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What to Watch for When the Trail Blazers Play

Here’s what Dave looks for when he’s watching a game.

Los Angeles Lakers v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Watching a Portland Trail Blazers game can be many things: thrilling, depressing, an escape from reality. Ways to watch are as diverse as the viewers gathered. But in this particular edition of the Blazer’s Edge Mailbag, one reader wants to know how I, myself, watch a game. The glib answer would be, “Very carefully!” Let’s delve in a little further, though, giving insight not just on my analysis, but the way the site works as well.

Dave,

I really enjoy your analysis. I often search for your byline because I know it’s going to be an insightful read. I want to know how you watch games. What’s going through your head as you’re viewing the court and what is it that makes certain things stick out to you? I’m trying to improve the way I see the game as well so I’m curious.

Tyler

Thanks, Tyler! I appreciate it, and all of you who send compliments via the Mailbag. We don’t reprint them in the questions, but rest assured I read them and they mean a lot to me.

As far as your question, it really depends on the game and situation.

The first thing to know is that we run two separate recaps at Blazer’s Edge. The Instant Recap, published just minutes—sometimes seconds—after the final horn, gives a quarter-by-quarter look at the general game flow. The extended recap, offered somewhat later, conveys a half-dozen or more specific analytical points that either affected the outcome of the contest or show something about the way the season is progressing for the Blazers.

Those approaches are polar opposites. How I view the game on a given night largely depends on what recap I’m responsible for.

The instant recap requires a broad-based, “passive” radar. I watch from a 10,000-foot view, tracking the waves emanating from both teams. What’s making a difference this quarter? Rebounding? Turnovers? Is somebody launching a huge run? I’ll cite individual plays too, but only if they exemplify or alter one of those trends.

Trends can also change from period to period. The third quarter section of the recap may tell an entirely different story than the second quarter did. There’s no cognitive dissonance in that. That’s the way games work.

The extended recap requires detailed observation, sometimes down to where a player and their opponent have their feet placed on the court and how subtle leans or footwork shape their interactions. I’ll seldom get that granular in the actual recap; it’d take all night to write and be a terribly long read. But those little details help me understand why events unfolded the way they did in the instant recap.

Extended recaps deal with defensive coverage, offensive schemes, individual production, statistical spotlights. In a departure from the ethos of the instant recap, we’re looking for things that stay consistent throughout much, if not all, of the evening.

The extended recap also evolves throughout the season. At the beginning of the year, we’re probably going to highlight qualities that typify the team: core approaches, values, or results that establish identity. By mid-February, you probably know those by heart. How many times can we say, “The Blazers commit too many turnovers and don’t play defense well in the lane?” At that point, I’m more likely to delve into the contributions of deep bench players or talk about secondary (or tertiary) wrinkles that I’ve been sitting on most of the year.

The REAL fun comes when I’m responsible for writing both recaps for the same game. At that point some kind of weird Blazer’s Edge Disney Fairy magic happens where one part of my brain is tracking every second of the action from the big-picture view while another part of my brain is noting details, all of this with one eye on the broadcast and another on my laptop screen as I type furiously. And furious typing it is! No timeouts, bathroom breaks, or snacks. The instant recap is getting filled in during play while the extended gets outlined—and half fleshed out—during timeouts, halftime, and quarter breaks. Sometimes we get an blowout in the fourth quarter, which makes it simpler to switch attention away from the instant towards the detailed recap. I like exciting games, but I’ll confess that on some nights, a 20-point margin comes as a relief!

As far as what I’m watching for specifically, it depends on teams and style of play.

The Blazers are pretty set. They like to work from the point of attack, sometimes with a simple screen or cut attached. They’re not running the most complex plays in the universe. Bonus: most of their players are limited in one way or another. When I see Deandre Ayton or Scoot Henderson at the three-point arc, I’m probably ignoring them. I know to focus once the screen is set, or if Ayton moves into the lane area or mid-range. If Matisse Thybulle is dribbling, I’m taking that opportunity to watch what else is unfolding on the floor around him. I can always switch back if, by some miracle, he decides to make a move on his defender.

Similarly, I’m not paying too much attention to Trail Blazers players on the sidelines, as they don’t operate much on the sides of the court outside from a simple catch-and-shoot. I don’t need to concentrate on the end of a play if it’s a bail-out three to Thybulle or Jerami Grant. Instead I’m watching how defenders scheme against Henderson, how he’s escaping, whether he sees passing lanes open, and how his teammates are moving around him to create same.

In recap land, a turnover isn’t just a turnover. Sometimes Scoot dribbles into them because a second defender closed hard to trap him from the lane, he’s not tall enough to pass over them, and there’s no strong shooter (or passing lane to same) on his side of the court. Is that Henderson’s turnover? Kind of. It sure reads that way in the boxscore, and I’ll probably remember that defenders can lie in wait for him because he shoots three pointers with the same accuracy as a drunken penguin. Beyond that, though, his team is creating the turnover opportunity, either through the way the play is drawn up or their failure to execute it. If Scoot has no shooter to pass to and nobody popping out high to get the ball to, I’m probably not going to say, “Scoot had X turnovers,” without also pointing that out his lack of options in the extended recap.

Narrowing down the court in this way helps me see things better. I don’t process everything equally well. Under the circumstances, that’d be impossible. But I get the fat part of the bell curve of what’s going on. At the edges, I passively monitor with some version of, “Alert my brain if something different happens often enough to matter.”

It’s similar with opponents. I do a little bit of research on what they do well and/or poorly, then watch how the Blazers compensate...or don’t. I watch whether they’re able to take Portland out of their preferred game as well.

Seeing a ton of extra three-point attempts in the first half isn’t necessarily a comforting thing, even if they’re falling. I’m going to note in the instant recap that the Blazers shot well from distance and gained momentum thereby. Yay! In the extended recap, I’m already making a note to watch that percentage for the game. I want to see if the trend ends up fool’s gold, a rope-a-dope strategy by a clever opponent who, with slightly better close-outs after a halftime pep talk, now have the Blazers missing shots they maybe shouldn’t have taken in the first place.

Oh boy. We could go on all day about this. I’ll try to write up a Ten Tips for Watching a Game piece for next week in honor of this question. For now, everybody can feel free to share the things they watch for in the comments here!

Thanks for the question, Tyler! You all can send yours to blazersub@gmail.com and we’ll try to get to as many as we can!