Five Positives from the Portland Trail Blazers Opening Night Loss

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Photo by Sean Meagher/The Oregonian - Trail Blazers guard Anfernee Simons attacks the rim as the Portland Trail Blazers open the 2021-22 NBA season agains the Sacramento Kings at Moda Center on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.

Last night, the Blazers lost to the Sacramento Kings on opening night by a final score of 124 to 121. While it wasn’t the result that Blazer fans were hoping to start the season with, there were still some positives to take away from this game.

#1 – Halfcourt Defense

If you only look at box scores, this game would seem like it was a defensive disaster for the Trail Blazers. Giving up 124 points isn’t good, especially against a play-in caliber team like the Sacramento Kings. However, if you look at how the Kings got those points, there’s a lot to be encouraged by.

The Blazers had a defensive rating (DRTG) of 96.9 in the halfcourt during the contest (defensive rating is the amount of points a team gives up per 100 possessions). To put this stat in context, the Los Angeles Lakers had the best defense in the league last season with a DRTG of 107.1. The Blazers were a whole 10 points better per 100 possessions than the best defense in the league last year when defending in the halfcourt. So how did the Kings put 124 on the scoreboard? Transition. The Blazers had a 181 DRTG when defending the Kings in transition. It’d be hard for the Blazers to play worse transition defense than they did last night.

Why is this encouraging? Quite simply, the Blazers were a horrible halfcourt defense last year. They consistently got picked apart in the pick n roll and struggled with even simple rotations. Last night, I saw a different Blazer team for big portions of the game. There were still boneheaded mistakes (such as Robert Covington overhelping off a hot-shooting Harrison Barnes), but Chauncey Billups’ aggressive pick-n-roll defense was effective, and the backside rotations behind it looked better than they ever did last season. For a team learning a new defensive system to show the improvement they did in game one is encouraging. Now they have to clean up their transition defense, which is easier than learning the intricacies of a half-court scheme.

#2 – Anfernee Simons (Point Guard)

Simons looked like a completely different player last night. After attempting only four dunks last season, the reigning dunk-champion had an explosive drive to the basket for a flush in the first half. Simons appeared quicker and more decisive with his dribble, and his ball-handling looks sharper. This allowed him to get into the paint on a multiple occasions, showcasing a beautiful hook shot as well as a floater.

Simons has always had a ton of potential as a scorer, and while he shot a higher percentage from behind-the-arc last year (42.6%) than inside it (40.3%), he stilled showed occasional flashes of slashing ability. I think those flashes will turn into regular occurrences this season, and game one was a glimpse of that.

I was even more encouraged by some of the passes that Simons’ threw. Being able to get into the lane more often and make the right play whether it’s a pass or a shot is something that’ll make Simons one of the deadliest sixth men in the league this season. Look at the vision and ball placement on this dime to Larry Nance Jr, as well as Simons run the pick-n-roll like a vet and set up Cody Zeller for an easy two.

Simons’ playmaking ability looks vastly improved compared to last year, and it’ll be exciting to watch him run the bench unit this season.

#3 – Nassir Little

After struggling in the only pre-season game he played this year, it was good to see Nassir Little have a solid regular-season opener. Little (self-admittedly) pressed too much in his first pre-season game, wanting to impress a new coaching staff that had expressed confidence in him as well as fans who tabbed him for a third-year breakout.

Little finished the night with a 3-for-5 shooting clip in only 16 minutes, as he was on a minutes restriction as he works his way back to full health after a lingering hamstring injury. Little scored on all three levels last night with impressive euro-step in transition, a smooth-looking corner three, as well as a mid-range pullup. Little also had a number of good defensive possessions (including this great effort on De’Aaron Fox), showcasing his two-way potential. Little looked under-control while still showcasing the energy and effort that fans have grown to appreciate him for.

#4 – Cody Zeller

Blazer fans love themselves a backup big man who does the little things and plays hard on every possession. The most recent embodiment of that was Ed Davis, but could Ed Davis do this?!

Zeller is like a souped-up Ed Davis, with the ability to pass, drive to the rim, and defend extremely well on the perimeter for a 7-footer. The Blazers bench made a run late in the first quarter, cutting a 7-point Sacramento lead to down to one, and it was led by terrific positional defense from Zeller and others. There’s been a lot of sarcastic jokes about how Cody Zeller was the Blazers’ “big off-season move to help Dame”, but this guy is an absolute bargain on a minimum contract and one of the best backup bigs in the league.

#5 – Damian Lillard’s Shooting

The Blazers have had a lot of games in which they’ve struggled, let the other team score at will, and had a double-digit deficient in the second half. Then, Damian Lillard hits a bunch of insane shots to rally the team for a come-from-behind victory. It almost appears scripted, but that script didn’t play out last night as Lillard shot 0-for-9 from three and 8-for-24 from the field. Despite Lillard’s shooting woes, the Blazers cut an 18-point deficit to three with seconds remaining. Unfortunately, the usually-clutch Lillard missing a game-tying three at the end of regulation.

While the team needs to get to a point where they don’t have to rely on Lillard’s heroics to bail them out of sub-par performances, the fact that Lillard struggled as bad as he did and the Blazers still had a chance to tie it on the final possession is encouraging. It took him missing every single three for the Kings to beat the Blazers’ in a game where they played extremely well (ex. Harrison freakin’ Barnes…)

Lillard shooting that poorly was an outlier, and one the Blazers can live with knowing that it’s unlikely to happen again anytime soon.

Conclusion

While this wasn’t the result that Blazer fans were expecting on opening night, there’s a lot of positives to take away from this loss. While there is still a lot of work to be done and the team will go through growing pains in a new system, the flashes of improvement are already there.