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Get To Know A Playoff Team: The Portland Trail Blazers

Oklahoma City Thunder v Portland Trail Blazers

Current Record: 49-33

Current Seed: 3

Starting five: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner, Jusuf Nurkic

I would best describe the Portland Trail Blazers 2017-18 season as a breakout year. This was a team that was projected to finish 10th in the West and only win around 43 games. The fact that they won 49 and snagged the 3 seed in the insanely competitive Western Conference is already an accomplishment. Guys like Damian Lillard had what I would call a breakout year, elevating his game to what should be at worst a 2nd Team All NBA level. This year they became one of the best home arenas in the league at 28-13, but their real improvement from the year before came on the road. In 2016-17 the Blazers were just 16-25 away from home. That number bumped up to 21-20 this year, and while that may not seem like much, it really was the difference between them being the 8 seed and the 3.

The job Terry Stotts did this year is certainly worthy of praise, and perhaps his biggest improvement has been his ability to get his guys to actually play defense. Among all the playoff teams in the West, POR ranks 3rd in opponents points per game at 103, trailing only the Spurs and Jazz. On the season they had the 8th best Drtg in the entire league, which is a GIANT jump from their 21st ranking last year, with basically the same roster. If you are looking for a reason to believe in this POR team, for me this is the starting point. Now that they have become an above average defensive team, especially at the guard position, teams have much more to worry about than just stopping Dame/CJ. Since the All Star Break, the Blazers are holding opponents to 44.4%, which is the 4th best mark in the league over this timeframe. They are able to do this because they are among the best teams at contesting shots, both from the field and from behind the arc. That activity is contagious, and really you have to look at the individual improvement of Lillard on the defensive end as a guy that set the tone for the entire year.

For much of his career, Lillard was never really talked about as a plus defender. He posted the worst Drtg of his career last year (113), and was one of those guards who would drop 30, but then also give up 30. It clearly wasn’t working. This season Lillard is holding opponents to 44/35% splits, and has the best opponent defensive +/- on the team at -6.5. This is a GIANT leap from his +/- last year which was just -1.4. What I like about Dame is that he never denied his shortcomings on that end and has taken the personal responsibility be better on that end. To go along with their improved perimeter defense, the Blazers also do a great job of limiting what you do in the paint. They give up just 42.1 points in the paint which is tied for the 3rd fewest in the league, and a big reason for that is how strong of a season Jusuf Nurkic has had. Not only did he repeat his solid offense this year, but defensively he took took a leap compared to how he played last year. His Drtg is down to 101 on the year and as long as he manages to stay out of foul trouble he has shown to really make a difference on that end. Going up against a NO team in the first round, this is important.

But make no mistake, this team’s bread and butter is still putting the ball in Lillard/CJ’s hands and watch them go to work offensively

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To do this, the Blazers are going to P&R you to death. This is something they run 21.6% of the time, only UTA does it more at 21.9%, and you bet your ass they are good at it, scoring 0.95 points per P&R possession, which is only behind GS who is at 0.96.  They have the 3rd best scoring frequency in the league with this type of offense which is important because their 1,919 P&R possessions were 2nd in the league. I would argue this is the main focus of their offense.

But the Blazers also love to get you into isolation, something they run 8.6% of their possessions scoring 0.91 points per isolation. They rank in the 75th percentile in this type of offense, but when one of their two main guys has it going, it’s virtually impossible to stop them. Lillard is one of the best one-on-one players in the league, and people sleep a little bit on CJ’s handles too. I wouldn’t want to be on an island against either of those guys.

If it’s not isolation or P&R, look for a lot of handoffs from POR. They score the 3rd most points per handoff possession and rank in the 93rd percentile with this type of play.

The key for POR will be if they can get production from their bench. With Moe Harkless currently injured, this moves Evan Turner into the starting lineup and a bench unit that already struggles to score (28th in bench points), will have to find it from somewhere. Shabazz Napier had a really good year filling in for Dame at times this year, but I think it’s unfair to expect him to blow up in a playoff series. If there’s one achilles heal to this team, it’s that once Dame/CJ go out, things sort of go to shit. With Dame off the court their Ortg drops from 108 to 101. The big this is really Lillard, because when you look at how a Aminu/CJ/Napier/Nukic/Turner lineup performed offensively, they had a -7.6 point differential. I think Terry Stotts knows that in the playoffs he can’t have too many instances where both CJ and Dame are off the floor at the same time, there simply isn’t enough scoring in those lineups to compete with NO, and really Lillard might have to play almost 40+ minutes a night just to keep the ship right.

All year it felt like people were hesitant to believe in this Portland team, and I can understand why. But their body of work has been impressive, and their defense proved to not just be a random flash in the pan. This team defends at a high level and has two guys who can absolutely take over a game offensively. Now that they have figured out their road issues and are still tough to beat at home, Blazers fans have ever right to consider this team legit and one that could very well make a WCF if things break right for them.

We love to talk about it being Dame Time, well let’s see it.