Awash in a sea of aches and injuries, the Portland Trail Blazers started their 6th-10th men against the Chicago Bulls on Friday night. Shaedon Sharpe, Matisse Thybulle, Trendon Watford, and company gave it the old college try, but had about as much hope of beating the Bulls as an actual college team. Portland fell 124-96 in a surprisingly spry, yet ultimately futile, effort.
If you missed the action, here’s our always-entertaining (yes, even in a blowout) quarter-by-quarter recap. After you’ve seen that, peruse these other observations from the game.
It’s 2022-23. Any discussion of the Trail Blazers’ defense is going to come with a ton of asterisks. But you know what? They hustled and tried tonight. The young Blazers moved fast, kept that motion going, and tried to make plays actively. They couldn’t tick the “one-on-one” defense box. Not even close. Zach LaVine was too talented, Nikola Vucevic too big. But in those in-between times, the Blazers got in passing lanes, converged on ball-handlers, and rebounded their hearts out despite being out-sized. Heck, they even converted defense into offense, running faster than their elderly Bulls counterparts.
Portland forced 17 turnovers and nabbed 11 fast break points. They had no chance in the halfcourt, so bravo for being able to ride those trains as long as they did.
The Blazers’ main problem in the halfcourt defense was inexperience, coupled with over-eagerness. They got their feet in position, but bit on every fake like a Keto dieter in front of a bag of Gummy Nerds. In half a blink, Chicago dribblers went one way, Portland defenders the other.
To their credit, though, the Blazers didn’t let cutters past them often. Granted, Chicago didn’t have to get fancy, but at least their lane points were hard-earned.
Isolation Scorers Missing
Much has been made of Portland relying on isolation scoring from their backcourt of Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons throughout the year. The obvious talent of that duo has been counterbalanced by the lack of team success surrounding their gaudy numbers.
Neither guard played tonight. The offense didn’t look any better for it.
The vast ability gap between the normal starters and tonight’s version explains most of Portland’s difficulty. But the utter lack of a particular skill—one-on-one playmaking—played a huge role too.
From the start of the game, the Bulls had Portland’s dribblers tracked. The Blazers hardly ever got past—or even beside—their defenders on a straight drive. They were forced to pull up. In the first quarter, many of those shots got swatted by the same defender who had stopped the dribble. That doesn’t normally happen. It showed what a low threat Portland’s drives were.
Without any credible individual scoring, the Blazers couldn’t find their typical inside-out passing opportunities to the arc for open threes. That part of the offense shriveled on the vine.
That left Portland players passing side to side and waiting for each other to do something...ANYTHING. Every once in a while they’d penetrate then kick it straight back to a second cutter, spending two drivers to do the job of one Lillard. They also tried screen curls in the interior instead of setting picks quite so high on the floor. They found sunlight for a while with these tricks, but Chicago read them fairly easily and shut it down.
As it turns out, having zero skilled, self-starting offensive players is worse than having two. It also might provide a checklist for wings and guards the Blazers trade for or sign this summer.
This game was all about tempo. In the first quarter—through most of the first half, really—Portland’s active defense created easy buckets before Chicago’s bigger players got down the floor. Portland also ran action in the halfcourt, making Chicago move their feet to defend the rim.
As soon as the Bulls sat down at halftime and started to think, they realized they didn’t have to put up with it. If they didn’t turn over the ball, Portland’s instant opportunities went away.
The halfcourt was almost as easy to shut down. The Blazers shot 6-31, 19.4% from the arc tonight. With no drivers to collapse on, Chicago could leave defenders home. They didn’t have to scramble closing out on the perimeter, as defenders were pretty much already there when the ball arrived. When Portland shot threes, they were contested. When they tried to dribble past defenders, well...see above about having no such attack.
Once the Bulls got their heads right, they got in the grill of their Portland counterparts, bumping them and making it hard to put the ball on the floor, in the air, or across the court. A little physicality, a bit of clock-draining, and Portland was out of options.
With the Blazers not fielding any 20-point scorers to begin with, you can imagine what that started to look like. The cumulative effect was like buying a bit of cheese, thinking, “That might be interesting!” then watching it mold in the fridge.
If Portland had been able to use that cheese instantly, this game would have been closer. Slow and steady favored the Bulls, and that’s how the entire second half was played.
Sharpe vs. LaVine
Zach LaVine led a one-man parade through and around the Blazers tonight, serving as Grand Marshal, float, and his very own marching band. He began by cutting to the rim, then proceeded to set up teammates. They returned the favor later in the game as he hovered at the three-point arc. Portland couldn’t stop him in any of those scenarios. LaVine scored 33 points on 12-20 shooting, 6-9 from distance.
The Blazers countered with Shaedon Sharpe, who scored 24 on 9-20, 4-11. His repertoire was a bit more limited. He was able to pull up after multiple dribbles, dunk on the break, and hit the catch-and-shoot three. Most of that was all him, though. There wasn’t a lot of continuity with the team, nor was such expected under the circumstances.
Sharpe was nowhere near as fluid as LaVine either. Zach was butter, Shaedon a box of nails: lots of rattling, occasionally striking home with a hammer.
The contrast was interesting. Once Sharpe gets some experience, LaVine wouldn’t be a bad model for his scoring game.
To their immense credit, the Blazers did stay even in a couple of big-man stats despite fielding no big men to speak of. Chicago won the offensive rebounding battle 11-8, but their edge came in garbage time, after the game was decided. Up until then, the two teams were even. Portland also scored 54 in the paint against 52 for Chicago.
Watford and Eubanks
Special mention should go to Trendon Watford and Drew Eubanks, both of whom hustled and dedicated their full energy to this game. Eubanks set some great picks and rolled like he had been born to it, converting a couple of alley-oop dunks, plus any other garbage he could pick up in Portland’s busted possessions. Eubanks finished the game 5-7 for 12 points and 7 rebounds, adding 2 steals in 25 minutes of play.
Watford provided his usual inexhaustible spirit, scoring 15 on 5-10 shooting with 6 rebounds and 3 assists. He’s always had the heart, but he’s connected to the game this year in a way that he wasn’t before.
With the lineup so decimated and the average age of the starters just past legal drinking age, not much could be done about any of this. The Blazers played with energy, hustle, and maybe even a little bit of smarts? More than we’ve seen, anyway. But every play was like doing advanced math. No matter how much energy younger students put into it, PhD’s are always going to be able to solve it quicker. The Blazers might have been apt mathematicians, but the Bulls were going on to Problem 3 while Portland was still checking their work on the first one.
Stay tuned for analysis coming soon!
The Blazers will welcome the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Moda Center on Sunday afternoon with a 4:00 PM, Pacific start.