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The Trail Blazers have virtually the same roster they had last season but seem to be a whole lot better this season. What's different about this Portland team?
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David Aldridge: Defense. Portland has gone from awful last season (21st in the league in Defensive Rating at 107.8) to sterling this season (seventh in Defensive Rating, at 104.3). They're fourth in the league in defensive field goal percentage allowed (.447, ahead of Utah, San Antonio and Toronto) and fifth in points allowed (103.2). Damian Lillard is playing out of his mind at both ends; we all have seen the scoring tear he's been on, but he's also fourth in the league among starting point guards playing regularly this season in Defensive Rating (103.7), only behind Ben Simmons, Lonzo Ball and Kyrie Irving. C.J. McCollum is doing his Robin thing again; Maurice Harkless has become a solid starter at the three (career-high 41.4 percent on 3-pointers) and rookie Zach Collins is giving them all kinds of energy off the bench, using his length and fearlessness effectively.
Steve Aschburner: Portland is a much improved defensive team compared to last season. When you go from 107.8 points per 100 possessions to 104.3 this season, when you improve from 21st in the league on that side of the ball to 7th (per NBA.com/Stats), you should see a W-L difference. And here’s something inside that improvement that might be overlooked: the Blazers are giving away fewer points in the form of free throws, an average of 4.7 fewer attempts and 4.2 fewer makes per game compared to 2016-17. They are fouling less, playing more honest and confident defense overall. Having big man Jusuf Nurkic in the middle all season has helped on that front.
Shaun Powell: The Blazers are playing with a sense of purpose and showing a togetherness that wasn't always there before. I think Damon Lillard and CJ McCollum are trusting their teammates more, and their teammates are repaying that trust with better decision-making and solid play when it counts. The Blazers have some impressive pelts on the wall: Warriors twice, Cavs, OKC, Wolves. But also understand that Portland has had generally good health and isn't resting players. The Blazers are all-in here down the stretch, trying to get the No. 3 spot; you just hope, for their sake, that there's still gas in the tank come mid-April.
John Schuhmann: The Blazers were the league's most improved team after the All-Star break last season, so this is, in part, a continuation of the growth they saw after trading for Jusuf Nurkic last February. Last season, they were a bottom-five defensive team before the break and a top-10 defensive team after it. On defense is where the improvement has continued, and the defense has been at its best with Nurkic on the floor. He has been a difference maker from the day he arrived. The improvement of Shabazz Napier has also been critical in those minutes when Damian Lillard or C.J. McCollum go to the bench, and the Blazers have been really good (plus-24 points per 100 possessions) with all three of their small guards on the floor together.
Sekou Smith: As we've learned in recent seasons, so much of what makes a decent team good and a good team great is the chemistry of the entire group. The Trail Blazers appear to have found the right mix this season after struggling to get it right a year ago. Damian Lillard is having an outstanding season, pushing his way into the Kia MVP conversation with the way he's performed. And C.J. McCollum is playing at a high level alongside him in what could be an All-Star backcourt some day soon. The improved play of their supporting cast is what sticks out about this crew. Coach Terry Stotts challenged them publicly earlier this season, a brilliant move in hindsight. And they've responded. They don't need to carry the load, that's what Lillard and McCollum do on the regular. They simply have to play their roles and trust the process, so to speak.