Damian Lillard returning as the Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Indiana Pacers on Sunday evening has Blazers fans happy...not just for the victory, but for the prospect of more. Portland is not the same team without its multi-time All-Star point guard. Lillard provides another link in the Blazers’ frontal attack, plus a safeguard in case things go wrong and a quick bail-out could save the day.
One astute reader noticed a little bit of a trend in that Pacers game, however. This brilliant question is the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
I have a question about 3 pointers. It was good to see Dame back but I noticed that when the Blazers got ahead [against Indiana] tonight, it was because everybody was hitting 3s. At the start of the season you said the offense was going inside more and it seemed to be so. But I’ve noticed them going for the 3 more lately and really that’s why they won here. Do you think this team is depending more on 3 point shots and is that intentional or a slipping into old habits?
Fair observation. Portland shot 17-40 against the Pacers from distance, a snappy 42.5%. That proved a huge advantage, as Indiana shot only 10-33. Usually, that’s the Pacers’ gig. Portland beat them at their own game.
Obviously the green light shines for Lillard eternally. Every time he steps onto the floor, three-pointers are on the menu. No coach in his right mind would do anything to curb that. So, too, Anfernee Simons. Jerami Grant has been firing an out-of-this-world 46.1% beyond the arc for the season. For now, him too. That’s three-fifths of the starting lineup right there.
The real clue, though, has been Jusuf Nurkic and Justise Winslow shooting the long ball. Neither one is known for their prowess. Winslow still isn’t. He’s shooting 31.4% from distance this season. Nurkic is firing 42.9%, though, second only to Grant on the roster. When they’re shooting deep, everybody is.
There’s some statistical evidence that the Blazers are becoming more three-point reliant as a team. Currently they sit 10th in the NBA with 32.9% of their points coming from three-point shots. A month ago they were 19th, with 31.0%. Their three-point rate sits at 37.6%, 15th in the NBA. A month ago it was 34.6%, 27th. Their overall number of threes attempted per game has risen to 31.5 from 29.1.
These developments may not indicate a conscious effort as much as a few realities:
- The Blazers are good at this. They remain Top 5 in the NBA in three-point percentage. That was true in November; it’s still true today.
- That proficiency has created a positive feedback loop. These players trust each other more now than they did at the start of the season. You see passes zipping from one to the other without thought, including passes to the perimeter. You can’t name a Blazers player with a hitch or hesitation in his three-point shot either. They catch and they shoot. That’s it. One would presume that the coaching staff is equally comfortable with those shots going up.
- Portland’s inside scoring comes through difficult means. Nurkic can play the post, but it’s always an adventure. The offense slows while he dribbles and sets up. Portland’s guards and wings are adept at driving, but they absorb contact while doing so. That feels fine in November. By January, it wears on you. The Blazers are going to be biased towards jumpers because of this.
Portland won’t give up the inside game entirely. That’s not in their philosophy. Their aggregate points in the paint have dropped from 48.0 per game to 46.3 over the last month, but that difference is more than explained by a corresponding loss in fast break points, most of which accrue in the lane. The Blazers aren’t necessarily scoring less inside in their halfcourt offense; they’re getting fewer easy points on the run. Shooting fewer threes won’t make up for that.
And therein lies the real danger: not a major shift in philosophy, but death by a thousand cuts. If the Blazers get fewer buckets on the break and get fewer free throws (which they’re also doing by a small margin compared to a month ago, but we’ll need to see if that continues), they miss out on “bonus” points that buoy the scoreboard. If those dry up, the extra points need to come from somewhere, which makes Portland more dependent on the three-point shot. When freedom to shoot becomes a mandate to shoot, success becomes more difficult.
We’re not there yet, though. There’s no real evidence that the Blazers are going to have to shoot deep or perish. They still have plenty of multi-skilled wings capable of driving past defenders who overplay them outside. Their willingness to pass also counters that defensive strategy. It’s not going to be quite as easy for defenses to curb them as it was in the days of, “Throw two players at Lillard and CJ McCollum and make everyone else beat you.” Other players can beat you now, which is going to spread around defenses enough to keep the three as a viable part of Portland’s offensive package.
For now, the right move for Blazers fans is to celebrate the three-point shot, not worry about it. It’s holding them in good stead so far. Let’s check in around the All-Star break to see if that remains true.
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