The Portland Trail Blazers took the floor tonight for the first time in the 2022-23 season, taking on the Los Angeles Clippers in Seattle in Preseason Game 1. The game was sloppy, as is to be expected in an initial outing. Los Angeles prospered mightily when their starters played. They did not keep them in all game. When Kawhi Leonard and Paul George sat, Portland was able to close the gap. The Blazers surged ahead in the third period behind their own starters and mid-bench players, but they couldn’t keep the momentum going in a difficult, reserve-ridden fourth, eventually losing 102-97.
The Blazers would have had trouble defending a block of frozen head cheese in the first half. The Clippers, with one game under their belt and superstar Kawhi Leonard in uniform, looked smoother and more talented than their Portland counterparts. L.A. blistered the Blazers from the arc, salting in a few halfcourt layups and dunks.
Portland’s guards shot poorly and attempts to pass to other scorers resulted in turnovers as much as open shots. As a result, the Blazers trailed 27-22 after the first quarter.
The Blazers bench players brought better energy. Playing against fairly pedestrian counterparts helped too. The second unit helped Portland close the gap in the late first and early second period, but the Clippers streaked away again behind their main players, leading 52-44 at the half.
Damian Lillard got Portland off to a hot start in the third period. Keon Johnson and Jerami Grant started running and stroking open shots as the Blazers revived. The Clippers didn’t send their starters out, which aided Portland’s comeback. When Drew Eubanks started scoring, the Clippers’ subs were quaking in their boots. Portland took over the lead midway through the period as Johnson continued to pepper them with off-ball action and key shots off the reception. The Blazers led 78-71 after three.
Benches emptied for both teams in the fourth, leaving the victory to random chance, comparatively. The Clippers played better defense than Portland did, the result of a bench more experienced overall and with each other. They erased the Blazers’ lead in the first four minutes with an 8-0 run. Though Portland did well defending at the rim with a long, athletic set of deep bench players, their woes covering the three-point arc returned. Add in a lack of offensive firepower and finishing the game became an extended ride on the Struggle Bus, first stop: Uglytown. Jabari Walker had a couple of good plays. Portland got sporadic contributions from everybody else. But lack of offense—and that pesky inability to defend the arc—cost them the chance for victory.
Obviously all eyes are going to be on the schematic changes and/or evolution for the Blazers during the exhibition season. Technically this is the second year for Head Coach Chauncey Billups, but practically speaking, it’s his first with NBA-standard players. Sets featuring Damian Lillard and Jerami Grant are supposed to look different than those run by the 11th- and 12th-men the Blazers fielded last season.
Unfortunately, Billups’ plans didn’t yield great results. Naturally the team was rusty. That’s to be expected in Preseason Game 1. Chalk up missed jumpers and the occasional fumbled ball to that. That’s not even close to all that looked shaky about the Blazers tonight.
If Portland’s defense has improved, visual evidence was lacking. They had trouble covering the three-point arc, getting behind against everything but the most basic individual moves. They couldn’t close quickly. When they did, shooters ignored them. L.A. went hot and cold during the contest, but that was as much due to their own ability as Portland’s prowess.
This development is surprising...troubling, really. Jusuf Nurkic is the only high-rotation player above 6’7. Defensive mobility is a presumed benefit of running out a small lineup. If the Blazers aren’t fast and alert enough to get out to the arc, what are they fast enough to do?
Portland wasn’t good defensively at the rim either. Long players scored over them with ridiculous ease at the cup. Nurkic didn’t have enough bulk to stave off post player, or the requisite octopus-like anatomy it’d take to help against all the drivers his teammates let loose.
If defending the mid-range is a priority, the Blazers are probably ok. When they could stay within a defined radius, Portland’s defenders stuck. Name a team that wants to feast in the midrange though, We’ll wait.
The Blazers did look potent when they were able to devote two defenders to a play. Their speed and ball-poking ability helped when fronting the post or pinching on penetration. Those plays were comparatively rare, though, and will remain so.
Portland needs to go back to the drawing board with their defense. If they don’t improve before the regular season starts, this could be a long year.
The Blazers showed a willingness to play their centers high on both ends of the floor tonight. The Clippers entangled Nurkic and Drew Eubanks in multiple screens past the three-point arc. Portland switched every time. On the rare cases they could recover back to their original men, the centers did fine. Otherwise, it was almost inevitably a barbecue. It’ll be interesting to see if the switch-all approach continues.
On offense, Portland’s pivots often initiated plays from the straight-away arc spot. They found a little success on screen hand-offs and rolls. Otherwise it was not pretty. Nurkic’s lack of shooting ability allowed defenders to play for the pass, which was obviously his intent.
Passing With a Price
To their credit, the Blazers did attempt to look for teammates on offense. You could see plays develop as they were meant to. The Clippers were also able to see those plays, though. Portland wasn’t quick or crisp enough to foil defenders, who forced the Blazers into multiple miscues while trying to share.
As a result, the offense devolved into frequent individual attempts. This stalled the flow, allowing defenders to set and anticipate even better, compounding the problem. Lillard, Anfernee Simons, and Josh Hart looked like they belonged in 1-on-1 play. Nobody else looked ready for prime time.
The only time Portland seemed reasonably coordinated was on their initial above-the-arc action. That’s where you start plays. You can’t really finish them there. If they were playing chess, the Blazers would have been masters at getting their first two pawns out, but after that their play suffered.
Here are a few, basic observations about individual players, understanding that over-analyzing Preseason Game 1 for individuals isn’t healthy.
Damian Lillard played with a spring in his step, which is all that mattered. He seemed reasonably quick getting to the cup, actually attempting drives that he passed up last season. He moved well enough laterally on defense. He looked rejuvenated, just as advertised.
Josh Hart started the game at small forward and proved himself again as one of the most unflappable players on the roster. Preseason, postseason, middle of the season, Josh Hart is going to Josh Hart. He put on a spin move or two, got his hands busy on defense, distributed, and didn’t draw attention for mistakes. He also rebounded the ball like a fiend, an important attribute in a small lineup.
Nassir Little also looked good, helping pick up Portland’s flagging defense and showing energy running end to end. The small forward battle may get interesting before the season is over.
Anfernee Simons did not shoot well at all. He looked to be forcing mid-range shots, not seeing options around him. Perhaps that’s Game 1 jitters in his new role. He didn’t look as confident as he did when soloing the offense last season.
Jusuf Nurkic looked good when he looked good. That was about 40% of the time. But his top-of-floor play needed work. So did his individual offense. His outside shooting hasn’t improved. If he has the ball more than two seconds while setting up he’s a turnover waiting to happen. He looked amazing in roll action, as he always has. Nurk flourishes when he can quick hit, especially moving towards the basket. Maybe we’ll see a return to those sets.
After struggling early trying to create offense that just wasn’t there, Jerami Grant settled into a support role on both ends and looked decent. He needs to connect to the team around him in order to look great. Those connections are hard to come by when the roster is still learning each other.
Shaedon Sharpe looked exactly as you’d expect. He was good on the first action of any given play, but looked lost after that when he needed to react or adjust. He’s playing away from the ball (and focus), trying to find an opportunistic moment. That’s appropriate given his inexperience. Let him bake longer and we’ll see.
Jabari Walker played nicely on both ends, hitting a couple of shots and staying in the right area defensively. Hey...nice find?
The Blazers turn around to face the Utah Jazz tomorrow night at 7:00 PM, Pacific.