Chicago Bulls vs. Portland Trail Blazers 11/21/14: Video Highlights and Recap

The red-hot Portland Trail Blazers looked to continue their recent run of success on Friday night when they took on the Chicago Bulls. The Blazers’ explosive offense and lockdown defense had carried them to five straight wins, but they faced a tough test from a dangerous Bulls squad, which had lost two of its last three. 

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How Can Terry Stotts Make Best Use of Portland Trail Blazers’ Bench?

During Terry Stotts‘ first two seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, there was a common theme that was recognized across the NBA

Rip City’s bench simply couldn’t hang.

Because of the obvious struggles, the reserves were hidden on the bench in fear by the coaching staff. However, in Year 3 under Stotts, Portland’s second unit has seen enough improvement to warrant newfound faith from the man controlling the rotation.

Following a recent 97-87 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Nov. 15, Stotts said, “It was definitely a team win because we needed everybody’s contributions,” via The Oregonian‘s Mike Richman

The head coach was right. Portland’s second unit (and a starting Meyers Leonard, as well as a starting Allen Crabbe) stepped up with LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum sidelined.

Damian Lillard put together a very Lillard-like performance (28 PTS, 10 AST, 5 REB), but Wesley Matthews struggled, going just 3-of-13 from the floor. 

“It just goes to show you that the young guys are getting better,” Stotts said after Portland’s bench outscored Brooklyn’s 31-16.

At this point in the process, Stotts must take this confidence one step further by digging Portland out of the basement in terms of minutes played by a second unit. The team is currently 24th in that category, according to HoopsStats.com, but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to support an expanded rotation.

Against the Dallas Mavericks on Nov. 6, the Blazers bench outscored the Dallas bench 52-35 in the fifth game of the season. It shot 57 percent and hit seven three-pointers en route to a 108-87 victory.

Then there was the Nov. 11 comeback against the Charlotte Hornets. Steve Blake and Joel Freeland made big plays on both ends down the stretch, helping Portland to a 102-100 win after a 23-point deficit.

And don’t forget the 53 points the second unit dropped on the Denver Nuggets during the Nov. 12 130-113 win.

“When everybody’s shooting decent percentages and making shots, we have just as much firepower or more than any team in the NBA,” Chris Kaman said following the win over Denver, via The Oregonian‘s Joe Freeman. “I don’t think there’s anybody that has more than we do.”

Consider Kaman’s comments to be the ego-boosted result of a blowout victory. Portland’s positive morale off the bench is good to see, but it comes primarily from not being dead last in most major categories.

Then again, we’re certainly seeing individual players step up during the early part of 2014-15. For instance, Blake has been the pass-first floor general Mo Williams never was. He’s also played a crucial role late in games with his three-point shooting and gritty defense.

Then there’s Kaman. He’s a reliable defender and can score in a multitude of ways. His personal efficiency rating (PER) of 21.3 is also third-highest on the team behind Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, according to ESPN.com.

Unfortunately, the Blazers are now dealing with an injury to C.J. McCollum. According to the Trail Blazers PR Twitter account, the sophomore has fractured his right index finger and will be out for at least four weeks.

Luckily for Portland, injuries have already proven to be less debilitating this season than in years past. Batum and Aldridge have missed time, and the team has instilled a “next man up” mentality with Freeland, Leonard, Crabbe and Will Barton contributing—something Stotts should continue to practice even as players return.

So, how can Stotts build upon the early success? A simple recipe of minutes and trust.

Despite the improvements, the second unit is still playing the seventh-fewest minutes among benches in the Association. That shouldn’t be the case for a group that’s posting a respectable 15th-best offensive efficiency, per HoopsStats.com, as well as an elite fifth-best defensive efficiency.

As far as the rotation goes, now is the time for Stotts to consistently test guys such as Crabbe and Barton as backup perimeter players if he thinks they have a shot. 

Furthermore, the team is leading the Northwest Division comfortably. Playing a deep rotation should be the plan of attack when determining if players such as Leonard, Thomas Robinson and Dorell Wright can be counted on late in the year.

Amid the bench-centric analysis, it’s important to remember this isn’t solely about improving the second unit. It’s also about preserving the starters for long-term success.

“The greatest thing for us was losing to the Spurs,” Damian Lillard recently told The Oregonian‘s Joe Freeman, referring to the 2014 postseason. “Because we got to see what brand of basketball makes you successful and we got to see fresh body after fresh body and guys coming in comfortable against us. I think that’s what we’re getting to.”

So, easy enough, right? Rest the starters, increase bench minutes and work toward a better, more balanced future. 

Unfortunately, it’s tough for coaches to convince themselves that rotation experiments are best when they already know what’s working. 

With the Blazers in win-now mode, they’ve taken their 8-3 start and jumped out front in a watered down Northwest Division. They’re also about to enter a stretch in the schedule that (for the first time all year) takes them away from the friendly confines of the Moda Center on a more regular basis.

For any coach, that would be a frightening time to throw the reserves in the deep end. But if Stotts is smart, he’ll take a Gregg Popovich approach now, preparing everyone in the rotation for a deep run in the 2015 postseason.

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New Orleans Pelicans v Portland Trail Blazers 11/17/14: Video Highlights, Recap

In a showcase of some of the NBA‘s best talent, Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans took on Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers.

Portland was looking to push its win streak to five games against a Pelicans squad that had won its last two and has been led by Davis’ stellar play.

Watch the video for full highlights.

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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Denver Nuggets 11/12/14: Video Highlights and Recap

The Portland Trail Blazers looked to continue their recent hot streak, when they took on the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night. The Blazers had won two straight, and their explosive offense faced a tough test from a Nuggets squad desperate to get on track after losing five straight games.

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Portland Trail Blazers Must Take Advantage of Early Chance to Control Division

The Portland Trail Blazers last won a division title during the 1998-99 season, as a part of the Pacific Division. Since the forging of the Northwest Division to start the 2004-05 season, the Blazers have been unable to reach a similar level of success. But now with the four-time reigning divisional champion Oklahoma City Thunder starting slowly, Portland must take advantage promptly to gain control of its division once more.

You have to feel for the Thunder.

Rip City is no stranger to having its star players injured, so there’s a certain level of sympathy that can be extended to its divisional rival. OKC was forced to apply for a hardship exception to sign an additional player in guard Ish Smith, with as many as eight players unable to contribute due to injury.

From their All-Stars in Kevin Durant (foot) and Russell Westbrook (hand), to their newcomers in Anthony Morrow (MCL) and rookie Mitch McGary (foot), the Thunder face dark times over the next few weeks and months.

Oklahoma City currently holds a 2-6 record, sandwiched between two other Northwest teams in the Minnesota Timberwolves (2-4) and the Denver Nuggets (1-5). The Utah Jazz, the fifth and final team of the group, is just a sliver above Minnesota at 3-5. These teams currently make up four of the bottom five teams in the Western Conference.

It almost goes without saying that the Blazers have it a little easy if snatching the division is in their sights. Portland had the best division record last season at 13-3, which could increase this year.

Durant is anticipated to be out for a further two to four weeks, with Westbrook expected to miss about a month. A plethora of the Thunder’s supporting cast remain sidelined for assorted times depending on the injury, though Durant and Westbrook will be the driving force behind OKC getting a playoff berth.

The time is now for Portland to create some space between itself and Oklahoma City.

Not only will the Thunder be missing their two best players, but the Blazers have a relatively easy schedule lined up to close out the 2014 calendar year.

Between now and New Year’s Eve, just eight games will be played against teams that are currently ranked as playoff seeds in either conference. The Chicago Bulls and the San Antonio Spurs will see Portland twice, while the Memphis GrizzliesBrooklyn NetsHouston Rockets and Toronto Raptors will each get one chance.

Respect is due to the remaining teams on the Blazers’ schedule until the end of December, as all of them are attempting to compete and improve. But in retrospect, they do not match up with Portland in terms of talent or synergy.

Teams such as the Timberwolves, Philadelphia 76ersNew York Knicks or Indiana Pacers don’t have the same drive as the Blazers at this point. These teams are either in a rebuilding process or are trying to compete while their sights are set on the future.

The Pacers await the return of injured star Paul George, while the Knicks are banking on the free-agency class of 2015 to return to prominence.

That isn’t to say these teams won’t compete with everything they can muster, but there’s no questioning the separation between a playoff-bound squad like Portland and a lottery-bound group like the 76ers.

The Blazers will see each of the aforesaid teams twice before the end of December.

As such, the Blazers must reap the benefits of an early schedule that is rife with less-than-stellar competition. The Thunder would normally have a laid-back schedule also. But with their best talent shelved until further notice, clashes with even the Milwaukee Bucks or Detroit Pistons can carry some importance in having a winning record.

You can only be respectful for so long, but let’s face it, the Nuggets, Jazz or Timberwolves aren’t going to top the Northwest this year, and it won’t even be close.

The division will be a two-team race between OKC and Portland, though the latter has the inside track right now. It is at full health and has a relaxed schedule to end the year.

The Blazers just have to take advantage as soon as possible and in turn they will have the best chance to win the division for the first time in 16 years.

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Charlotte Hornets vs. Portland Trail Blazers 11/11/14: Video Highlights, Recap

The Portland Trailblazers looked to continue their recent hot streak on Tuesday night when they took on the Charlotte Hornets. The Blazers had won three of their last four behind an explosive offense and a surprisingly stingy defense, but they faced a tough test from a gritty Hornets squad that had won two of its last three. 

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Portland Trail Blazers Week Preview – 11/10

Last week, the Portland Trail Blazers played some great basketball as a team. They obliterated a disheveled Cleveland team, then did the same to a more organized Dallas Mavericks team (their most impressive victory so far this season, in my opinion). While they gave up a lead on the road to the Clippers, that’s true of many teams since Chris Paul arrived in Los Angeles; I picked them to lose that one anyway, so meh.
Pulling away from Denver on the second night of a back-to-back showed the guts of a still slightly overworked starting lineup and the improvement of the Portland bench. Chris Kaman, known in this space as Air Sasquatch, has been nothing short of awesome, replacing Mo Williams’ production while giving LaMarcus Aldridge or Robin Lopez a breather. Where he’s been especially incredible, however, is when he’s played with one of the starting bigs.
Kaman and Aldridge, in particular, have been very good on the court together. Despite Aldridge’s humongous usage rate (30%!!!) cutt…

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Denver Nuggets vs. Portland Trail Blazers 11/9/14: Video Highlights and Recap

A day after a tough loss at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers, the Portland Trail Blazers looked to rebound against the Denver Nuggets.

The Nuggets entered Sunday having lost four straight games and hoped to rebound against a 3-3 Portland squad that has failed to match last season’s hot start.

Watch the video for full highlights.

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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Los Angeles Clippers 11/8/14: Video Highlights, Recap

Two of the NBA‘s most exciting teams squared off on Saturday afternoon when the Portland Trail Blazers faced the Los Angeles Clippers. The Blazers’ offense had woken up from its early-season slumber to give them a two-game win streak, and they faced a tough test from an explosive Clippers squad. 

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Portland Trail Blazers Are NBA’s Biggest Defensive Surprise

The Portland Trail Blazers held the league’s most productive offense to just 87 points in their 21-point blowout of the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday night, highlighting a defense that appears to be one of the NBA‘s most improved after an admittedly small sample size of just five games.

The Mavericks’ recent string of subpar third quarters continued, this time as the Trail Blazers outscored them by a 35-18 margin en route to a second half in which Portland held its opponent to just 37 points. 

Credible two-way efforts are becoming a trend for this club, particularly on the heels of Tuesday’s decisive 101-82 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. Portland even managed to hold the explosive Golden State Warriors to just 95 points in a losing effort.

“That looked like the team that we need to be,” head coach Terry Stotts told reporters after the Cavs game. “We withstood their barrage in the first quarter, stayed with our schemes and our coverages and the next three and a half quarters we did a great job defensively.

“We stuck with the defense and we got rhythm to the offense. It was a solid win at both ends.”

The Stotts era in Portland may not have been known for its defense so far, but that’s changing. The Trail Blazers are doing their jobs, tending to the little things vital to beating good teams, as Stotts alluded to after the Cavs game, dissecting his club’s success on the defensive end:

Up and down the line, individual jobs on their scorers, the communication in our defensive schemes. For the most part, we rebounded the ball well. Our help and alertness to penetration. They didn’t get a lot of attacks in the paint. Our transition defense—they didn’t really get too many easy baskets. When you hold a team like Cleveland to under 20 for three quarters, you’re doing a lot of good things.

And Portland continued doing good things on Thursday, holding Dallas below 100 points for the first time this season.

Entering Thursday’s contest, the Trail Blazers ranked sixth in the league, allowing just 97.6 points per 100 possessions, according to Hollinger Stats. It’s still early, but that’s a vast improvement over last season’s defensive efficiency—when the Trail Blazers ranked 16th and gave up 104.7 points per 100 possessions.

This team still has a long way to go before proving itself among the league’s defensive elite, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to deny these results.

The Trail Blazers held Dallas to a 36.7 percent mark from the field and kept stars Dirk Nowitzki, Chandler Parsons and Monta Ellis under control.

Before that, they bottled up LeBron James, giving up just 11 points to the four-time MVP.

“That’s team defense.” swingman Nic Batum told reporters afterward. “Wes [Matthews] and I took the challenge. He’s the best player in the world so you got to stay focused 48 minutes on him. You can’t relax or take like two possessions off because, you know, he can get it going in two possessions.”

It’s the kind of attitude and execution that could elevate this team to the title conversation after a 54-win season that ended with a five-game semifinals ousting at the hands of the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs.

Despite the appearance of overnight success, this defensive transformation has been a work in progress under Stotts.

As NBA.com’s Jeff Caplan noted during the preseason, “Heading into [last season's] All-Star break, Portland ranked 23rd in defensive rating. In the final 29 games of the season, as the Blazers battled for playoff position in the rugged Western Conference, they ranked 10th, allowing 103.0 points per 100 possessions.”

It’s been a conscious effort for a team whose offense has never been in question. No one doubts the Trail Blazers can keep pace with the high-scoring outfits out West. The question has been whether they could get stops. Stotts addressed this with the media in October:

It’s going to be a commitment. We can’t rely on our offense. We were first in offense in the first part of the season and then there was a drop significantly in the second half and our defense kept us in position to win games. I think everybody on our team realizes that for us to make the next step it’s going to come by maintaining the level of offense that we had last year and becoming a top 10 defensive team.

So far, the Trail Blazers are just that.

They’ve always had the tools. Batum has exceptional length on the wing. Wesley Matthews has always been known as a solid perimeter defender. Center Robin Lopez has the size to provide interior rim protection.

The test will be remaining focused on a nightly basis and putting those tools to work.

Should Portland do so, there’s nothing stopping this team from replacing the Oklahoma City Thunder as the West’s next best hope to dethrone the Spurs.

At the very least, there’s little doubt these Trail Blazers will be more prepared to do so than they were just a few months ago. This team is more mature, more polished—perhaps even hungrier.

It may still make headlines on account of its gaudy scoring output and three-pointers—including the 12 made against Dallas on Thursday.

But reaching elite heights requires as much grit as it does glamour. And the Trail Blazers seem to have figured that out. 

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