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NEW: Portland Trail Blazers Week Preview - Jan. 5

Monday, January 05, 2015


Robin Lopez of the Portland Trail Blazers

After the first game of 2015, the Portland Trail Blazers sport a record of 26-8, with the most wins in the NBA. For most fans of the team, this kind of start surpassed anything they could have hoped for, given that the Blazers aren’t surprising anybody this year. 

Portland’s start this season was just as good as it was last season; in 2013-14, that catapulted the Blazers to 54 wins and a playoff series victory. The goal, according to Damian Lillard, is bigger this time around. Lillard often speaks of his desire to win an NBA Championship, and the usual statistical indicators actually do paint Portland as legitimate contenders.

Per NBA.com, the Blazers stand eighth in offensive rating and third (!!!) in defensive rating; considering how awesome Portland is offensively, it’s frankly shocking that they’ve been better defensively. Although we could chalk that up to facing weaker competition (the Blazers have had one of the easiest schedules so far), this is the same team that has been a defensive sieve since Terry Stotts was hired as the coach. Robin Lopez didn’t make much of a difference his first year here, and that weakness was ruthlessly exploited by the San Antonio Spurs.

The positive explanation for the Blazers’ improved defense is simple: continuity. The starting lineup not only complements each other perfectly (a perfect machine made from imperfect parts), this is the second year together for them. Normally, a team takes longer than that to truly jell, but that starting unit is so ideal for each other that one measly offseason (and the arrival of capable bench players) is enough to achieve optimal performance in Stotts’ extremely conservative defense, which leverages Lopez’s strengths (physicality, being a really big guy) while covering up for his weaknesses (lack of foot speed, fouling a ton).

More fun with advanced numbers, courtesy of NBA.com: Portland is the best rebounding team by traditional measures, but delving into the advanced stats, they fall just inside the top ten. They’re ninth in defensive rebounding percentage and overall percentage, while they’re just an average offensive rebounding team by the percentages.

The explanation for that is the Blazers’ opponents putting up a ton of shots and missing them because of Portland’s defense. On offense, Chris Kaman (Air Sasquatch in my heart) and Lopez before he got hurt are masters of squeezing out the opposing big men concerned with LaMarcus Aldridge. When Aldridge has the ball, he rightly commands a defense’s full attention, and his frontcourt partner (and occasionally Nicolas Batum, as well) uses that to worm his way to the restricted area, ready to clean up if Aldridge misses his shot.

The Blazers are a good rebounding team that gets very, very many of them because of their great defense and the pace they play; they’re the 10th fastest team in the NBA. 

The questions are, is their defense and rebounding sustainable? The rebounding should be; Lopez, Air Sasquatch, Joel Freeland and Aldridge are all good-to-elite rebounding bigs, and Lillard and Batum are above-average at their positions as well.

Defensive prowess in the NBA is hard to quantify, especially in this age where 100-point games are as common as gas after dinner at Chipotle. You wouldn’t know the likes of the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, and our own Blazers are the only three teams with defensive ratings under 100, or that the Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder are able to survive major injuries because of top-ten defenses, just by looking at points per game.

What most NBA defenses want to do is force the opponent to shoot midrange jumpers, preferably with a hand in the shooter’s face. Good offenses are very creative in manufacturing good shots from the three-point arc or in the paint, and the great players (like Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry) can get a great shot from anywhere.

(Quick tangent: these rules don’t apply to Portland. Lillard has range from Gresham to Hillsboro, and Aldridge takes the shot that defenses concede--the midrange--and feasts on it. The Blazers don’t care where opponents are forcing them to shoot, and that’s why the offense will always be just fine.)

Nothing can really stop the great players; you try as hard as possible to make them uncomfortable, get them off-balance, and funnel them into areas you want them to go, and you live with the results. 

You’re starting to see this with Lillard; after he roasted the Thunder at the end of regulation during their game on the 23rd, teams are shutting off the three-point line at all costs when he has the ball. He’s compensated by driving the ball, sometimes through totally open lanes against bad defenses. When Lopez comes back, Lillard will have a sure-handed big capable of catching drop-off passes when it’s Lillard and the center against the opposing center; Freeland and Thomas Robinson are nicknamed “Butterfingers” and “Stone-hands” in the Wright household.

As for good offenses, Portland forces many midrange attempts and they’re excellent at defending them. The Blazers force the sixth-most field goal attempts from 15-19 feet per game, 14 exactly. The opponent’s percentage from there? 33.5%, far and away the best in the NBA; the second-best team, the Rockets, are three full percentage points behind the Blazers. Their three-point defense is also stellar; Portland is the only NBA team that allows its opponents to shoot under 30% from three.

With Lopez being out, the percentages in the paint are creeping up; while the Blazers still have the fourth-best percentage defending the restricted area at 55.7%, the opponent’s attempts have gone up to 32 a game, third-most in the league. The percentage is great, but if a team is getting a large amount of chances down there, the best defense possible just won’t matter. From five to 14 feet, the numbers are pretty bad; from five to nine feet, opponents shoot 41.8%, 22nd in the league. The percentage from nine to 14 feet is a league-worst 46.5%.

Guys that have perfected that little floater from the free-throw line extended, like Tony Parker and Jeff Teague (on Saturday), have destroyed the Blazers with that shot this season. Lopez, Freeland and Kaman don’t have the speed to contest that shot, and Aldridge is too busy chasing stretch power forwards on the perimeter to lend a hand. 

Lillard getting better at fighting through screens and recognizing situations will help. He has the athleticism to challenge the floater from behind, and if Parker, Teague and other practitioners of the floater have to worry about Lillard coming from behind, it may be that one worry that causes the floater to float a smidge to the right.

To review: the trends the Trail Blazers have started are sustainable, as long as they work as hard as they have so far. That’ll be a challenge as the year goes on; they actually got better on defense last season in the second half. The task will be maintaining that improvement this time around, and if the game against Atlanta was any indicator, that will be the toughest task Portland’s faced yet.

Time for picks! Let’s go! (All games on AM 620 radio, all stats from NBA.com)

Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers Head Coach

Monday, Jan. 5: versus the Los Angeles Lakers, KGW, 7:00 PM

Sunday, Jan. 11: @ the Los Angeles Lakers, CSNNW, 6:30 PM

The Skinny: These teams play twice this week, so I’ll lump their games together.

Where to begin with the hated Los Angeles Lakers? The arrogant overlords of the Western Conference for a significant part of the NBA’s history, the team with 16 championships, dozens of legendary players and countless celebrity fans in their own history, the media darlings always in the public eye and on every agent’s list of contacts.

This season, the mighty have fallen very low. The Lakers have a hide-bound coach in Byron Scott that demands shots in the paint and tough defense, only to find out the hard way what everybody else learned the easy way: this team is as soft as Charmin toilet paper (according to Kobe Bryant), and they’re the worst defensive team in the league. The absolute worst.

The Lakers are worse at defense than the Minnesota Timberwolves, a team so green they’d make a rainforest look dull. They suck more than the New York Knicks, a team torn apart by infighting, a lack of competence, and a lack of direction. The Lakers stink at NBA defense more than the Philadelphia 76ers, a team of D-League rejects and inexperienced youngsters that DO NOT PLAY REAL NBA DEFENSE. 

The Sixers force a ton of turnovers because they go for steals all the time and apply full-court pressure, knowing they don’t have the skill to play professional basketball defense the proper way. The Lakers have veterans that are too old and slow to even do that. No defensive scheme can help these guys.

As for Bryant himself, his core stats show a 24/5/5 split (PPG/RPG/APG), but he’s shooting many shots and missing many. His 37.7% shooting from the field is horrid, and shooting only 29% from three isn’t helping either. He’s a throwback, an anachronism, a fitting description for a 36-year-old that’s been playing in the NBA since he was 18.

On a better team, his footwork in the post, his ability to hit any kind of shot no matter what the defense, and his harsh leadership tactics would be appreciated. Now, all you can find about Kobe Bryant are articles that condemn his shot selection, theorize whether the Lakers are “better without Kobe” (an utterly ridiculous notion), and wonder if he’ll survive retirement.

Kobe’s got many warts, and I’ve loathed this man for most of my life (and continue to do so), but I take a philosophical approach when judging Bryant. I have many of my own warts, too many to mention, and I bet you have your own as well. The only difference between me and him, or you and him, is the fact that Kobe’s faults are public. 

He’s the most human superstar in NBA history, and it’s why he’s either loved or hated by most of the NBA fan base. Seeing his last years play out like they have, I’ve felt a mix of vindication because he made his name torturing the Trail Blazers and sadness that a living legend like him is on a team that could be the worst defensive squad in history.

Recently, he actually had to come across the court and foul a guy to stop the clock and preserve the clock because Jeremy Lin was focused too much on the basic task of staying in front of his man to foul. Think on that: an NBA player being so absorbed in TRYING to play defense that he totally forgets the situation. That’s the kind of team Kobe Bryant is on, and while most of the Internet was laughing, I just felt sad. It was unspeakably pathetic.

(I guess all that wasn’t so skinny after all.)

Key Matchup: Wesley Matthews vs. Kobe Bryant. Matthews won’t have to do much defensively; just stay in front of Bryant and let him chuck. If Kobe goes into facilitator mode, however, Wes will have to shut off the driving lanes and ad-lib plays that allow Bryant to create opportunities for his teammates.

When on offense, Matthews, who leads the league in made three-pointers, will have to continue bombing away. Whoever Kobe Bryant is guarding on defense, that man has to make him work. For better and worse, Bryant is the key to everything Los Angeles does on offense. If he has to wear out those old legs on defense, winning will be that much easier.

Prediction: On Saturday night, my brother and I made buffalo wings, or as we call them, “burrrfalo WIIIIIIIINGS!” We love burrfalo WIIIIIIIIINGS to the point that we drool when thinking about them, tasty little morsels of spicy goodness.

The Blazers are looking at those two Laker games book ending this week like I look at burrfalo WIIIIIIIIINGS! Portland wins them both.

Thursday, Jan. 8: versus the Miami Heat, TNT, 7:45 PM

The Skinny: From July on, it likely hasn’t been comfortable being a part of the Heat organization. (Those “fans” aren’t worth considering; living in that kind of environment, with any kind of wealth or comfort, often leads to mental apathy and laziness except for a few exceptional people. When the mind and soul aren’t constantly challenged, they rot like garbage left out in the South Florida sun. Plus, anybody spoiled enough to walk out of any Finals game EARLY is forever below the standards of fandom.) 

Losing LeBron James, free-agent signing Luol Deng having to deal with the fallout from the Atlanta Hawks racial controversy (the Hawks ownership and general manager made derogatory remarks about Deng’s race and nationality; the team is for sale, and the GM is on indefinite leave), Miami’s other free agent Josh McRoberts going down for the season, and Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade being in and out of the lineup with injuries have all contributed to Miami standing at 14-19.

The falloff is most pronounced on defense. The run your butt off system Heat coach Erik Spoelstra implemented when James was in Miami has been largely scrapped for…actually, I can’t tell what the Heat are doing these days. With the shuffling their lineups have had to deal with, I’m not surprised, but I admit I haven’t paid enough attention to Miami these days.

The Heat are the fifth-worst team in the league in defensive rating, and although Bosh is getting to stretch his legs (and defenses) as the main threat, and Wade is experiencing a revival of sorts, that defense will keep them among the also-rans this season.

Key Matchup: LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Chris Bosh. On paper, Aldridge has Bosh beat; Aldridge is averaging 23 points and nearly 11 rebounds a game, compared to 21 and eight for Bosh. Aldridge is also the hub of a bona-fide title contender; Bosh, for all his success when James was at Miami, was often the third wheel when Wade was healthy, unable to provide the release for the friction James and Wade’s overlapping skills produced.

To his great credit, Bosh showed marvelous adaptability and guts during that time. Even though he’s no larger than Aldridge, Bosh often sacrificed his body playing center (something Aldridge has always balked at, by the way), and he developed an above-average three-point shot as well. Bosh shoots 38% from deep, and has almost four times as many attempts per game as Aldridge, who’s only toyed with the three at most.

Bosh may not be a Hall of Fame-type player in the traditional sense, like the way LeBron and Wade are, but in my mind, Bosh was almost as important as James during that run, and more important than Wade, easy. He had a huge hand in Miami’s success in the first half of this decade, and for that I believe he deserves a spot in Springfield when he’s done.

In this game, Aldridge’s skills are very similar to Bosh’s. If Aldridge can impose his will on Bosh by using his superior post game, while staying with Bosh on the perimeter, he’ll give the Blazers a great chance to win.

Prediction: I’m tempted to pick Miami in an upset, but finding out about the defense spooked me. The Heat are a horrible defensive team, and Portland eats horrible defenses for breakfast, especially at home. The Blazers win.

Saturday, Jan. 10: versus the Orlando Magic, CSNNW, 7:00 PM

The Skinny: The end of the season-long seven-game home stand is this game, and while Orlando is a better squad to end it against than most, these guys are scrappy. 

Scrappy only gets you so far, unfortunately. Orlando defends alright at 19th in the league, a decent number for a young team with a poor coach. Their offense resembles a plugged-up toilet at times, a product of Elfrid Payton being a young point guard, the lack of dynamic offensive threats (Channing Frye is a good shooter, but he isn’t making the on-the-court impact he made in Phoenix last year), and said poor coaching. 

Jacque Vaughn doesn’t seem like an NBA-level head coach, from what the stats say about his team. The defense being between “meh” and “bad” is more a product of Payton’s ball hawking and the long-armed athletes than anything Vaughn is doing; NBA observers closer to this team than I don’t have much of a clue what the Magic are doing consistently on defense.

The offense, which has a bottom-five rating, is the half of the court that condemns Orlando more often than not, which is extremely weird for such a young team; it’s usually the reverse. Comparable teams like the Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics are doing much better than the Magic on offense while having teams loaded with youth. Given that evidence, I’m inclined to pin the Magic’s offensive woes on the coach, and a coach that can’t install a decent offense in today’s NBA has NO business running a team.

Key Matchup: Damian Lillard vs. Elfrid Payton. Honestly, I don’t know where to go here. The Magic’s improving small forward, Tobias Harris, will challenge Nicolas Batum at times, but I’m such a fan of Payton’s energy and crazy hair that I have to go here.

As a point guard, Payton’s getting challenged (and mostly getting his butt kicked) almost on a nightly basis. Lillard is just another of a long line of star guards waiting to get a piece of the rookie.

The pick-and-roll game will likely be featured heavily here. If Orlando sticks to the general NBA plan of not letting Lillard get enough room to shoot threes, there should be plenty of opportunity to get into the paint. Drawing fouls on Orlando’s bigs, scoring himself, or starting the chain reaction of rotations that results in an open three; all are options that Lillard will have at his disposal, and it all depends on his ability to trick and outplay a rookie. Pray for Elfrid Payton, and his marvelous hair.

Prediction: Portland gets a morale-boosting blowout victory versus the Magic before playing the Lakers the day after this game.

Since Oregon Sports News went on a break, there were ten games since I last did this. The Blazers went 8-2 in those games, but since I picked them to lose in New Orleans on December 20th, I ended up 7-3. Hope you have a good laugh, since the Blazers blew the Pelicans out of the water.

Trail Blazers’ Record: 26-8

Jared’s Picks Record: 24-10

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.


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