Portland Trail Blazers

Portland Trail Blazers

SACRAMENTO – The Trail Blazers are halfway through their preseason schedule and are nine days away from the season opener at Phoenix.

Here is a primer to catch you up on the top developments and storylines:

An improved defense?

The Blazers will go only as far as their defense takes them this season, and like always, it was a preseason goal to improve.

After three games: So far, so good.

The Clippers – playing without starters Austin Rivers and Danilo Gallinari – shot 40.2 percent and Toronto, which played without DeMar DeRozan, shot 40 percent from the field. And in the first game against Phoenix, the Suns shot 40.7 percent through the first three quarters before recording a 41-point fourth quarter during which they made 15-of-22 shots against the end of the Blazers’ bench.

Now, it’s preseason and there were key offensive players resting and different lineups being used, so you have to take the statistics with a grain of salt. But there were a couple of developments that coach Terry Stotts liked.

Against Toronto, there were moments when Stotts deviated from his conservative approach by having the big “show”  (make an effort to impede the ball handler) on pick-and-roll, while also showing traps on All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry. It flustered Lowry into five turnovers, and the Raptors overall into 20.

Then on Sunday at the Clippers, Stotts called a first-quarter timeout with the Blazers trailing 15-3. If the Clippers weren’t lobbing for dunks, they were hitting wide-open threes as the Blazers scrambled to close out. He pointed out to the team that the bigs were playing too high, allowing DeAndre Jordan to run behind for lobs, and the weakside wasn’t tight enough to contest kickout passes to the three-point line.

 

After the timeout, the Clippers still got two more lob dunks by Willie Reed, but overall the wide open three’s became contested and the interior was better protected.

“The weakside defense got over a lot better,’’ Maurice Harkless said. “We made an adjustment and pretty much cut (the lobs and dunks) out for the rest of the game.’’

Stotts described the Blazers’ preseason defense as “solid.”

“The first game, our transition defense was poor, but we have gotten better at that,’’ Stotts said. “We’ve improved each game … on the whole it has been pretty solid.’’

ET at ease

Evan Turner looks much more comfortable and dangerous offensively this season, which was probably best on display Sunday against the Clippers when he had eight assists.

Turner spent much of last season playing in fits and starts, and it just looked like everything was a struggle as he tried to understand the offense and his new teammates. This season, he looks like he is just playing, and that freedom is revealing his vision and smarts.

Through the first three games, Stotts has been able to get Turner into lineups that expose the defense by forcing them to place a smaller guard on Turner. That allows Turner – at 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds – to post up and go to work, either shooting over the guard or forcing teams to double him, where he then finds an open teammate.

Against Phoenix, he bullied and scored on Eric Bledsoe inside, then against Toronto he shot over Kyle Lowry. On Sunday at the Clippers, whenever he backed down Lou Williams or guard Juwan Evans, Turner surveyed the court and found the right man. Twice he found Ed Davis for dunks, and he located Harkless on the perimeter for a three-pointer while also passing out to Jusuf Nurkic for open mid-range jumpers.

“Evan sees the floor tremendously well, always,’’ Harkless said. “And being able to get him in the post, especially against smaller guys, they have to double team and that opens up everything else. He’s constantly looking for people. His IQ is really high.’’

Turner shrugs off the notion that he is more comfortable, I think mostly because he doesn’t like the idea that he was uncomfortable last season.

“I think my comfort level comes from calling plays, seeing things,’’ Turner said. “It’s just natural reads, natural basketball. It’s the way I grew up playing the game.’’

If Turner can’t see a change in his comfort level, his teammates do. His shot selection, his patience in finding the open man, his aggressive ball-handling … it all adds up to a valuable asset.

“It’s really important, really important because it shows his comfort level,’’ Lillard said. “He was patient as guys cut on weakside … he made them pay for it. It’s another option for us when things aren’t going well.”

 

Lillard on alert

Nobody on the Blazers sets a tone like Lillard, and it has been clear this preseason that the team captain is not going to be tolerating another slow start this season.

Lillard has been aggressive on both sides of the ball, and was scorching on Sunday on his way to 35 points in 26 minutes.

“Honestly man, I didn’t know how bad it was until the end of the third quarter and I looked up and I was like, 35?’’ Harkless said. “That shows you how easy it comes for him.’’

 Tonight, the Blazers play in Sacramento on the back end of a back-to-back and Stotts said he plans to play Lillard and McCollum upwards of 30 minutes. McCollum said he is welcoming a format where he plays longer minutes with more set lineups.

“I think (Monday) we will treat it more like a regular season game,’’ McCollum said.

Today's Blazers links:

I wrote about Lillard wanting to set the proper tone in preseason.

Ian Karmel stopped by for some hijinks after the Clippers game.

I talked about Caleb Swanigan and answered questions in this podcast.

Casey Holdahl of the Blazers recaps Sunday's game.