The Portland Trail Blazers continued their losing streak against elite NBA teams tonight, falling to the Phoenix Suns 120-90. Portland’s young, offensive-impoverished lineup couldn’t keep up with Phoenix, even without star guards Chris Paul and Devin Booker to worry about.
If you missed the action and want an idea of how the game went down, you can check out our quarter-by-quarter recap here. When you’re done with that, here are a few other observations from the evening.
Mix and Match
Portland’s rotation at this point is like being at an old-time roller rink and hearing them call, “All Skate... All Skate...” Portland played 10 players in the first period alone and just about everybody got a chance before the game was done. Head Coach Chauncey Billups is being fairly agnostic about playing time. If your name isn’t Anfernee Simons, you’re on the “Whomever is Playing Well” carousel.
One of the strong developments of this season is the freedom allowed to Billups by the utter lack of EXTERNAL expectations and star players. (The squad still has internal expectations about how to play, obviously,) There’s nobody on the roster he can’t pull. Nobody is guaranteed playing time. Nothing is riding on these games. He can drill down to pure basketball, style, and effort as the Blazers and their players explore the ability of these players to grow.
The three-pointer remains Portland’s best indicator of success. They have a hard time keeping afloat when the threes aren’t falling. But turnovers have become a strong second lifeline. This offense comes alive when the opponent gives up the ball and Portland can run. When they’re stuck in the halfcourt, pfffffttttt.
This is not a sustainable recipe for success. However, some of the principles—alertness and activity, instantly converting defense to offense—can fit nicely into a more balanced attack someday...hopefully?
Move and... Then What?
Aside from their propensity towards complacency during extended tours of zone defense, the Blazers are far more active on the defensive end now than they were with their veteran stars. They’re quick on their feet against penetration and nearly always help when the ball goes towards the bucket. Those characteristics were absent to the point of truancy two months ago.
Two large issues remain.
First, their help towards the rim is not matched by alacrity closing out to the three-point arc. Like their predecessors, this lineup seems capable of making one defensive shift, but not two. This leaves them open to the old-as-the-hills drive and dish move. Phoenix was shooting target practice from distance all evening,
Even when they get to the play—which to their credit, they often do inside the arc—they aren’t able to do much there aside from forcing the aforementioned T.O.’s, which doesn’t happen all that often. They’re not big, long, or defensively-intimidating. They have players who might qualify for one of those adjectives, but nobody who’s all three yet. This leads to a lot of, “That was good in theory, but in practice...oh well.”
Credit to fellow staff member Danny Marang for this one.
The Blazers are letting Trendon Watford stretch out a little, not just planning on him finishing plays, but allowing him to catch above the free throw line and initiate dribble hand-offs.
Now, if he can just develop a turn-around jumper from there...
Simons vs. the World
We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. Every shot Anfernee Simons hits should come with a gold star attached. Opponents are trapping him like crazy, forcing the ball anywhere, as long as it’s not in his hands. This is excellent practice for when he becomes the #1 option in a better lineup someday.
That said, this wasn’t Simons’ best night. He scored just 11 points on 4-10 shooting, albeit with 3-4 from the arc. He couldn’t get clean looks—or any looks, really—under that kind of pressure.
The Other Side of the Coin
Speaking of lineups...
We were doing nothing but praising Portland’s complementary players last week. They were, for the most part, hitting shots and playing smart. They’re still playing smart, but those shots are NOT falling. The difference is fairly significant.
This is part and parcel of the team’s transition. They’re going to look like a promising squad some nights, totally inept on others. Anyone who thinks the team has enough infrastructure right now, or is even close, should wait ten minutes. That impression will change.
The Next Great Brandon
Guard Brandon Williams had a fine offensive night shooting 5-8 for 14 points in 15 minutes. He was one of the few Blazers excelling in that department. He left the game with a left hip pointer, which was unfortunate, given the circumstances.
Here are some significant stats tonight:
9 out of 11 Blazers players registered a negative plus-minus. The starting lineup all finished in negative double-figures, “led” by Simons with a -31 and CJ Elleby with -33. That’s a lot.
Portland shot 38.5% from the field. Phoenix hit an even 50.0%.
Portland forced 16 turnovers. Yay! They committed 19. Boo.
Feel free to add your observations in the comments below! With this level of team, it’s kind of a free-for-all anyway. Join in and have fun!
The Blazers start a two-game series against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday. The game starts at 5:00 PM, Pacific.