Since the last edition of Blazers: Roses and Rain, Portland won one game and lost three. Unfortunately right now things don’t seem particularly rosy, but let’s get into it!
Rose #1: There’s a Good Team in There Somewhere
Through five games, the Blazers were in the top-10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Teams that can do this for a full season are usually legit contenders. Last season, four teams accomplished being top-10 in both efficiency marks. The champion Milwaukee Bucks and their Finals opponent the Phoenix Suns both did. The other team in the Western Conference Finals, the Los Angeles Clippers, also pulled off this feat. The fourth team to manage to do it was the Utah Jazz, who lost to the Clippers in the 2nd round, and were the #1 seed in the Western Conference. Having a top-10 offense is pretty much a certainty for the Blazers. Even with their superstar point guard Damian Lillard struggling to find his shot, the Blazers are currently 6th in the NBA in offensive rating. The difficult task will be improving the defense enough to have a chance to get back into the top-10, or at least as close as possible.
Rain #1: An 0-3 Road Trip
The Blazers first trip out East did not go well. The Hornets, 76ers, and Cavaliers are certainly not pushovers, but the way in which the Blazers looked in the three losses is troubling. The 76ers were without their three best players (Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Tobias Harris), and the Blazers still couldn’t stop players not known for their penetration skills from breaking down the defense with ease. The Blazers now have a 0-4 record on the road. They need to find a way to bring the same energy they’ve shown at home when they’re playing in other team’s arenas.
Rose #2: Home Cooking
The Blazers have a 3-1 record at the Moda Center this season. Their overall effort level and energy seems much better in front of the home crowd. When a team is mistake-prone as they learn a new system, bringing energy and effort every game can help overcome those mistakes. On the road this is not something that is happening. With the next two games at home against the Indiana Pacers and the Los Angeles Lakers without LeBron James, it gives the Blazers a chance to continue building on their home success. Win the next two games and they’re still in good shape long term.
Rain #2: Regression of the Defense
As mentioned earlier, the Blazers were as high as 6th in defensive rating prior to the last three games. Now they have fallen to 23rd in defensive rating. Their defense is allowing 6.1 points per 100 possessions less than last year’s disastrous defense, so it’s definitely better. However, in the last three games they’re doing a lot of the same things that caused the defense to be so poor last season. The main culprit is the inability of the guards to navigate screens. With the big man playing higher this year when his man sets the pick, if the guards don’t get through the screen quickly it forces the big man to have to stick with the ball handler for too long. The reason this is a problem is that it makes it harder for that defender to recover to his original man. The Blazers already have slow rotations on the backside of their defense. The guards not getting through the screens fast enough then starts a chain reaction in which it makes it even more of a challenge to rotate correctly and often leaves a shooter wide open. Until this improves, the defense will be wildly inconsistent. Fortunately for the Blazers, this is something that can be fixed.
Rose #3: Anfernee Simons
Simons finds himself in this article for the second straight week. The 4th-year guard has been by far the brightest spot on the Blazers this year. His points per game average has jumped from 7.8 last year to 14.8 this year. He’s blistering the nets with a 51.2% field goal percentage and is shooting 42.9% from three-point range. Even with those impressive numbers, perhaps his biggest improvement has been defensively. While defensive stats are far from perfect, he’s gone from being one one of the worst defenders in the league analytically to nearly a neutral defender. Combine the growth on offense with no longer being a liability on defense and he’s turning into a very special player right before our eyes.
Rain #3: Free Throws
Free throw shooting is something that hasn’t really been a problem for the Blazers in recent years. As a team last season, they averaged 21.8 free throw attempts per game. That was 13th in the league. They made an impressive 82.3% of those free throws, which was the 3rd best mark in the NBA. So far this season, they are only shooting 18.8 free throws per game. The decrease may have to do with a rule change that takes away “foul-baiting,” but they rank 21st in the NBA in attempts per game. To add to the lesser free throws, they’re only hitting 72.7% of them this year. That’s down 9.6% from last season and ranks them 25th league wide. In close games it is crucial they take advantage of the times they get to the line, especially with fewer attempts.