The Trail Blazers had a little five-day break last week, due to COVID-19 protocols with the Memphis Grizzlies, and used that time for rest and practice.
And during the rare practice time in a season of a lot of games jammed into a short amount of time, the Blazers installed a couple of new wrinkles -- two zone defenses that had the New York Knicks bewildered Sunday night in Moda Center.
For two quarters,
Portland jumped to leads as high as 25 points and were cruising 70-50 at halftime.
But it appeared the Knicks figured some things out during intermission and New York bounced back to outscore Portland 63-46 in the second half.
But the Trail Blazers still managed to hang on for a 116-113 win.
In the second half, the Knicks looked more like the team with a five-day break and the Blazers appeared to be the team on a long cross-country trip.
Damian Lillard, as he so often does, carried the home team in this one. He hit all 11 of his free throws and 6 of 10 from three-point range en route to 39 points.
Portland was on fire in the first half, hitting 58.1 percent of its shots from the floor and 57.1 percent of its threes.
But as the Knicks got better at attacking the Blazer defense in the second half, they also started getting defensive stops.
But they didn’t have it down the stretch.
New York made only 7 of its 14 shots in the paint in the final quarter. Combine that with a stubborn refusal to shoot threes late in the game, when it would have helped them close the gap, and Portland was able to pull the game out.
Coach Terry Stotts has flirted with zone defenses at times for the last year or two but never seemed to go all-in on them until this game.
“Actually it was two different zones,” Stotts said. “It was just a 2-3 and then a 3-2. That's what we've worked on, when we had extra days. We put this in and it kind of caught them off guard a little bit in the first half. And I thought they attacked better in the second half.”
They did. Still, anything new being attempted at the defensive end should be hailed as progress. Defense, as you may have heard by now, is a priority this season.
But what happened in the second half would lead to the question of how well that defense will travel. After opposing teams see it on video, will it be a simple thing to prepare for, or will it continue to cause problems for other teams?
At its worst, it is one more thing that the opposition needs to prepare for when facing the Trail Blazers, who haven’t been known for adding a lot of new defensive tactics.
And the zones also seemed to initiate more effective communications among the Portland defenders. Will that have staying power?
It will be interesting to find out.