This season, the Portland Trail Blazers have been unpredictable and inconsistent. At times, they have been in sync and shown a drive unmatched by many – markedly during their 4-1 November road trip. But at other times, they’ve melted away to weaker oppositions – look no further than their 0-5 homestand following the road trip.
To say the least, we’ve seen a roster that has both bedazzled and tripped over itself at different stages of the season. Although the team is now placed where many expected them to be, among the lower Western Conference playoff spots, its journey thus far has been an up and down rollercoaster. There are multiple facets of Blazers basketball that have slightly contrasted with their usual brand of play this year. Let’s take a look at some of these.
Unpredictable Portland Trail Blazers Are Perplexing
Damian Lillard Playing Differently
Along with heart and hustle, Damian Lillard has continued to lead the team from a production standpoint. His stats (25.5 points, 6.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds per game) demonstrate the extent of his involvement. However, even with these numbers, he’s prone to starting games off relatively slow. Here are his field goal attempts and makes in the first quarter over the last handful of games:
0-2 vs. Minnesota Timberwolves
3-7 vs. Charlotte Hornets
1-3 vs. Orlando Magic
1-3 vs. Miami Heat
3-7 vs. Golden State Warriors
4-5 vs. Houston Rockets
1-3 vs. Washington Wizards
Aside from a couple of anomalies, Lillard has begun games less aggressively, and instead looked to get teammates involved early. It is no surprise that he is averaging a career-high 6.5 assists per game. Lillard has clearly sought passing opportunities, particularly to begin games.
Because of a slightly reduced focus on shooting, Lillard’s productivity has dipped in this regard, with mediocre clips from the field and beyond the arc. He has shot just 42 percent and 34.8 percent, respectively. However, Lillard makes up for the subpar shooting numbers and the lack of scoring production early in games by averaging the most second-half points per game of any player in the league. He’s maintained his cold-blooded instinct to take over when required, and the Blazers cannot afford to lose that factor.
It’s apparent that we’re seeing a different Damian Lillard this season. Although he continues to play fantastic basketball, we’re seeing less of his killer scoring instinct and more cerebral basketball. He’s found better passes and been more effective off the ball through 30 games.
Three-Point Shooting Dipping
While the market for good shooters has never been higher in the league, the Blazers – usually known as a run and gun, three-point bombing team – have shot far less from beyond the arc this year. In the four seasons prior to this one, they were never out of the top 10 in three-point attempts per contest in the league. But this year, Portland sits at 26th in that category with just 24.7 attempts per game. In contrast, the Rockets shoot nearly double that, with just under 43 attempts nightly.
It’s not that the Blazers don’t have the ability to hit more threes. Their star backcourt of Lillard and C.J. McCollum have always been proficient from distance. Some of their role players this season have been particularly potent as well. Al-Farouq Aminu is shooting 48.1 percent from beyond the arc, while Meyers Leonard is at 53.8 percent. Reserve guard Shabazz Napier is at 47.6 percent and swingman Pat Connaughton is 39.1 percent.
Why are they shooting less if their clips are so high? The answer is simple. Head coach Terry Stotts has imposed a premium on higher quality threes, sacrificing quantity for quality. By converting fewer looks from outside at a better rate, the team is able to devote more attention to better looks closer to the rim. These chances have come in the form of pick-and-rolls and big men getting easy looks.
In Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic, Portland boasts one of the most successful pick-and-roll tandems in the league. Lillard’s passing has improved to the point where he can slice the ball through the arms of many defenders to meet a rolling, barrelling, and athletic Nurkic who can find the basket from anywhere. The Bosnian’s lost weight over the summer has translated to increased speed and agility.
These highlights from the team’s one-point loss to Minnesota show how in-sync Lillard and Nurkic have been.
Moreover, another reason why the team is shooting less often from downtown is because Stotts has an abundance of energetic and youthful big men to choose from. A lot of these players – such as Noah Vonleh and Ed Davis – are released for short bursts and operate largely inside the paint. They also score from inside more efficiently than outside jumpers.
Prior to the season, if anyone had predicted Portland to be a top-five defensive team in the league, they would’ve been laughed at. But a different Blazers team has shown up, and they’re sitting pretty near the top of the defensive rating list. They’re playing better defence for many reasons. Primarily, their franchise player, Lillard, has been devoting far more attention to the side of the ball he’s not been known for in the past. Having seen their star recognize the value of playing harder on defense, the rest of the roster has responded positively.
Furthermore, two of their usual starters in Aminu and Evan Turner have continued to be defensive stalwarts. Surrounding them are Stotts’ plethora of young big men, who – while still raw – have displayed the capability and willingness to play defense. By playing them in short bursts, Stotts is able to get the most out of them on both ends.
They Require a Run
Recently, the Blazers followed a four-game winning streak by losing five in a row, and then picked up three straight wins. This kind of choppy play prevents momentum from building up, which is something Portland will need to do in order to truly compete for premium playoff spots in the West. To do this, they’ll have to remain focused over a long period of time without slumping to consecutive defeats. The NBA season is long, and with only 30 games played for the Blazers, there’s plenty of time for a change in mentality.
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