If the Portland Trail Blazers are trying to make a statement with their 2022 Preseason Schedule, that statement may be, “We need more time to bake.” That was the impression left by their 126-94 loss to the Sacramento Kings in their penultimate exhibition contest. By this time, their lineup is supposed to be gelling. Instead they look like a bunch of pretzels in a baggie: tasty individually, but no real cohesion. It was a disturbing effort with the regular season just around the corner.
Here are a few notes on Portland’s showing.
The Blazers allowed Sacramento 70 points in the first half. Yes, it’s preseason, but that’s still not good. Their core problem remains the same: their perimeter players just can’t stop anybody off the dribble. Sacramento breaking containment in about half a nanosecond opened up all kinds of possibilities, none of them good for Portland.
Sometimes the Kings drove and just hit layups over shorter Portland players. Those were headache-inducing. More commonly, the Blazers left poor Jusuf Nurkic to guard his own man, plus pick up the penetrating dribbler. Help was nowhere to be found outside of Nurk. (To be fair, part of this was because the plays developed too quickly for anyone else to make up the space.) Nurkic didn’t over-commit, which kept him out of foul trouble. But the plays didn’t get defended either. In real games, whistles will abound and Portland’s paper-thin frontcourt rotation is going to get tested.
Another common side-effect of having to stop penetration by committee was defenders getting bunched in the lane. Portland doesn’t have a lot of intimidation factor on defense, nor any shot-blocking. More defenders didn’t necessarily equal better ball-stopping. But having a board meeting in the paint left several Sacramento players open at the arc. That was trouble with a capital “T”, which rhymes with “P”, which stands for PUTRID DEFENSE.
The Blazers approached the three-point arc tonight with the eagerness of a pack of vegans at a Texas BBQ. They didn’t quite run the other direction, but close. The frustration level at this point has got to be through the roof. The Kings starters rained three after three, shooting 50% from the arc for most of the game.
One significant change from earlier outings: the Blazers had Nurkic retreat back in the lane on high screens instead of straight switching and keeping him out at the arc. He looked more natural. At least somebody was in the vicinity of the play on screen and rolls.
Speaking of Nurkic, he looked pretty good defending Domantas Sabonis in the post and on one-on-one drives. Nurk’s defensive instincts and body control haven’t gone away. He just doesn’t have the lateral quickness to stop smalls. He also looks slow when he has to adjust on the move.
Also transition defense! Sigh....... As we keep saying, this Portland lineup is smaller and more mobile than they used to field. You’d think that would mean they’d be first down the court on every play, either direction. That’s just not happening, at least not in force. If they can’t do the simple, effort-based things well, they’re going to have a hard time with the more complicated stuff.
Sacramento also dominated Portland on the glass tonight. We expected that, given the makeup of the Blazers’ lineup, but it sure makes it harder to correct when things aren’t going right. Rebounding is the “Et tu, Brute?” factor. It’s not pretty.
Damian Lillard didn’t have a great stat line, but he actually had a brilliant game. We don’t need to see full-power Dame in preseason. We know that’s going to be there, or at least invoked, plenty of times this year. Lillard needs to establish his first step and finish on drives. He did that. He also needs to make sure that he has help this season. That means setting up teammates, particularly Anfernee Simons. That was Lillard’s focus all night. His desire to pass was evident and appreciated. All of us should appreciate the sense of game and place Lillard has at this point.
On Simons... he’s taking his shot in more timely fashion than he was earlier in the preseason. That confidence is good. He looks more like Classic Ant now. The attempts aren’t falling, but it’s better that he take them aggressively than worry about it. Simons is one of the primary defensive offenders right now, though. It might be time to invoke some divine providence over this lineup.
When you get away from individual attempts by the guards, the offense still looks disjointed. Josh Hart knows exactly what he’s doing at all times. That’s evident. He’s pushing the ball down the court, trying to be aggressive. Everyone else? It’s hit and miss. Passes aren’t crisp. Teammates have to look for each other before making the play, and half the time the play isn’t there because players aren’t in the right spot. Spacing isn’t great either. Nor are the threes falling with regularity.
Portland is trying to get mileage from Nurkic in the post. He’s big enough to make it work, but his offense develops so slowly. There just don’t appear to be alternatives on those sets. The defense has way too long to key in on the play.
Jerami Grant still looks pretty good as a Swiss Army Knife. It’s an important part of the kit, but it’s not going to get the job done all by itself.
Portland’s “other” players, notably Keon Johnson and Nassir Little, looked fine. That’s nice, at least. Not much else was tonight. For those counting, Shaedon Sharpe did not get much time tonight.
Turnovers are also plaguing the offense like crazy. You can’t hit shots you don’t take.
The Blazers conclude their preseason tour on Tuesday, facing the Golden State Warriors at 7:00 PM, Pacific.