Watching the Trail Blazers Thursday night – and the whole season, for that matter – leads me to an inescapable conclusion:
This team appears to need more practice. A lot more. And it isn’t going to get it with the schedule it faces in the second half of the season.
The major problems are easy to spot.
For years now, many Portland opponents have had success blitzing Damian Lillard in the pick and roll or just plain double-teaming him in the halfcourt. And now the tactic has reached epidemic proportions. It’s happening virtually every game, at least by the good teams.
And after all this time, I don’t understand why the Trail Blazers don’t handle it better.
They seem perplexed by it very often and when defenses take the ball out of Lillard’s hands, Portland frequently doesn’t get quality shots. Or even any shots, as they fritter away opportunities to get chances in the basket area.
There is too little action off the ball and too much one-on-one play by players who aren’t able to create much for themselves or others.
Seriously, this team isn’t going anywhere if it can’t figure out how to get the double-teams off Lillard and make their opponents pay for double-teaming. And they are going to wear out their best player against all that defensive pressure.
Understand, this is not the Rubic’s Cube of basketball.
Terry Stotts continues to put his best player in pick-and-rolls because “it’s what we do” and because he believes it’s a benefit when teams commit two players to the ball, leaving his team the opportunity to play four against three.
And it is an advantage – for most teams.
The obvious problem with that is Stotts’ team doesn’t do real well playing four on three. That situation is bound to improve when Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum return to the lineup, because they have been the usual safety valves as playmakers.
But it won’t be the panacea. More ball and player movement is needed, no matter who is playing. And the defense, quite obviously, needs to figure out how to do a better job denying penetration while contesting more of those wide-open threes it is allowing.
Portland’s bench is also having serious problems with pick-and-rolls -- at both ends of the court.
On offense, when teams switch the pick and roll, the Trail Blazers reserves don’t have enough movement off the ball to create shots for each other and too many possessions are ending with Rodney Hood, Carmelo Anthony or Anfernee Simons simply trying to beat their defender one-on-one. All would benefit much more if they could be finishers, rather than creators.
And one of the best shooters off the bench, Nassir Little, isn’t yet a forceful isolation player and isn’t getting enough shots because his team doesn’t run enough quality halfcourt offense to find him.
The bench crew suffers on defense in the pick and roll because it is constantly switching screens, allowing the offense to single out mismatches or weak defenders to go against.
The Suns were able to pick their matchups Thursday and when they got what they wanted, feasted on it.
When you create opponent mismatches by switching, which this team has long done, you allow offenses to dictate to your defense – which is a hazardous way to try to defend.
Their best offensive player vs. your worst defender is just not going to turn out well very often.
I’m sure you may be wondering why I’m bringing up this team’s offense when it ranks sixth in the NBA. Well, because No. 6 isn’t going to be good enough if the defense continues to sit where it is now and has just about all season – No. 28 among 30 teams. And we're grading on a curve here. This is a team with championship aspirations in a no-excuse season. For great things to happen, great improvement must happen.
And that improvement will have to happen on the fly, without a lot of practice time.
How good does an offense have to be to overcome a defense that bad? Probably legendarily good.
Portland did a fine job of keeping its head above water in the first half, in part because of a favorable schedule. But the schedule gets much tougher in the second half.
Portland will be matching up with the likes of the Suns on a lot of nights – and these are squads the Blazers are supposed to beat if they want to be playoff contenders.
Yes, Nurkic and McCollum will be coming to the rescue soon. But it’s going to take more disciplined and intelligent play at both ends of the court for it to make a big difference.