Five Areas the Portland Trail Blazers Must Improve for the NBA Playoffs
The Portland Trail Blazers have exceeded all expectations this season. They entered this year as a team with potential but far from a lock to make the postseason.
They responded with a season that saw LaMarcus Aldridge emerge as one of the league's top power forwards, point guard Damian Lillard turn into an elite playmaker and the bench become something other than an embarrassment.
But the Blazers, for all of their strengths, are not out of the woods yet. They still have plenty of holes and issues that they need to work on before the playoffs begin.
Here are the five biggest areas the Blazers must improve for the NBA Playoffs.
The Blazers were a mess defensively last season. J.J. Hickson couldn't stop anyone and forced everyone else on the roster to have to compensate for his lack of stability.
The problem is that there aren't a lot of defensive-minded players on this team. So Portland picked up Robin Lopez during the off-season to help bolster their front line.
Lopez has been a revelation, bringing toughness and tenacity down low. This has freed up Aldridge to focus more on his offensive game and his rebounding. Lopez is the type of player that does all the little things that don't always show up on the stat sheet.
However, the rest of the roster lacks this quality. This is a team that is built to outscore their opponents, and that rarely leads to playoff success.
The biggest problem defensively with this team is its half-court defense. Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews are solid defenders that play with passion, but they don't really have the skill to shut down their opponents.
During the regular season, you can usually hide this deficiency. But in the playoffs everyone plays tough defense, so opportunities to run are at a minimum. Therefore, it becomes paramount to play solid half-court defense.
The biggest issue is dribble penetration. Lillard is often victimized by quicker point guards and Matthews, while a better defender, lacks the lateral quickness to guard that position.
Batum is the closest thing to a defensive stopper but while his length helps, he can get overpowered at times.
The Blazers are going to need to do a better job of communicating and helping one another. Most likely, this will entail stepping back and giving up more deep balls and hoping that their tremendous rebounding ability will hold teams to one-and-done possessions.
Relying Too Much on the Deep Ball
The Blazers have drastically improved in most areas but one of the most noticeable areas of improvement has been behind the three-point line.
As a team, they are shooting 37 percent from deep. Compare that to just over 35 percent a year ago and you can really see where some of the extra offense is coming from.
That being said, they are taking the third most triples per game in the NBA.
In the regular season, this is okay. Defenses tend to be slightly relaxed on most nights, which creates space to shoot.
In the playoffs, however, jump-shooting teams don't always fare so well.
There are plenty of reasons for that. For one, teams are playing more in the half court, so most possessions turn into slugfests.
Also, the pressure is much higher, which can make players somewhat more tentative. Especially for a young and relatively inexperienced playoff squad like Portland, you have to imagine that nerves are going to be an issue.
Portland is going to have to find ways to become more dynamic offensively. They will need to get some dribble penetration and open up easier shots on the perimeter. The Blazers will not be able to shoot their way into the next round. They will have to diversify their offense.
This goes hand in hand with the last slide.
The Blazers will need to get easy buckets in order to become a dangerous team in the playoffs.
The best way to create easy buckets will be through turnovers and put-backs. The Blazers are a tremendous rebounding squad, so they should have plenty of opportunities to get easy buckets this way.
Creating turnovers, however, could be a different issue. The Blazers are not a great shot-blocking team. They also aren't a team that plays the passing lanes with great ability. Their defense is more of a bend-but-don't-break philosophy, and that rarely leads to easy hoops.
There are two additional ways that Portland can get easy hoops. One, Lillard and Co. are going to need to get to the hoop and create opportunities for Lopez and the other bigs. Two, the Blazers are going to have to take advantage of the fact that they have one of the few bigs in the game that can play with his back to the hoop.
Especially down the stretch in games, the Blazers are going to need to feed Aldridge in the post. The pick-and-roll will also help, but good things will happen for everyone if Aldridge is in the flow and is the focal point of the offense.
The Bench Will Need to Step Up
A year ago, the Blazers had the worst bench in the league, perhaps one of the worst in league history.
This aspect of the squad is much improved, but still needs some work.
They have some nice pieces such as Thomas Robinson, Mo Williams and C.J. McCollum, but aside from Williams this has been a somewhat inconsistent unit.
Much of that stems from inconsistent minutes, but in order for Portland to advance they will need at least one of these guys—perhaps two—to really step up.
McCollum and Robinson are intriguing pieces in that they are young, energetic and bring something that is important during the playoffs to the table.
McCollum is a dynamic scorer that could be the key to the second unit. His ability to play with or without the ball could make him an X-factor.
Robinson is an energy guy that could really get hyped up by the crowd and the environment of the playoffs. It is easy to see him having a breakout performance on the boards this postseason.
Williams is a savvy veteran that has seen his fair share of playoff basketball. He should be a calming influence for these young players, but one might worry that he could take too much on his shoulders. He needs to let his shots come to him.
Dorell Wright is another player worth watching. He can play either forward position, and using his length and shooting range could provide a new wrinkle to the offense as a stretch-4 off of the bench. However, the Blazers will need to work on getting easy buckets, and Wright probably won't help in this regard.
The biggest fear here is that coach Terry Stotts doesn't trust his bench and therefore will rely way too heavily on an already tired starting unit.
Damian Lillard Must Become the Man
Damian Lillard has already proven that he is one of the league's best young point guards.
But in order for Portland to really make a move this postseason, he will need to reach a new level of play.
I already outlined how important it will be for Lillard to stay in front of his man in the half court and create easy buckets through dribble penetration on offense.
But it will take more than that. Lillard will need to play with poise, without mistakes and as a distributor if this team wants to make it to the next round.
Lillard has all the makings of a great point guard. He plays with toughness, swagger and has all the talent in the world.
But the playoffs are more than that. He will need to play under control and know when to get his teammates involved.
He will need to make the other players better and still be able to take over the game offensively.
The Blazers have a lot of things going against them heading into the playoffs. They are not exactly a team built for postseason success.
But they have the benefit of having a dynamic point guard, one that could potentially take over a game and maybe even a series.