For a few brief spurts during their preseason home opener against the Utah Jazz, the Portland Trail Blazers looked like the team most anticipated: players flying across the court at a frenetic, energetic pace, Damian Lillard leading the charge with an elite offensive attack, and subsequently, wins to follow.
Unfortunately, as evidenced in the 118-101 loss, those positives weren’t sustained over a 48-minute frame. Still a work in progress, the Blazers’ preseason losing streak extended to nine with tonight’s defeat. It wasn’t all bad, though it wasn’t all good. Here are a few things that stood out:
Well, if there’s one thing we can say for certain, it’s that Damian Lillard happened.
Lillard’s list of elite box score performances runs as long as a CVS receipt. And while these tune-up games won’t count towards that, it was encouraging to see him build upon Monday’s return and further shake off the rust. All told, he poured in 21 points (on just 10 shots) with five rebounds and six assists in 24 minutes, along with a few defensive plays for the highlight reel.
The year is 2022, but that Lillard-to-Nurkic connection was in 2020 form. Portland ran the normal rub actions, pindowns and drag screens for their All-Star guard, putting him in optimal position to get to his spots. By the time he’d risen up for his second three-point attempt, the Jazz defenders were looking at him the way a young student would if they saw their teacher outside of school: with wide eyes and amazement.
When Lillard wasn’t letting it fly, he offered his customary dose of pocket passes to Nurkic — who looks to be an extremely-featured option once more this year — along with five visits to the charity stripe. Save for those five first-half turnovers, it was business as usual.
Lillard commands top billing, but the rest of the group proved noteworthy as well. Heading into tonight, the Blazers had gone “zero-for” in their last eight preseason games, and given that the lack of preseason success sort of bled into the regular season last year, you might’ve watched this year’s exhibitions with a more hopeful eye.
They showed that potential in spurts of a team that looks poised to make a postseason run; early into the second quarter, they opened up an eight-point lead, in which it looked like they were a few stops away from turning it into a runaway. There was another energetic run to start the third quarter, anchored by the impact play of Jerami Grant that got the Moda Center rocking where you thought they’d pull away.
But within that failure to put their boots on the Jazz’s throats, a few of last year’s trends again reared its ugly head: (1) the inability to defend the 3-point line, as the Jazz hit on 45.5 percent on 33 attempts, and then (2) turnovers, a number the Blazers were among the league’s most frequent in committing. To their credit, they did force them too, and that helped fuel a 54-54 halftime standstill, and a nip-and-tuck battle throughout.
The second half highlighted a third of one of the Blazers’ glaring flaws from a season ago: the struggle to defend without fouling. Albeit, some of those whistles proved controversial, but they kept Portland from making an example out of a team expected to be among the NBA’s worst.
Ultimately, that inability to take advantage of that slight advantage proved to be the detriment, as the gritty Jazz were able to pull away late in the third, and into the fourth. Given the amount of athleticism this year’s Blazers roster, they were able to draw a few oohs and aahs from the Moda Center crowd, but they weren’t able to turn that into points as easily.
Player Notes and Long-Term Thoughts:
A few weeks ago, Chauncey Billups talked about how the Blazers’ depth chart — primarily at the starting small forward spot — could look a little bit differently each night to account for different opponents and matchups. After starting with Josh Hart in the opener, he went with Justise Winslow to start this one.
Given their competitiveness and energy, it’s hard to argue that you could go wrong with either one. Winslow turned in an eight-point, four-rebound, four-assist, four-steal game in just 19 minutes tonight, looking at ease with the starters. Hart, predictably, impacted the game with his rebound and coast-to-coast play.
You could sort of tell that he was pressing the issue perhaps, in trying to get Shaedon Sharpe an easy basket or touch, but to counter that, his ability to create for others adds an extra dimension for Lillard and Simons’ off-ball play. As for Sharpe, the commentators made note of his ability to get to his spots with fluidity. We’re still left to wait for the floodgates to fully open on that offensive repertoire, though. And on defense, he’s put in position often to be a backside defender. He’s showing the IQ and know-how, even if he isn’t super aggressive in that regard. There’s progress there.
And speaking of Lillard and Simons: it looked a bit similar to the way that the Blazers ran the Lillard-McCollum backcourt, where the two would start together, and then Simons would exit the first and third quarters early, but return to finish them. The minutes were staggered slightly, and it should be interesting to see how the plus-minus numbers look with them together vs. one-on, one-off.
The Pick-and-Roll Switches:
With now two preseason games to analyze, one can begin putting together some potential trends to watch for in the long-term. In similar fashion to Monday’s 102-97 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Blazers’ defense effort involved a switch-heavy approach that left them in advantageous (and sometimes disadvantageous) situations.
On Monday, it felt noteworthy in observing how many times Anfernee Simons got stuck in post-up situations defending the likes of Kawhi Leonard, and even Ivica Zubac. It’s also been easy to take note of how often Nurkic gets caught in those one-on-one situations against opposing guards. Here’s to hoping he’s up to that challenge on a night-to-night basis.
A Surge of Energy:
When Chauncey Billups and the Blazers’ staff turn on the tape of tonight’s game, one would guess that they’re going to be very pleased with the effort and intensity of Keon Johnson. Ultimately, it remains unclear where he stands in the totem pole for playing time along the wings, but if we’ve learned anything about Chauncey Billups’ tenets and preferences, it’s that if you play hard — and Johnson did, attacking passing lanes and turning in quick defense-to-offense plays — you will touch the floor.
You can pretty much pencil in an energetic, “oh my goodness” type of play from Nassir Little on a nightly basis, and Justise Winslow got in on it as well. He was an aggressor in a memorable, incredible hustle play, flying out in defensive transition to block an alley-oop layup attempt during that brief third quarter run. Even in a loss, the foundation is being built.
Other Miscellaneous Notes:
— Jerami Grant looks comfortable wherever he is, and in particular in shooting that catch-and-shoot triple. This also marks the second game in which he’s pinned a shot off the glass for an emphatic block. His mini-takeover in the third quarter should have been the defining moment for a Blazers win, if all went right.
— Turnovers remain a fixture. The basketball may as well have been deep fried the way they’ve played hot potato and lost it, but it could be too early to call it an all-out issue. Oftentimes over the last two games, Portland has left the ground without a plan of where to throw the ball. This marks 33 turnovers over the first two games.
Portland closes out preseason play against RA’ANANA Maccabi at the Moda Center on Thursday, Oct. 6