As the NBA season began, few would have expected the Portland Trail Blazers to get their 10th win before Thanksgiving, and perhaps fewer would have suspected how they did it. Portland’s hallmark? Defense.
The team currently boasts the NBA’s sixth-best defensive rating at 110.6. Compared to their dead-last rating in 2021-22 (116.9), this is spectacular.
Primarily due to changes in coaching and personnel, Portland’s improved defense has taken many off-guard. That’s why Bleacher Report’s Zach Buckley lists it as the team’s biggest surprise thus far.
The Blazers have been largely successful throughout Damian Lillard’s tenure, but their position among the Association’s elites never really solidified because they were so imbalanced. They could always obliterate opponents with offense, but they’d too often give all of it back on the opposite end.
That’s what gives Portland’s 9-4 start such a different feel. While the Blazers can still summon some incredible scoring efforts, it’s their sixth-ranked defense steering the ship.
“I don’t want to jinx it or nothing like that but it feels special,” said Lillard. “We’ve had a history of come out and have a hot streak and we’ll make every shot and it’ll be like, this is a good game for us but the other team had 121 (points). But we haven’t been giving up a lot of points, we’ve struggled turning the ball over and teams capitalize on it, we’ve been giving up threes in stretches.
“But ultimately, at the end of the game, like tonight, we gave up 107 points and I think against Phoenix the other night I looked up there and it was like, 106 points. And tonight with a couple of minutes left they only had 98, I’m like ‘Man, this a low scoring game.’ I think we’re just giving the effort and energy defensively to stop teams and that’s been a major difference for us.”
The shift in Portland’s play has been swift and dramatic, leading them to a Conference-topping 10-4 record in Week 5. What’s more, the team’s new identity as a defensive machine appears sustainable. What new surprises are yet in store as the season unfolds?