The Portland Trail Blazers practice Tuesday at their facility in Tualatin in preparation for Wednesday night’s game against the Suns at the Moda Center (tipoff at 7 PM on CSNNW and 620 AM). The Trail Blazers were beaten soundly by the Suns in Phoenix in the season opener, so expect no lack of focus from either team when they meet tomorrow.
Some notes from today’s practice …
· Terry Stotts described the first game against the Suns as a ” setback” immediately following the loss. Portland finished the preseason schedule, statistically, as the best defensive team in the league, so allowing the Suns to shoot 52 percent from the field while scoring 31 fast-break points and 52 points in the paint in the opener served as a reminder that, while improvements had been made during training camp and preseason, there was more work to be done.
“I’ll say that we rebounded well from it,” said Stotts. “Going to Denver after that game we shored up some things that were made pretty evident when we played Phoenix.”
While some issues, particularly allowing points in the paint, continue to be a work in progress, the growth the Trail Blazers have undergone since that first game in Phoenix has been evident, which makes Wednesday night’s contest a potential marker for how far Portland has come the last two weeks.
Then again, there’s an assumption that losing to a team like the Suns has more to do with what you’ve done wrong than what they’ve done right. Phoenix’s victories haven’t been against top competition, but for a team many assumed would be the worst in the league, credit has to be given to the players and coaching staff.
“For a young team, they really established an identity early,” said Stotts. “They know how they need to play, they have a style that they’ve really bought into. I think what’s probably surprising is they’re one of the top defensive teams as well. They’re young, they play with energy, they share the ball. The way they played against us isn’t a fluke. They’ve continued that and they’re playing very well.”
· By trading one of their best players, center Marcin Gortat, to the Wizards for an injured Emeka Okafor and a protected first-round pick in the 2014 Draft just days before the start of the regular season, the Suns front office made their intention of putting more emphasis on the future of the team than the present clear. But that doesn’t mean the players were ever going to roll over. In fact, you could argue the opposite has been true.
“They’re competitors just like we are,” said Damian Lillard. “In this league, anybody can win and lose on any given night. And it’s still early, but right now they’re playing really well. I’m not surprised by it because I’ve never been one to underestimate a team, especially one with the type of talent that they have.”
While some might have accused the Suns of “tanking” going into the 2013-14 regular season, Stotts said the circumstances in Phoenix are not so dissimilar than the plan the Trail Blazers entered last season with, which could be more accurately described as trying to develop talent and establish a system rather than necessarily trying to lose.
“We were in the situation last year where we had a lot of young guys and for five months we played at a higher level than a lot of people expected,” said Stotts. “But expectations were low and in some ways that allows a certain amount of freedom to play a style. Confidence is a big part of his league and when you’re playing with a confidence where you can play through mistakes and expectations aren’t as high, it in some ways makes it easier.”
· The Suns’ guard duo of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic did the bulk of the damage in Portland’s opening night loss, combining for 48 points on 19 of 33 shooting to go along with 15 assists and just seven turnovers. So it’s no surprise that the Trail Blazers stressed the need play the pick and roll better this time around.
“Probably just get up into them more on pick and rolls so they can’t come off as clean and be isolated with the big man,” said Lillard when asked what he needed to do differently defensively. “For a big to be one-on-one with a guard that can pullup and make those mid-range jumpers and get to the rim and finish, it’s tough for them, especially backpedaling. So as the guards we’ve got to do a better job of getting into they body and not letting them come off clean and just do whatever they want to the bigs.”
And while Stotts, as he has done all year, has stressed the need for the Trail Blazers to force opponents to adapt to their style of play rather than the other way around, he did concede that there might be some opportunity to juggle his rotation, particularly at the center position, to counter Phoenix’s lineups featuring three-point shooting bigs like Channing Frye and Markeiff Morris, who recently won Western Conference Player of the Week honors.
“I think we have to play our style,” said Stotts. “There may come a time in the game that you change the rotation or you look at matchups a little bit but I think it’s important that we establish ourselves and play the way we’re capable of playing.”
There’s no better time to ponder the future of an NBA team than the period of the offseason before the draft and free agency. There are nothing but possibilities. Every free agent is a potential target who could change the direction of a franchise, every draft pick a presumptive superstar in the making who could eventually lead your team to glory.
Of course, the Trail Blazers don’t have a draft pick this year and attracting big-name free agents to Portland has always been a challenge, but when you’re the third-youngest team in the NBA, the future isn’t primarily defined by potential additions. And that’s especially true for a team coming off a 44-win season and their second playoff series victory in the last 16 years. While signing a all-star caliber free agent or obtaining a pick in the 2016 Draft would certainly help going forward, Portland’s fortunes are dependent on variables such as Allen Crabbe stepping into a bigger role, Al-Farouq Aminu building on a career season, CJ McCollum making the jump from very good to great and Damian Lillard becoming to bona fide Top 10 player in the league.
So while it never hurts to be optimistic about the opportunity for adding new talent, the Trail Blazers already have a strong footing going forward after rebuilding their roster just under a year ago during the 2015 offseason. That’s probably the main reason Portland jumped 10 spots to No. 8 in ESPN’s most recent Future Power Rankings. Here’s what ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton had to say about the ranking…
While we were relatively optimistic about the Trail Blazers in September, they’ve still tied for the largest jump since then. Portland moved back into the top 10 after not only defying expectations by making the playoffs but winning a series (albeit aided by the Clippers’ injuries) and competing with the Warriors in the second round.
Now, the Blazers have the opportunity to clear max space while retaining their young core, led by the dynamic backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. That’s possible because GM Neil Olshey locked up young free agents Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis to contracts that look like enormous bargains.
To threaten the West’s upper crust, Portland still must hold off younger teams rising out of the lottery. But a strong management team of Olshey and newly extended coach of the year runner-up Terry Stotts gives reason to believe in the Blazers.
Portland’s best rankings come in management (5th) and players (9th) while their worst score comes in money (19th), which is somewhat ironic considering one of the wealthiest people in the world owns the team, though this ranking is surely more reflective of their salary cap situation than an unwillingness to spend.
The Northwest Division does well in the future rankings, with the Utah Jazz just ahead of the Trail Blazers at No. 7 and the Minnesota Timberwolves just behind at No. 9.
With Portland’s playoff run now over, Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard now has some free time on his hands to pursue his off-court interests. He’s already hit up Oak’s Park for some late-night rollerskating, attended a Portland Thorns game at Providence Park and welcomed his old buddy Tim Frazier back to town. And today, we know he’s back in the studio making music.
In a re-launch of the “Music Monday” feature that he started last offseason on his Soundcloud page, Lillard, or to be most specific, “Dame DOLLA,” has posted a new track entitled “Talk To Em” featuring V.I.P and Bozzle (who I think are Lillard’s cousins)…
One of Dame’s verses…
They glorifying goofballs, I’m salty as Utah
When you real they uncomfortable, plotting for you to fall
Man I’m changing up the game, forget about the politics
I stick my neck out for my loved ones, I’m like an ostrich
A lot of love around me you haters keep doing opposite
I’m really incompetent to taking many compliments
That sounds about right. Previous “Music Monday” releases from last year include “Soldier In The Game,” “Full Stomach,” “Why?” “Free Bands” and “The Villains.” Then there’s non-Music Monday releases such as “I Wish I Could Tell You,” “Heatwave,” and “They Sleep,” which, like “Talk To Em” was produced by Jahlil Beats, who also produced, among other things, the Rick Ross/Meek Mill hit “Ima Boss” and that Bobby Shmurda song whose name I can’t put on this blog. And of course, there’s “Bigger Than Us,” the video for which currently has roughly 750,000 views on YouTube.
A happy Friday the 13th to all of you loyal podcast listeners. Before everyone goes their separate ways now that the offseason is here, Joe Freeman, he of The Oregonian/OregonLive.com, and I, Casey Holdahl of ForwardCenter.net and TrailBlazers.com, hit the Moda Center studio one last time to record a season-ending edition of the Rip City Report podcast, which you can listen to below…
On this edition, we attempt recap the series versus the Warriors, which ended in five games with a 125-121 loss at Oracle Arena Wednesday night, and the season in general, discuss the lasting effects of the playoff run and the respect that they earned from around the league due to their performance and look forward to some of the questions the Blazers will have to answer in the offseason, particularly in regard to free agency. And as always, we finish up by answering your Twitter-submitted questions on topics such as the culture the Trail Blazers have developed, (more) free agency, exit interviews and favorite moments from the just-completed season. It’s been a fun one.