In case you haven’t noticed, there’s been a big change in the way the Trail Blazers have been playing recently. And this isn’t about their defense.
In Portland’s Game 1 win over the Denver Nuggets Saturday night, the Trail Blazers had 29 assists and 79 points created by assists.
This for a team that averaged a league-low 21.3 assists per game in the regular season.
In fact, Portland has historically been among the lowest-assisting teams in the NBA over the last several seasons. And one of the teams averaging the fewest number of passes per game.
But there is ball movement and more passing now. And it paid off Sunday night with more open shots, more players being involved in the offense and a successful result.
What’s going on here?
“I think that team -- Terry Stotts and their players -- understood that they needed to really finish the season up on a positive note,” Denver Coach Michael Malone said Sunday, “to put themselves in position to be a playoff team and stay out of the play-in.
“I thought their defense really improved, their paint defense really improved and offensively, the ball movement, the assists. Maybe a little bit a little bit less ‘iso’ (isolation, or one-on-one) basketball.
"They have a lot of talented players.
“Damian Lillard last night, I thought he did a great job of scoring, but also being a facilitator -- 13 assists and only two turnovers. We were very aggressive with him at times.
“And that's what great players do if you're going to put two on the ball, they're going to get rid of the ball and make plays for their teammates.
“Obviously, I think he kind of sets the tone for that team. So yeah, that's why they’re a No. 2 offense. So many weapons, guys can get it on their own, but you also have guys buying into making plays for their teammates, which really makes them even that much harder to defend, because it's not just one-on-one basketball. It’s team basketball.”
Stotts said there was an attempt during the second half of the season to move the ball more.
“I think the turning point was our home game against Boston (a one-point loss, April 13) where we really emphasized passing,” Stotts said. “I think since then, our passes per game are up probably 10 to 15 percent.
“You know, I will say this, I do know that in this league, when teams switch, there are isos. But I think we've been a predominantly pick-and-roll team more so than an iso team. But we did make it more of a point of emphasis.
“And even though we lost the Boston game, we were really encouraged with the way we moved the ball. I think ever since then it's been good.”
It was good enough Saturday night and Lillard is all for it.
“It's leading to higher-quality shots,” he said. “And you know, when you play that way, it's contagious, and I think that's what we had going for us tonight. And more guys touching the ball and being involved -- when you have that, guys give more, you know when they feel involved… I think that's been really beneficial for us, the way we've been moving the ball and doing things together and trusting each other, making that extra pass.
“So, we just have to continue that. We've got to understand where our success is coming from and continue to lean on it.”
Game 2 is Monday night in Denver.