Portland Trail Blazers

Portland Trail Blazers

No development and no story inside the Trail Blazers this season is as big as this: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have become better defenders.

One of the most talented offensive backcourts in the NBA, Lillard and McCollum have long carried with them the reputation of being poor defenders – some of it earned, and some of it a stigma that  has remained from early in their careers.

But a funny thing happened over the summer. Sick of hearing the criticism, and realizing that defense equates to winning in the playoffs, the duo teamed up and spent at least 30 minutes of offseason workout going over defensive drills. In addition, they boned up on their film study, and began memorizing opponents plays in order to better anticipate where they should be.

The results have been emphatic.

The Blazers, who spent much of last season ranked last in the NBA in defensive rating, have the fifth best defensive rating after four games, which comes after a preseason where they held all six opponents to less than 41 percent shooting.

And at the forefront of the defense have been the two guards, in particular Lillard, whose activity and focus is reflected in his leading the team in deflections. Lillard also leads the team in steals (seven) and is tied for second in blocks (four).

 “What they are doing now is just unbelievable. Especially Dame,’’ veteran center Ed Davis said. “He’s leading the offense and he’s coming down and getting stops. He’s playing the passing lanes. Taking charges. Diving on the floor for loose balls. And that’s your franchise. Usually you don’t want your franchise doing the dirty work, but he is setting the tone. Like, if he does it, who am I not to take a charge? Who am I not to dive on the floor? It just rubs off on everyone.’’

 

Lillard said much went into the commitment to defense, but probably the biggest reason was to be there for his teammates. He said the team had always been able to count on him to make a big shot or create a big play, or make the big speech.

“On the defensive end,’’ Lillard said, “they haven’t been able to look to me as that guy. I just felt like it was time I stepped it up on that end of the court and took the challenge of being a good defensive player.’’

McCollum said he is probably playing the best of his five-year career.

“Now that I’m known as a poor defender, people are probably watching me, and paying more attention and going, ‘Oh, he’s not a terrible defender.’’’

Last season, the Blazers were often torched by opponents’ backcourts, and while defense is a team game, and Lillard and McCollum aren’t always matched against the opponents’ top guards, defense often starts with the guards keeping the ball in front of them.

This season, the Blazers have largely held every backcourt in check, as the main guards have combined to shoot 38.7 percent (41-of-106). Noted offensive guards have struggled, like Eric Bledsoe (5-of-18), Jrue Holiday (5-of-14), Victor Oladipo (5-of-17) and Malcolm Brogdon (5-of-14).

 “It’s a noticeable difference,’’ coach Terry Stotts said of the tandem’s defense.

**

In years past, when McCollum and Lillard heard the defensive criticisms of their game, they spent much of their time trying to rationalize.

It’s hard, they would say, to be an elite scorer and defend. It’s difficult, they would say, to fight through the screens and chase scorers, when they were expected to produce so much on the offensive end.

But this year, their tone has changed. Instead of trying to justify their defense, they have prioritized it.

“I get tired of hearing about, ‘Well he does this, and this, and that … but he doesn’t play defense,’’’ Lillard said. “It matters. So that’s what it is.’’

Added McCollum: “I read (the criticism), so I’m aware of it … obviously, we had to get better at it, but it’s a process. We put a lot of time into it this summer, and people don’t see all the film and defensive workouts. It takes time for that to transfer over to game action.’’

The summer workouts would include drills on closing out on shooters, chasing ball handlers around screens, and guarding pick and rolls.

By the time they arrived at training camp, Lillard said he was intent on transferring his summer work to the court.

 

“I came to camp and my mind was made up I was going to be more physical, more active, more vocal, and take more pride in it,’’ Lillard said. “I think everybody else came with that same attitude. We pretty much agreed that if we were a better defensive team we could have a special year.’’

**

Through the first week of the season, the Blazers are showing signs it could indeed be a special year, in large part because of the defense.

Lillard and McCollum both say that their own defensive improvement is being aided by two key facets: Center Jusuf Nurkic, who played 20 games down the stretch after being acquired in February last season, is here for the entire season; and Evan Turner is playing more comfortably and effectively as a primary playmaker.

Both Nurkic and Turner, the guards say, are taking pressure off them offensively, allowing them to exert more energy on defense.

“It helps when you have a guy you can throw the ball to in the post,’’ McCollum said. “It gives you a break offensively. Plus I think we just have a better understanding of the game, a better understanding what it will take for us to be successful as a team.’’

As this early season has evolved much has changed from last season. Davis has returned from shoulder surgery and resumed his game-changing play from 2015-2016, Pat Connaughton has been a reliable shooter, and Turner looks like a candidate for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award.

The two stars have taken note.

“Me and CJ both talked about it – just how good it felt in camp, how good it felt in preseason. We both talked about a great opportunity for to us to be better defensively because we don’t have as much weight on our shoulders and we don’t have to use as much energy on the offensive end. It’s definitely is good for our team.’’