Blazers

Portland’s Defensive Problems Easily Exposed

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Let’s make one thing absolutely clear– in this age of basketball, defense is no longer the priority.

The era of tough, physical play inside the key is a product of bygone days. Nowadays, coaches and teams prefer to gain as many offensive possessions as possible in a game, pushing the pace more and more seemingly every year. Several teams are playing smaller lineups, opting for speed over size, which, in turn, negatively impacts defense.

That being said, just because the defense isn’t prioritized doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be emphasized. Portland has placed little-to-no emphasis on the floor’s defensive side since the season’s start.

The numbers speak for themselves. This season, Portland ranks 29th in defensive rating at a putrid 114, leading only the Sacramento Kings (116)– both of which would set new NBA records.

Much of this can be chalked up to injury issues that have plagued Portland’s largest athletes. The three tallest players on the roster (Harry Giles, Zach Collins, Jusuf Nurkic), have missed the majority/the entire season, all of whom would be in Portland’s rotation.

The answer at the center position falls to Enes Kanter. As efficient of an offensive scorer and rebounder as he is, Kanter is notorious for his lack of defensive effort regarding closeouts and physicality around the rim. Nurkic returned to the lineup following his injury stint, ameliorating the rim-protection issues plaguing the team.

This doesn’t change the consistent lack of perimeter defense, however.

Through 58 games, the Blazers are 32-26, notching a few more wins above their expected total amount to this point. This is in large part due to Damian Lillard‘s MVP-caliber season as one of if not the most prolific offensive players in the game.

The wins are nice, but it’s the loss column that tells the story. When Portland loses, they often lose BAD.

In fact, the Trail Blazers lose by an average of just under 14 points per game, one of the largest marks in the league. The formula for opposing teams is simple. Whether by luck or skill, defenses can prioritize shutting down Portland’s offense, and the rest comes easy.

Concerns will certainly start to arise come playoff time. Portland is just 10-18 against teams that are currently placed in the top eight of their respective conferences.

The past two nights have been heartbreakers for Portland, as they lost by one to both the Clippers and Nuggets. Both games made it seem as though Portland might have shaken their “lose-to-top-competition” bug. The Blazers put up an excellent effort against Los Angeles without two of their starting pieces in Lillard and Nurkic.

The game came down to a final shot by C.J. McCollum, whose 15-foor fader hit back iron.

Though Nurkic and Lillard returned to play the Nuggets, the Blazers couldn’t capitalize on Denver’s slumps. Robert Covington forced a last-minute turnover off a jump-ball, and passed it ahead to Norman Powell who hit rim on a baseline floater right at the basket with two seconds left in regulation.

Defensively, the Blazers showed a certain degree of competence in both matches. At the point of attack, guys were able to stay in front of their man and play physically. Unfortunately, the root of their defensive issues were highlighted in the form of matchups and switches.

During Tuesday’s game against the Clippers, Terry Stotts had guys like Carmelo Anthony and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson on DeMarcus Cousins, or McCollum on Paul George, and Anthony on Ivica Zubac. These matchups occurred prior to any switching off screens as time and time again, the Clippers went straight into isolation ball, aware of the massive advantage they had against Portland’s undersized lineup.

Hollis-Jefferson, who’d just been signed to a 10-day contract, showed some defensive prowess against the Clippers with a couple blocks including a great block on Marcus Morris. Confoundingly, Stotts didn’t play Hollis-Jefferson the day after against the Nuggets, though he provides excellent defensive relief when Covington sits. Perhaps Stotts made the decision upon the return of his starters.

Though Portland floored a healthy lineup Wednesday night, Denver’s screen-and-stretch ability killed an already-poor rotational game for Portland. Nikola Jokic repeatedly set screens on the top of the key leaving undersized defenders scrambling to contest jumpers from Facundo  Campazzo, Michael Porter Jr., and Jokic himself who hits threes at a 42% clip.

Whether a matchup issue or not, more and more teams have adopted this style of play, meaning continued woes against good shooting teams. Portland’s ceiling remains high, but their floor remains low, too.

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About Owen Skornik-Hayes

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