Pleasant Surprises from Portland Trail Blazers' Early Slate of Games

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Pleasant Surprises from Portland Trail Blazers' Early Slate of Games
Sam Forencich/Getty Images
The play of Joel Freeland is among many surprises for the Portland Trail Blazers this season.

The Portland Trail Blazers’ record is a pleasant surprise on its own, but what has contributed to the Blazers hot start? The Trail Blazers have taken steps in the right direction, adding the right pieces and growing as a team.

Namely, the development of Joel Freeland, as well as the offense, have been as much a pleasant surprise for Portlandians as discovering a delicious, new microbrew.

Freeland's leap

Despite the Trail Blazers acquiring Thomas Robinson in the summer and drafting Meyers Leonard last season, Freeland has locked down his position as the first big off the bench in the rotation. Why? Because he playing basketball better than the other two.

Check out this video of Freeland’s block. Notice how he waits until the last moment to help so as not to give up the pass to his man. On the challenge, he remains straight up and down and doesn't foul. Freeland’s first goal is to affect the shot. He will get the block if he can, but he wants to change the path of the ball or force the shooter to make a tougher shot.

In Europe, Freeland was primarily an offensive player. He has taken a step back on that and has grossly improved his defense in his sophomore NBA season.

Freeland told The Oregonian that he wants to shoot, but his role is to stand out on defense.

It's just defense. I'm buying into what we want to do defensively, I'm working on what we want to do defensively and it's just helping me out all over on the floor. I'm a lot more aware of things, the positions I'm supposed to be in. I've still got to improve on my offensive side of the game, obviously, but I think that will come.

Besides his leap defensively, Freeland is averaging 7.2 offensive rebounds per 48 minutes and is the team’s best offensive rebounder, according to NBA.com/Stats.

Offensive rebounds are a great way to get open shots on the second possession, since many players will either crash the board for the rebound or start drifting to the other end of the court. It’s no surprise, then, that Freeland averages the Blazers’ big best 4.6 assists per 48 minutes. 

Ball movement leads to three-point shooting

The Trail Blazers are among the best in the league in three-point shooting percentage, attempts and makes. This was a pillar of the Dallas Mavericks offense when coach Terry Stotts was a member of that coaching staff. He has brought the three-point shooting to Portland, and it is not by accident.

It all began with the Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge pick-and-roll. The Lillard and Aldridge ("Lilldridge" is their celebrity couple name) pick-and-roll is the staple of the Trail Blazers' offense.

Stotts, with the help of general manager Neil Olshey, has expanded the Lilldridge pick-and-roll by acquiring more shooters and giving Lillard the option to either pass to Aldridge on the roll or find an open shooter when the defense crashes the center lane to protect against a drive.

The task of defending the Lilldridge pick-and-roll becomes more improbable. Because either Lillard or Aldridge can beat opponents with the jump shot or drive, it’s hard enough to defend just the two.

That was, in large part, the offense last season. This season, with added shooters like Mo Williams and Dorell Wright (and Wesley Matthews shooting an insane .565 from the three), the Trail Blazers have added this new wrinkle.

As you can see in the video, when defenses help in the middle, Lillard can opt to pass to outside shooters for open looks. See how open Nicolas Batum and Matthews are while all the defenders are clogged in the paint?

(YouTube)
No Spurs defender is in position to defend Matthews

Defenses, much of the time, will give up the open long-range shot and defend the pick-and-roll movement. You can’t blame defenses for giving up the least efficient shot, but when the Trail Blazers as a team are shooting better than 40 percent from the three-point line, it becomes a pick-your-poison scenario.

Beyond the Lilldridge pick-and-roll, the Trail Blazers are doing a tremendous job of swinging the ball.

Watch how quickly the ball moves from one side of the court to the other.

These are not designed plays. The Trail Blazers are showing a knack for finding the open shooter in off-the-cuff situations. 

Lopez and Batum pick-and-roll

The Lopez and Batum pick-and-roll is not something I saw on the horizon this summer, but it has been a common component for the Trail Blazers this season.

Beyond the Lilldridge pick-and-roll, defenses have to face a potential pick-and-roll motion between Lopez and Batum. This is a challenge when opponents have to defend those four plus Matthews, who is shooting lights out.

Check out the video of the Lopez and Batum pick-and-roll. Greg Monroe takes that jab step toward Aldridge and gives Lopez enough space to mosey on by. That's tough for Monroe. If he sank down to defend Lopez's cut, Batum could have found Aldridge for the open look. 

With all of these options for the Trail Blazers, it's no wonder that the team is among the best in the league, scoring 104.1 points per game.

Add that to an improved defense, the pleasant surprises of Freeland off the bench and improved ball movement, and the development of the Trail Blazers is a pleasant surprise that we can all enjoy along with a bottle of that new microbrew. 

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