Trail Blazers nation is abuzz today after the Blazers defeated the Sacramento Kings in Game 1 of their 2022-23 campaign. The victory was a feel-good moment, spurred by forwards Jerami Grant and Josh Hart. It was a bright start to the year, a hopeful sign that the team might be getting on track.
In response to several submissions to the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag, we published an article discussing ways in which Portland fans might be overreacting a wee bit to the opening-night win, for good or ill. But that’s not the whole story. Certain facets of the game are being under-discussed. Here are three things that proved important in Game 1, might be indicative of season-long trends, but that few people seem to be taking up.
Things Blazers Fans Are Underreacting To
1. Milking the Centers
Portland’s center position appears undermanned this season, even under the best of conditions. Jusuf Nurkic starts. He’s backed up by Drew Eubanks and Oliver Sarr. With Sarr injured and Nurkic playing like week-old banana pudding, the outlook should be dire.
Portland didn’t get much offense out of the centers last night. The defense was spotty too. But the Blazers did two things well at the middle positions: set screens and rebound.
The screen-setting was crucial in Portland’s halfcourt sets. Their guards weren’t getting by Sacramento defenders, at least not cleanly. Eubanks and Nurkic were willing to screen their teammates loose, then stay out of the way when the dribbler turned the corner. The centers never got the ball back on the roll or pop. They weren’t involved in those plays much outside of the pick. They were still there for it.
So, too, rebounding. Nurkic and Eubanks, joined late-game by Justise Winslow, went at the glass hard. Sacramento isn’t a big team. That helped. But nobody is going to blink twice if the Blazers get outrebounded this year, given their small roster. They didn’t. They actually thrashed the Kings on the boards.
These developments are bigger than they seem precisely because any big man should be able to do them. That makes the accomplishments seem pedestrian on paper, but in real life, you’d be surprised how often they don’t get done. They’re achievable for Portland, and will have an outsized positive effect.
If Portland’s under-talented center group commits to throwing their heart into these basic tasks, the team will benefit. Screens and boards are gifts that never stop giving. This is exactly how pregame shrugs at the roster in the Media Guide become 48 minutes of hell on the court.
2. Three-Point Defense
The Kings shot 17-44, 38.6%, from the three-point arc last night. That’s not a fatal number, but it easily could have been. The missed open shots, any one of which could have turned Portland’s victory into defeat. The Blazers did really well down the stretch, when they had one moment, one shot to stop and they knew it was coming from deep. For most of the game, though, they were late to the spot, praying Sacramento would miss. The Kings obliging doesn’t change the basic fact that this area needs work.
Portland is supposedly fielding a smaller, more defensive-minded, more mobile lineup this year. The three-point arc is the first place that should show up, not the last. If all of these smaller, quicker defenders can’t cover the floor any better than bigger, more physical players can, what’s the point of having them out there?
3. Damian Lillard Not Getting Past
Damian Lillard showed a little rust in his return to the court after 10 months off due to injury. That’s to be expected. Folks are going to look at his 1-8 performance from distance and shake their heads, especially since several of his shots didn’t come close.
That doesn’t matter much. Honing back in from range will come naturally. All things being equal, the jumpers are going to fall for Lillard.
The more concerning part of the evening: this new, pain-free, rejuvenated Dame couldn’t get by defenders on the drive at all. Lillard looked a step slower than his counterparts. He did manage to get inside, but he had to rely on craftiness to get the shot up. He never had an edge, and he seldom took an interior shot that you’d call great.
Lillard is in his 30’s now. At some point, he’s going to face his Chris Paul moment, where he has to change his game in order to stay effective. If he can no longer get a step on defenders, that change will have to come immediately. He needs a credible drive threat to make jab steps and lateral jukes work. Both are keys to getting his three-point shot off cleanly over imbalanced opponents. If the league figures out that Dame can’t drive, he’s going to be wearing opponents like they were his jersey on every deep attempt.
To his credit, Lillard did a good job distributing the ball last night. He didn’t force too many shots either. The Blazers will be glad to have him no matter what. But we’re going to need to watch what he’s able to do in ensuing games to see whether the difficulty penetrating was a result of extended time off, quick defenders, or is the new normal.
Up Next: 3 Things that Seemed Just Right in Game 1