behind early, catching up was going to be hard.

The remaining 50% of the responsibility belongs to the players. It’s not just that they lost, but how.

  • I would be shocked if Portland’s coaching staff drew up a scheme to quadruple-team Aaron Gordon in the paint, leaving everyone from Nikola Jokic to the popcorn vendor in Section 232 wide open for an easy three.
  • Nor do coaches tell their wings to get pinned under a down screen, watch the ball sail past them, and shrug their shoulders, not even making a move to contest the jumper that follows.
  • Coaches don’t prep their centers to stand in place when their guards get beat on the drive...or even better, make sure the center counts to three before he even looks in the direction of the dribbler so there’s no possible play to be made anymore, and all he can do is stand in slack-jawed wonder at the layup.
  • I’m not sure the coaching staff whiteboard includes a forward ignoring a wide-open, 40% three-point shooter at the arc only to drive towards the baseline, get cut off, and turn the ball over by stepping out of bounds.

We saw all these things in Game 2 and more.

The Blazers didn’t lose that game because the X’s and O’s were bad. Any theoretical adjustments got buried in a landslide of poor recognition, flat-footed stances, and execution the consistency of mulched Cream o’ Wheat. However they were asked to play, the Blazers did it poorly. Schemes may also have been bad and counter-moves lacking, but frankly, even had the preparation been perfect, we never would have known it.

Obviously the Blazers need to come out better in all ways for Game 3. Hopefully the 25% the refs contributed will be gone. Or at least the Blazers—now the home team in need of a win—can be more aggressive through it than the Nuggets. The other 75% of the problem is probably being addressed as we speak. We’ll find out soon whether it worked.

Thanks for the questions, folks! You can always mail yours to blazersub@gmail.com and we’ll get to them on off days.

Game 3 between the Blazers and Nuggets tips at 7:30 PM, Pacific.