I say it all the time, there are no bad wins in the NBA. You win and that's all that matters. But it does matter how you're playing, particularly if it appears that things are trending downward.
I watched Portland edge Phoenix Saturday night and kept asking myself, "What's wrong? Something isn't right."
The Trail Blazers are 4-2 but two of those wins are over a Phoenix team that's not ready for the NBA heavyweights. The losses came against the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks, two pretty good teams.
While Portland's improvement on defense is obvious, it has regressed some on offense. Perhaps that's to be expected to an extent because of the amount of practice time that may have been devoted to defense. But the offensive trends are alarming.
The Trail Blazers are shooting appreciably better from 25 feet and beyond than they are from inside five feet from the basket. That's pretty incredible. Portland's 42.9 percent from inside five feet is by far the worst in the league and makes no sense on a team with Jusuf Nurkic at the post and guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, who are proven at-the-basket finishers. In the paint, but outside the restricted area, Portland is shooting an anemic 39.8 percent. What's saving Portland's offense right now is a 43.9 percentage from three-point range and I doubt that's sustainable over a long period of time.
Why is this happening?
I'm not sure but I'm getting the feeling that the Trail Blazers aren't moving the ball on offense the way they have in the past. They aren't as crisp as they've been. And at the same time, I think I'm seeing more one-on-one play than we have in the past. For the most part, that leads to more difficult shots. It seems as if Nurkic is rushing his attempts at the post, hurrying when there's no need for that. As a consequence, he's not finishing well. When Lillard and McCollum go to the basket, it often seems as if the entire defense is collapsing on them to the point that they not only don't have a clear shot, but not a lot of open passing options.
Another cause for the lousy field-goal percentage on shots close to the basket is the almost total absence of fast-break points. The Blazers have never torn up the league with points off the break and I think we've become so accustomed to that we seldom even notice the nights like Saturday vs. the Suns, when Portland manages only two points off the break. But so far this season it's been worse that usual. Last season, for example, Portland averaged 11.3 fast-break points per game. This season, the Blazers are getting only 5.3 per game, which ranks 29th in the league, ahead of only the New York Knicks.
Fast-break baskets are just about the easiest points in the game and if you aren't getting your share, you're cheating yourself. Against teams playing solid halfcourt defense, fast-break buckets are gold -- getting shots before the defense is set. And they're available every game -- you just have to be alert enough to transform turnovers and long rebounds into quick hoops. Portland obviously isn't doing that and it hurts.
But it's early and odds are that this team will get itself straightened out as the season moves forward. Problem is, the schedule is front-loaded to help this team off to a good start and that shouldn't be wasted. And these are trends that should be watched as we move through the season.