Jusuf Nurkic's fourth quarter benching is perplexing

Jusuf Nurkic's fourth quarter benching is perplexing

Of all the head-scratching things that happened on Friday during the Blazers’ 101-97 loss to Brooklyn – and there were plenty of them – none is more perplexing than the fourth-quarter benching of Jusuf Nurkic.

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Just a few reasons why the Trail Blazers lost to the Brooklyn Nets

Just a few reasons why the Trail Blazers lost to the Brooklyn Nets

Throughout the game Friday night, even while the Trail Blazers were suffering through a rough third quarter, my feeling was that Portland still had control of the game. No matter how poorly the Trail Blazers played, I couldn't envision them actually losing on their home floor to the Brooklyn Nets.

But they did.

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How does such a thing happen? Let me count the ways:

  • The most obvious thing first: Jusuf Nurkic didn't play during the final 11 minutes of the game. The Nets went with a small lineup so Portland obliged them by going small, too. In other words, the Nets dictated Portland's lineup throughout the fourth quarter. Nurkic was having a big game and that's the way the Nets lose -- by allowing the other team's big man to score virtually at will. This madness has got to stop. The league's fascination with "going small" is at epidemic proportions and it's fine if you have Draymond Green to defend small men or even Al-Farouq Aminu. But Aminu is out injured -- again -- and not available. And Green doesn't play for Portland. Yet, there the Blazers are, struggling on offense with less than their best lineup on the floor down the stretch of the game. Portland doesn't -- even on a platoon basis in the final minute -- turn the tables and make a little man try to defend Nurkic.
  • All of this happens, of course, because the Trail Blazers are so predictable on defense that teams just go to a high pick-and-roll late in games and wait for Portland;s inevitable switch on the pick. It happens every time and the opposing offense can get that big-on-small matchup whenever it wants. Heck, Portland even switches when there is no pick -- just players changing places. The Nets wanted it virtually every time down the court late in the game, leaving poor Davis, the lone big, to try to keep up with Russell. What would be wrong with changing coverages once in a while? Why not blitz the pick and roll and take the ball out of Russell's hands? I have no idea. But if you're going to just switch that pick-and-roll every time, you might as well leave Nurkic in the game because he'd be just as ineffective as Davis at guarding Russell.
  • Portland's starting guards were just 13-for-32 from the field. The Blazers, as a team, were only 7-for-20 from three-point range. That won't cut it. This team's ball and player movement continues to hit lulls during games. If that cannot be corrected, it's going to be a long season. The last thing I thought we'd be worried about this season with this team is the offense.
  • I'm getting a bit tired of mentioning this, but the Trail Blazers are last in the NBA in fast-break points per game. The only real reason for this to happen is that this team's coaching staff doesn't want it to run. Fast breaks don't happen by accident -- they have to be practiced. Obviously, a decision has been made that the risk (turnovers and rushed shots) is not worth the reward (easy, uncontested baskets). I just don't see how you survive in the NBA without at least an average number of fast breaks. Portland averages 4.6 points per game off the break. Golden State gets 27.2.

The Trail Blazers are better than a 6-6 team, given the schedule they've played so far. I expected much more than this and I think everyone connected with the team did, too

Trail Blazers' second quarters: Trend or anomaly?

Trail Blazers' second quarters: Trend or anomaly?

If you look hard enough during the NBA season, you can find something amiss with each team, and these days a curious trend is developing within the Trail Blazers.

“Some troubles in the second (quarter), right?’’ Damian Lillard identified before a question was even finished.

Lillard’s instinct was partially correct. The Blazers have had notable struggles recently in the second quarter – being outscored 25-6 at home against Toronto and then being on the wrong end of a 37-25 quarter against the Lakers on Thursday.

Second quarter troubles have also surfaced at Milwaukee, when the Blazers lost a nine-point lead and went into halftime trailing 60-55, and at home against New Orleans when the Blazers lost a 13-point lead and trailed 48-47 at half.

All told, the Blazers this season have split their 10 second quarters.

So are the second-quarter bugaboos just a passing anomaly? Or is there something there?

Right now, it’s probably hard to say, but some stats indicate the second quarter troubles are rooted in more than just a couple bad outings.

For the season, the Blazers are allowing 45.8 percent shooting in the second quarter – three percent above what they allow the rest of the game – and that comes after Utah went 2-for-18 in the second quarter on Wednesday (and managed to be outscored only 19-17 by the Blazers).

Meanwhile, Portland is shooting just 39.2 percent in the second quarter – five percent below what they shoot the rest of the game.

Also, the Blazers’ two stars – Lillard and CJ McCollum – are struggling mightily in the second quarter. Lillard is shooting 8-for-30 (26.7 percent) and McCollum 9-for-32 (28.1 percent) in the second quarter. And one of coach Terry Stotts’ top reserves – Pat Connaughton – has made just 4-of-18 shots in the second quarter.

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“I don’t know there is a common theme right now,’’ Stotts said. “I’m always reluctant to make generalizations too early.’’

The second quarter is perhaps the most unique quarter in the game. It is the quarter that typically includes the most reserves, and it features the first re-entry and re-acclimation to the game by the starters. 

“The game changes from first to second quarter,’’ Lillard said. “The first quarter you come out and you establish what you want to do – then you come back in the second and the game has taken a turn, and as a point guard and as a person who is trying to manage the game, you have to gauge what the game needs.’’

For the Blazers, the second quarter always starts with McCollum at point guard, Connaughton at shooting guard, Evan Turner at small forward, and Ed Davis at center. The only variable has been power forward, where Stotts has experimented with Maurice Harkless, Caleb Swanigan, Zach Collins, and recently Noah Vonleh.

Generally, the offense is driven by Turner and McCollum until around the six or seven minute mark, when Stotts typically sends in  Lillard (for McCollum) and Jusuf Nurkic (for Davis).

Turner has been especially effective in the second quarter, making 16-of-26 shots (61.5 percent) while Nurkic has made the most field goals (17-of-32).

Tonight, the Blazers (5-4) play host to Oklahoma City (4-4), allowing more fodder to support, or debunk, the Blazers’ second quarter standing.

In the meantime, Stotts and Lillard echoed the same retort to the second-quarter questioning:

 “It’s always something,’’ both of them said.

“But that’s the beauty of it,’’ Lillard said. “We work to perfect the game but it’s a game that can’t be perfected.  That’s what we enjoy about it.’’

Today's Blazers' links:

NBC Sports Northwest has all your viewing information for tonight's Blazers-Thunder game.

The Blazers' Casey Holdahl has some notes from Saturday's practice.

Brett Dawson for the Oklahoman has an update on the Thunder, including Carmelo Anthony's response to a 1-for-12 second half.

Trail Blazers say late-game win 'does a lot' for confidence

Trail Blazers say late-game win 'does a lot' for confidence

When Damian Lillard hit the game-winning three pointer Thursday against the Lakers, it did more than end the Trail Blazers’ two-game losing streak.

It also went a long way to healing some late-game wounds that have bothered the team.

It wasn’t the first time the Trail Blazers have closed out a close-game this season, but inside the team, Thursday’s last-second victory sure felt like the end of a trend.

Lillard, whose three-pointer with 0.7 seconds left broke a tie, said the win was cause to exhale because of the clutch manner it was earned.

“If you lose this one, then you are a little worried,’’ Lillard said. “But I think the fact that we had to win it – the way we won it – I think it does something. It does a lot for us because we had to fight for it.’’

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The Blazers (5-4) have won close games this season, sealing a 103-93 win over New Orleans in the home opener by closing on a 9-0 over the final 3:23, then pulling away from a two-point lead over Phoenix with 1:43 left to win 114-107.

But perhaps more magnified have been the Blazers’ late-game letdowns. A loss in Milwaukee after three turnovers in the final 31 seconds erased a one-point lead. The missed free throw with 5.7 seconds left against the Clippers that allowed Blake Griffin to win the game at the buzzer. The two turnovers in the final three minutes at Utah that went a long way to erasing a six-point lead and eventually led to an overtime loss.

So never mind the porous defense that allowed 54 percent shooting, and the lack of focus that led to losing an 18-point lead. The Blazers were more transfixed on the finish, because it seemingly disproved their inability to close out a close game.

“The way we have been losing, it was good we were put in that position again,’’ Lillard said. “This is what we have to do to get it going in the right direction. It was good for us.’’

Although CJ McCollum had another late-game turnover – dribbling the ball out of bounds with 3:20 left and the Blazers trailing 103-100 – the Blazers went 4-for-4 from the free throw line and didn’t give the ball back to the Lakers over their final seven possessions. Meanwhile, Maurice Harkless and Jusuf Nurkic recorded steals.

“It’s good to get a close-game win,’’ coach Terry Stotts said. “We needed that, especially on the heels of not only (at Utah) but some of the other games.’’

Trail Blazers just not getting enough open shots

Trail Blazers just not getting enough open shots

I don't want to dwell on this too long. Monday night's Trail Blazer loss to the Toronto Raptors came down to one horrendous second quarter, the worst second quarter in the history of the franchise.

So let's not go too crazy with worry. CJ McCollum summed it up best to our Jason Quick after the game:

“We have to do a better job of movement – not just ball movement, but player movement,’’ McCollum said. “A lot of times, we are standing there watching each other.’’

No question. This season the Trail Blazers have gotten away from the ball and player movement that has been so good to them during the Terry Stotts Era. At their best, the Blazers have gotten wide-open shots because of the great flow to their offense. That's not happening so much this season and the result has been many more contested shots than in past seasons.

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During that second quarter, Portland missed some shots it usually makes but had some turnover trouble and the hustling Raptor defense made some tough shots even more difficult than usual.

Movement -- of the ball and the bodies -- will cure most of the offensive problems. It shouldn't be that difficult to fix. And it wouldn't hurt to mix in a few fast-break points. I'd even be tempted to bring former Portland guard Andre Miller into town to tutor Portland's guards on hitting ahead on the break. Andre was one of the best we've seen here in recent seasons and it's a weakness of the current guard corps. They have to work on their vision up the court and their passes to open teammates in order to facilitate a few much-needed, easy, open baskets.

Fast breaks don't happen because a coach is on the sidelines waving his arms at his players like a traffic cop, imploring them to push the ball up court. They happen because of time spent in practice working on them.

But the good thing is, this is the NBA and the next game is always just a day or two away. The mission for the Trail Blazers Wednesday night in Utah is to put together four good quarters.

 

Trail Blazers' offense sputters and CJ McCollum thinks he knows why

Trail Blazers' offense sputters and CJ McCollum thinks he knows why

After Monday’s disastrous second quarter that led to a humbling 99-85 loss to Toronto, Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum was the one player who was able to cut through the clichés and distance himself from the everything-will-be-fine mentality.

McCollum, who went 5-for-16 from the field and spent large parts of the Blazers’ record setting six-point second quarter playing point guard, said Portland’s sputtering offense needs to get back to its roots.

“We have to do a better job of movement – not just ball movement, but player movement,’’ McCollum said. “A lot of times, we are standing there watching each other.’’

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The Blazers (4-3) entered Monday’s game with the NBA’s third best offensive rating, but much of those numbers were padded during the team’s rip-roaring three-game opening trip, when they averaged 116 points and shot 47 percent from the field.

But during the team’s four-game home stand, the fluent and artistic collaboration that is coach Terry Stotts’ flow offense has sputtered. Much of the concern would be alleviated, of course, if the Blazers could make even the easiest of shots. Even the Portland players have mocked their poor point-blank shooting, and as a whole, the Blazers have made only 39.9 percent of their shots at home. 

But beyond the blown layins and inconsistent close-range shooting, the Blazers’ offense has greater problems, or as Evan Turner so succinctly put it after the Toronto loss: “What we like to do ain’t happening.’’

McCollum’s assessment – that there isn’t enough movement – probably comes closest to addressing what is likely several small things gone awry, which adds to a big problem like Monday, when the Blazers missed 20 consecutive shots from the end of the first quarter until nearly halftime.

The Blazers struggled with spacing, often having three players in close proximity, played a lot of one-on-one, and had nine of their shots blocked and several others that were heavily contested.

Those were all a byproduct, McCollum said, of poor movement.

“It puts pressure on the ball handler,’’ McCollum said. “We are used to reading and reacting off each other, but when we all look at each other, it puts pressure on the guy to make something happen. That’s when we get turnovers. When we get contested shots. And late shot-clocks.’’

The one-on-one play has been particularly alarming, and is in part reflected in the Blazers low assists. They average 19.2 assists – nearly two less than last season - and are ranked 26th out of 30 teams.

The assists will go up once the Blazers start shooting better, but McCollum said he thinks everything is related. Stotts’ flow offense is predicated on movement, and sharing the ball, and that right now isn’t happening smoothly or often enough.

And McCollum said it will start with himself.

“We have to do a better job moving, and I need to set screens,’’ McCollum said. “The rest of the guards can’t just rely on the bigs to set screens. We all have to be active.’’

Today's Blazers' links:

Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest says the Blazers need more fast breaks.

Joe Freeman at The Oregonian wrote about the Blazers' offense, or lack thereof

Casey Holdahl at the Blazers writes about an "irredeemable" loss to Toronto.

A Seattle Post-Intelligencer blogger suggests it's bad that Damian Lillard went vegan.

Damian Lillard says Blazers defense needs to make own adjustments

Damian Lillard says Blazers defense needs to make own adjustments

In the aftermath of Thursday’s loss to the Clippers, during which the Trail Blazers had no answer for Blake Griffin, Damian Lillard made an important and potentially crucial observation.

When situations like Thursday arise – when Griffin repeatedly backed down Blazers defenders for easy baskets down the stretch of a close game – Lillard said it is on the players to deviate from the game plan and call their own double team.

He didn’t say it out of disrespect to coach Terry Stotts or his staff, and he didn’t say it in criticism of the Blazers’ game plan against the Clippers, which didn’t call for double teams.

He said it as a basketball player who knows that the best teams are ones that trust, play freely, and feed off instinct.

“We have to give each other more help,’’ Lillard said. “If a guy (Griffin) that strong and that athletic has 10 dribbles, he is going to score. I think that’s when as players, we have to take control of the situation and come together and say, ‘All right, if he does that again then you go (double) and I will have your back. And then we have to be ready to help.'’’

Griffin in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s game had three post ups in which he methodically backed down his defender and scored easily inside. First, he did it to Evan Turner to tie the game at 91. Three possessions later he backed down Maurice Harkless, hitting a tough hook to increase the Clippers lead to 97-94. And later, he backed down Al-Farouq Aminu and scored off his miss, after which he flexed both arms as the Clippers led 99-96.

It wasn’t until the next possession, when the Blazers sent Harkless to double team Griffin, that the Clippers turned it over.

Lillard said in future scenarios, the Blazers shouldn’t have to wait for double-team instruction from the bench.

“We have to take responsibility – not by going against coaches – but we have to have a feel for what’s going on,’’ Lillard said. “We have to be able to trust each other. We are playing with each other out there.’’

Stotts after the game said he didn’t double team because it would have required leaving either DeAndre Jordan, who is lethal at finishing lob passes, or one of the Clippers’ shooters, such as Danilo Gallinari, or Austin Rivers.

But Lillard said much like the best teams on offense are the ones who can improvise and play off feel, the Blazers on defense  need to be able to adjust on the fly, and that can only come from the players.

“That’s the next step. We have to take responsibility,’’ Lillard said. “We see a guy who is getting backed under the basket … it’s a bucket. So if we go help, and they score, it’s a bucket either way. But you’ve made them work harder for it if we’ve made that decision.’’

This can be filed under the maturation of Lillard, who has taken more pride in his defense this season, and therefore feels more comfortable asserting leadership on that end. To be clear, Lillard was not questioning Stotts’ strategy, but merely saying sometimes as players, they have to make adjustments on the fly.

Like a dummy, I forgot on Friday to ask Stotts how he would feel about Lillard and the Blazers deviating from the game plan at certain times. But knowing Stotts during his six seasons in Portland, he has long been a proponent of giving players freedom. He frequently says the players have the best feel for the game, and he always invites input.

It’s hard to say when the Blazers will next be tested with this kind of scenario, where a forward is too much to handle and requires doubles -- perhaps Carmelo Anthony and the Thunder on Nov. 5. But Lillard cautioned  it takes a connected team and players who trust one another to pull off a spontaneous defensive adjustment.

If they are able to show they can make those adjustments, he says it will only help Stotts continue to give them that freedom.

“Now, when Coach says ‘What was that?’ … and it worked, now it gives him more trust for what’s going on.’’

Today's Blazers' links:

NBC Sports Northwest has you covered for tonight's game versus Phoenix. Here's how to tune in and stay up to date.

The Blazers have video of Rasheed Wallace and Bonzi Wells appearing on TV with Kevin Garnett.

Bright Side of the Sun has a preview for tonight's game against Phoenix.

Mike Richman of The Oregonian talks about the return of beloved Blazers' assistant Jay Triano, who is now Suns head coach.

The Blazers' Casey Holdahl writes about CJ McCollum, who doesn't believe in bad luck.

Trail Blazers' bench becoming one of league's best

Trail Blazers' bench becoming one of league's best

One of the early season storylines during the Trail Blazers’ 3-1 start has been the emergence of a deep and effective bench.

Led by Evan Turner, Ed Davis and Pat Connaughton, the Blazers’ bench has the top offensive rating in the NBA (115.8), the third best net rating, and the third best plus/minus behind Toronto and the LA Clippers.

Never was the bench more on display than during Tuesday’s home opener against New Orleans, when the starters struggled and needed big games from Davis, Turner and rookie Caleb Swanigan to pull out a 103-93 victory.

“Our bench has been huge,’’ starter Maurice Harkless said. “Especially on a night like tonight, when nobody really had it going. Ed, Caleb, and Evan kept us in the game the whole time, whether they were scoring, rebounding, defending. Especially Ed. But this is going to have to be a collective effort. We need everybody.’’

Turner has been the catalyst and could be establishing himself as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate as the league’s top reserve. Through four games Turner is averaging 13.3 points, 4.3 assists and 3.8 rebounds while shooting 46.2 percent from the field and amassing a solid ratio of 17 assists to six turnovers … all while playing solid defense.

“It’s starting with ET; he’s leading the show and playing well,’’ Davis said.

The same, of course, could be said of Davis, who was probably the Most Valuable Player of Tuesday’s win over the Pelicans with his 12 points and 10 rebounds in 21 minutes.

It has been a resurgent return from shoulder surgery for Davis, whose 9.3 rebounds is second behind Miami’s Kelly Olynyk among bench players, and his play is backing up a vow he made to Lillard last spring.

Lillard on Tuesday recalled shaking Davis’ hand after the Blazers were swept by Golden State in the playoffs last spring. Davis, in street clothes and still recovering from March shoulder surgery, assured Lillard the team would be better fortified next season.

“He shook my hand and said ‘You are going to see a different me next year,’’’ Lillard recalled. “It was already in his mind. We already saw in his mind what he was going to do to impact the team this year.’’

Lillard said Davis throughout the summer was a mainstay in the weight room workouts, during which he made sure everyone could see the work he was putting in.

“We started calling him Shirt Off Ed,’’ Lillard said. “He’s in there doing push ups, pull ups and working out hard ... I just saw the commitment, I saw that he was trying to take action.’’

Throw in some solid shooting from Connaughton, who is 9-of-18 on three-pointers, and an effective outing Tuesday by Swanigan (five points, eight rebounds, three assists) and the bench is starting to rival what Lillard thought was the best reserve unit in his six seasons – the 2014-2015 group of Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, Joel Freeland, CJ McCollum and Thomas Robinson.

“There are so many guys we have been able to count on – not just tonight,’’ Lillard said. “Each game we’ve played, from preseason up to now, guys have come in and we’ve been able to have faith that the game is going to be fine. When you are actually doing that in games over a period of time, you see you are a deeper team.’’

And the bench figures to get deeper.

Power forward Noah Vonleh is nearing his return, and could be back as early as next week, further enhancing – or complicating – coach Terry Stotts’ options.

“People other than the coach say it’s a good problem,’’ Stotts said of his depth. “There will be tough decisions to make.’’

But a week into the season, the bench and the depth have been a blessing for the Blazers. In the opener, Connaughton was a spark early and finished with 24 points. In Indiana, Turner exposed Victor Oladipo on the block while scoring 17 and helping create separation. And against Milwaukee, Turner again was effective, dishing out a team-high seven assists.

But never did the bench come through more than Tuesday, and never was it more needed. With Lillard struggling through a 3-for-16 night and McCollum not catching fire until late, scoring 16 of his 23 in the fourth quarter, the Blazers leaned heavily on a 43-30 advantage in bench scoring.

“One of the positives after four games is we’ve had different guys have a game,’’ Stotts said. “If you go through each game, we’ve had different guys  -- whether it’s a starter or bench player -- come in and contribute, and I think that’s a sign of a good team.’’

Today's Blazers' links:

NBC Sports Northwest's Dwight Jaynes writes that juggling a talented roster can be tough.

The Blazers' Casey Holdahl writes about Shirt Off Ed.

KATU has the story of Meyers Leonard offering well-wishes to a hit-and-run victim.

The New Orleans Advocate notes the Blazers' broadcast crew offended some in the Bayou. 

Terry Stotts has his hands full juggling a roster of players who merit court time

Terry Stotts has his hands full juggling a roster of players who merit court time

Interesting opening night for the Portland Trail Blazers Tuesday. It was far from pretty but there are no bad wins -- you take it and move on.

The Blazers are blessed with a lot of talent and it makes for some interesting rotations and substitution patterns for Coach Terry Stotts, particularly on a night when the starters aren't carrying the kind of load they usually handle. In Milwaukee on Saturday, he used only eight players in the first half and then Tuesday vs. New Orleans tried 11 in the first half. And he had a couple of real short bench stays that were interesting, too. Jusuf Nurkic had one 51-second trip to the bench in the third quarter and Evan Turner sat just 1:58 at one point of the fourth quarter.

Stotts has so many players who deserve playing time but then you also want to stay with the ones who are playing well. Then there's the issue of developing players. There is no doubt that Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins need playing time if they're to develop -- but not at the expense of losing a game. Rookies can be a risk in close games -- at least a lot of coaches seem to think so.

Veteran players bring problems of their own. If they don't get the playing time they think they deserve they can often become locker-room problems. It's a difficult situation to navigate for a coach. Frankly, there is nobody on the Portland bench this season just happy to be on a team and drawing a paycheck. In the past, there has been a few of those.

All in all, handing out minutes can be a complicated situation with so many capable players.

Meyers Leonard played Tuesday, which was not surprising given his success defending DeMarcus Cousins in the past. Leonard got only 6:25 but during his time on the court Cousins had a couple of turnovers, missed two shots and appeared to be his usual frustrated self when confronted by Leonard. Meanwhile, Leonard made both his shots from the floor, including a three-pointer, had two rebounds and a steal. But he got no second-half time.

After the game, Stotts praised many members of his bench:

"I thought Ed Davis, and Caleb gave us a nice spark off the bench," he said. "As did Pat."

He was asked how he felt about Leonard's work against Cousins.

"I thought he was OK for the time that he was in there," Stotts said. "Look, Cousins had a great game. He did a lot of good things. He got to the basket, got to the free-throw line, but I thought Ed, Meyers, Nurk, they all had their turn on him and you can't look at 39 (points) and 13 (rebounds) and say anybody did a great job."

I suppose not. But when you give up only three of those 39 points, you can't get a lot of the blame -- particularly when you outscore him while you're on the court. But as I said, there are a lot of players to keep track of off that Portland bench and perhaps Leonard had nothing to do with Cousins' struggles while they were on the court at the same time. Or maybe he just got lost in the shuffle. Eleven Blazers played Tuesday night, including Shabazz Napier, who got just three and a half minutes.

That's a lot to of players to use in a close game.

Bench talent is a blessing, not a curse. At some point of the season, everybody on that bench is going to have a chance to make a significant contribution.

But for right now, juggling all that talent can be a real coaching challenge.

Trail Blazers beat Pacers and the talk once again is defense

Trail Blazers beat Pacers and the talk once again is defense

INDIANAPOLIS – The Trail Blazers rolled past their second straight opponent Friday night, this time a 114-96 dusting of the Indiana Pacers, and once again all anyone wanted to talk about was the Blazers’ improved defense.

Portland is 2-0 in the regular season, and dating back to the preseason has won seven in a row, all of the games examples of a connected, alert and active defense.

“We’re playing defense,’’ Al-Farouq Aminu said when asked what he likes most about the Blazers’ start. “I mean, in the past it hasn’t been one of our strongest suits, and this year, top to bottom, everybody is playing defense.’’

So how can a roster where 12 of the 14 players are the same as last season make what appears to be such a dramatic turnaround?

The answer is layered, but may best be explained with two simple concepts: The Blazers, Aminu says, are talking more on defense; and that communication is happening, CJ McCollum says, because the players are finally seasoned enough to know what to talk about on defense.

“Early on in your career you don’t talk because you don’t know,’’ McCollum said. “What do you say? If you don’t know what is going on, what do you talk about?’’

When teams bring up defensive communication, it could be anything from recognizing and then anticipating another team’s play, to calling out screens, to letting teammates know where they have help.

They are subtle developments that come through film study, game experience and repetition.

McCollum, for example, says as he begins his fifth season, he is talking more than ever.

“A lot more,’’ McCollum said. “My rookie year, I didn’t say anything, I was just trying not to vomit on myself … going down the court just trying to stay in the right spot and try not to mess up.  Think about it, you are young, you don’t know. All I know is: ‘Go score.’ That’s it.’’

The Blazers for the past three seasons have been among the youngest in the NBA. But that youth has experience. Damian Lillard has been a starter going on six seasons. McCollum is going on his third season as a starter. And Aminu and Harkless are beginning their third season where they are paired as interchangeable defensive forwards.

So even though Portland starts this season with the fourth youngest roster in the NBA (24.317 years), it is a roster that has not only played a lot of games, but done it together.

So now, Lillard and McCollum can recognize a team’s play call and can better anticipate where they need to be. And Harkless and Aminu are doing a better job communicating where and when their help is coming from the weakside.

“The big change that I’ve noticed is just how much we are talking,’’ Aminu said. “Guys are saying the coverages … and it becomes contagious.’’

After two games, Blazers' opponents have combined to shoot 37.7 percent from the field.

But that doesn't mean the Blazers’ defense is a finished product, or that there still aren’t lapses.

On Friday in Indiana, on the Pacers’ second offensive play, forward Bojan Bogdanovic went backdoor on Maurice Harkless for a layin. Irritated he wasn’t alerted to a back screen, Harkless motioned with his hands that his teammates needed to talk to him.

Still, coach Terry Stotts was pleased Friday with the overall defensive effort, particularly the team’s transition defense, which has been a point of emphasis.

And while nobody is going to confuse the Blazers’ first two opponents – Phoenix and Indiana – with a playoff-caliber team in the West, they are both teams that last year put up 118 points on the Blazers. That fact wasn't lost on Lillard.

"We came in here ready to guard,'' Lillard said. "We’ve had a lot of fun actually playing defense; we see what it can do for us.''