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.''