The Portland Trail Blazers fielded a starting lineup without Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic, Anfernee Simons, Josh Hart, and Nassir Little against the Detroit Pistons today. Sadly, it didn’t work. Portland still won a 119-115 nail-biter, putting six players in double-figures, overcoming 25 points each from Pistons stars Cade Cunningham and Saddiq Bey.
If you missed the action, you can find our quarter-by-quarter recap here, along with plenty of commenters lamenting the victory, eager to avoid the Western Conference Play-In Tournament at all costs.
After you’ve caught up on the action, here are a few more bits of analysis from the game. Their applicability to other teams—ones with anything above a 27% winning rate—may be limited, but they’ll give you the flavor of this contest.
Man to Man Success
In the Pistons, the Blazers finally ran into a squad requiring zero double-teams and relatively little help. They got to show off their ability to pressure man-to-man, getting up in the grill of ball handlers and staying in front of them off the dribble. It looked good! Well, mostly. Eventually Cunningham caught on and began slicing through Portland’s defense like a Ginsu knife through an old boot. But the Blazers sent help after that, righting the ship.
The big question is whether Portland’s success came because of good defense or bad offense. Detroit went 9-35 from the arc. They didn’t make the Blazers pay for paying all the attention to the interior needed.
Maybe the Blazers made the Pistons look bad. Maybe the Pistons are just bad all by themselves. Either way, it’s was neat to see Portland take on a challenge they could actually handle and flourish doing it.
The Blazers played free and easy through the first three quarters, scoring on the run while Detroit made do from the charity stripe. The Pistons stayed in the game, albeit barely, because of Portland’s super-eager defense and the free throws that followed.
In the fourth period, BOTH teams ended up at the foul line on the regular. For a while, neither could score any other way.
Somebody better back up the Chapstick truck to the refs’ hotel, because they’re going to need it. Portland and Detroit combined for 60 personal fouls, attempting a combined 90 free throws. The Blazers made 37-49, 75.0%. Detroit converted 34-41, 82.9%.
I haven’t seen 90 free throws since the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Sacramento Kings in the fourth quarter of Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals. It was not the prettiest way to conduct a game. “NBA Basketball, It’s Faaaaaaa....airly slow, actually.”
Rebounding is the secret sauce to Portland’s success, when they have it. Their defense is admittedly spotty, but when they’re at their best, they don’t allow the opponent second shots. That maximizes Portland’s opportunities. Today, every Blazers bucket felt like it weighed half again as much, simply because Detroit wasn’t shooting well and only had one chance to drill it. Detroit got 12 offensive rebounds, Portland 17.
The Blazers feasted on turnovers forcing 20 from the Pistons and scoring 30 as a result. They were +14 in that category. Unsurprisingly, they also edged Detroit 17-8 on the break.
In a game where most other things were even—52 points in the paint for each team, 29% three-point shooting for Portland vs. 26% for Detroit, 42% overall shooting by both—turnovers and the resulting breaks made a huge difference.
The Race for the Lottery
For those worried about such things, the victory pulls the Blazers into a virtual tie with the San Antonio Spurs for the 11th spot in the West. They’re still 2.5 games behind 10th-place New Orleans at the time of publishing. The Blazers play San Antonio next, and three times altogether in the next couple weeks.
It looks very much like the theoretical maximum for Portland this year would be the 9th spot. The minimum would probably be the 13th. If they finish 9th or 10th, they’ll be a part of the play-in for the 2022 NBA Playoffs at season’s end.
The Blazers begin a five-game homestand on Wednesday against the San Antonio Spurs at 7:00 PM, Pacific.