The Portland Trail Blazers have been playing hard lately despite missing approximately 99% of their regular roster. Energy and guts brought them a win against the Washington Wizards on Saturday night and a closer-than-it-should-have-been loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Monday.
Tonight the credit card bill came due, as the New York Knicks—scouted up and ready—wrung the verve out of the Blazers in 128-98 romp. Portland shot 44% from the floor but allowed New York 50%. Hitting only 11 three-pointers (and 7 free throws) in the game didn’t give them enough points to make up for it.
If you missed the action, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here. After that, here are other observations from the game.
A Tick Off
The Blazers looked a bit out of sync tonight for some reason. It wasn’t systemic; they actually pursued the defense as hard as ever, especially early in the game. They suffered from a lack of precision: drifting slightly when they rose on three-pointers, passes arriving just off the right or left shoulder instead of square in the chest, screens used (or abandoned) a half-beat off. It was weird to see, as the Blazers—for all their struggles and inexperience—usually execute fairly well. If they miss threes, it’s because they’re not great shooters, not because they mess up a fundamental.
The issue cropped up early in the game and never really went away. It was not the best night for the guys in red and black.
Knicks Take It Easy...For a While
If the Knicks were hungry for wins, they sure didn’t show it in the first half. They spent way too many possessions settling for jumpers instead of taking the ball to the hole or working in the post. Every team in the universe has a size advantage over Portland. New York didn’t look interested in taking advantage.
Watching opposing teams take Portland for granted brings up specters of how the Blazers, themselves, were playing at the beginning of the season. You can sure tell the difference between a team going through the motions and a team that’s going hard.
That was not so in the second half, however. When the Knicks attacked the lane, Portland’s lack of height and interior defense showed clearly. There’s nothing blameworthy here. The Blazers are sending guards against centers. Even Portland’s centers are forwards. Portland fights hard on the boards. That’s to their credit, and is fairly consistent. In all other ways, they need help.
Blocked Shots a Sign
For all the praise we’ve given Portland this week, the holes in their game are pretty evident. You can tell when they’ve devolved into 1-on-1 offense. Blocked shots start going through the roof. Whenever the opponent cuts off passing, the Blazers are in major trouble, give or take a nifty move from Hart.
In the second half, New York shut down, wrapped up, and disposed of Portland’s offense. It seemed like every shot came hard. Half the time, the Blazers have difficulty making the easy ones. You can guess how the defensive pressure made them look.
Josh Hart returned to earth with a 6-15, 17-point performance. For perspective, that led the team. It wasn’t up to his recent, 30-points-or-bust standards. That’s ok, really. He looks confident driving the lane or offering the jump shot. It seems like he’s embraced the role of #1 option for now. He’s got that thing going, in tune with the ball and the floor. When the ball hits his hands, you know something’s about to happen.
Do you want to see an instant timeout from Head Coach Chauncey Billups? If the Blazers give up more than one bucket in transition, it’s coming. They have a zero-tolerance policy for fast break points allowed. Rightfully so... it’s the one chance they have to outstrip opponents. They have younger, fresher legs. Billups won’t let their minds be the slowest part of themselves down the floor.
Coach must have needed extra Excedrin tonight, though. The Blazers got outscored 19-4 on the break.
For a couple blessed weeks, the Blazers were a mystery to the league. Now the NBA seems to have caught up with them. Portland is having a harder and harder time taking care of the ball as opponents dare them to take the ball iso, then play for the pass. More of those passes are getting tipped by the recipient’s defender. Often this leads to pick-sixes—or, well, pick-twos—on the other end. 11 total turnovers isn’t bad, but some of the results after were.
There’s a fine line between aggression and choppy defense. The Blazers are still finding the border. They committed 31 fouls tonight. Granted, plenty of opposing players are natural mismatches, but it’s becoming a bit of a trend to see Blazers over-committing and overplaying their hands. Keon Johnson committed 4 fouls in 18 minutes. Ben McLemore said, “Hold my beer,” committing 5 in 14.
This is hard for a young team. That doesn’t make it more fun to watch, though.
The road trip continues on Friday as the Blazers face the Brooklyn Nets at 4:30 PM, Pacific.