The 18-11 First Place Northwest Division record of the young Trailblazer team has surprised most expert observers, particularly when you consider they had the toughest opening schedule of any team since the early 1980s, including being the first team in history to play their first five games against teams that won 50 or more games the previous season...three of those games on the road.
Blazer fans are delighted. Blazermania has been deemed to have returned, the Rose Garden is selling out every night with rabid, noisy fans, and we have already been treated to several blowouts.
Nor were all the blowouts against soft, weak teams. Portland crushed the Hornets, holding them to just 86 points while dialing up 101 of their own. Beating a quality team like the Hornets by 15 is something not seen around here since the middle part of the Jailblazer era and this time it is being done by great character guys.
They are also being done by a very focused team. Every Blazer knows the goal is not to get into the playoffs but actually win at least one series once there. This is a team with enough talent to do that, but after 29 games there are a few areas that have shown flaws in the Blazer game plan that can be exploited.
It starts on defense. Against the Suns, Blazer fans were screaming, "This just in...Matt Barnes can shoot!" as he rained down open trey after open trey. Against the Kings, Blazer fans were screaming, "This just in... John Salmons can shoot!" as he rained down open three after open three. Against the Nuggets, Blazer fans were screaming, "This just in...Linas Kleiza can shoot!" as he rained down open trey after open trey. Hmm. I think I am noticing a pattern here.
Last season Portland did an excellent job of staying in front of their man and forcing contested jumpers or treys that at least had a hand in the face. Against Phoenix they did this so seldom that they gave up 66.9% shooting from beyond the arc. If that happens in the playoffs it will be one and done.
Another key issue is free throw rebounding. Again and again the Blazers give up free extra possessions to the opposition as they fail to pull down the defensive board after free throws are missed. Inexcusably, this is often after noted poor free throw shooters such as Shaquille O'Neal hoist bricks. Portland has to figure out a way to protect the lane and get those rebounds.
Conversely, on offense the Blazers must find better spacing. Against the Nuggets, Portland often allowed four defenders to converge on Brandon Roy without creating passing lanes for him. They mostly stood static. In the picture above, they show what can happen with movement:Roy rotated the ball to Rudy Fernandez, forcing Linas Kleiza to rotate out on him. When he did so, Steve Blake floated to the corner for an open trey as no Nugget could pin down to the corner to contest it.
If they remember to create spacing with movement when opponents double or triple team Roy, particularly 30 feet from the basket as is becoming commonplace, they will continue to create open looks from deep or create driving lanes for their wings.
It then becomes vital that players like Nicolas Batum, Travis Outlaw, and Martell Webster (when he returns) move without the ball and then cut towards the basket for dunks until Roy is given space to operate. But it is not just Roy who can create offense.
Portland habitually starts the game by going to LaMarcus Aldridge on the low block two or three times. This is an excellent start to the game.
Once he has shown success, opponents are forced to double him. With rapid ball movement they can create open jumpers and sometimes dunks when small, quick Blazers flash to the post.
Unfortunately, the Blazers often forget Aldridge. He will provide four, six, eight, maybe 10 points of offense, and then not get another entry pass for two or three quarters. Portland needs to do a better job of identifying and exploiting areas of offense like this one that can create easy buckets. Aldridge should be getting at least 15 shots a game in a mix between post-ups and the nice mid-range jumper he possesses. That will require the Blazers to do a better job of staying with him rather than establishing him and then forgetting he can score.
There is at least one other area of concern that will become more and more important as teams are able to prepare exclusively for the Blazers. For some inexplicable reason, they struggle mightily with inbounding the ball.
One sequence late in the Nugget game illustrates the problem. Earlier in the game Nene picked off a soft inbound pass and broke away for a solo dunk. Late in the game, with every possession key, Portland took a time out. Rudy Fernandez was then forced to call a 20 second time-out as no Blazer got open. Coming off back-to-back timeouts, he then made an entry pass to Brandon Roy, but the pass was tipped, Roy picked up a loose ball foul, and the Nuggets were presented with 2 free throws as the Blazers could not even get the ball inbounds.
This is not an isolated incident. Portland has struggled all season with getting the ball inbounds in key situations. As the season extends and teams get better looks at what the Blazers are doing, this situation will only be exacerbated. If it continues to be an issue in the playoffs, close games will be won and lost on "small" things like this.
Portland simply has to find ways to free up players to receive the inbounds pass. They need to alter the back screens and angles they move to receive the ball or they will find themselves losing close games without even being able to get a shot off.
These things are all fixable. On defense, Portland has the length and agility to cover those open spaces without leaving their big men without help. Rebounding is a matter of timing and effort. Spacing on offense is a matter of awareness and coaching. Inbounding is something that training and creative plays can fix.
It remains for Coach Nate McMillan to address these issues. Make no mistake about it, McMillan is a superior coach who will find ways to get these issues addressed. It is a matter of time and coaching. The only question is if he has enough time to get the message across to his players this season before the playoffs.