Running The Break: Assessing The First Month

December 3, 2013

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Why does Phoenix give Portland fits? What are Portland's weaknesses? Did LaMarcus Aldridge's play during the month of November warrant Western Conference Player of the Month honors? And is the sky the limit for this Trail Blazers squad? Six local reporters who eat, sleep, and breathe Trail Blazers basketball give their take in this week's edition of Running The Break.

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1. In three games against Phoenix this season, the Blazers are 1-2 (.333) and have an average point differential of -8.3. In 13 games against the rest of the NBA, the Blazers are 12-1 with an average point differential of +8.2, a difference of 16.5 points per game. Why are the Suns so successful against the Trail Blazers? Is it just a tough matchup for Portland or is Phoenix just one of those teams that for no explainable reason gives the Blazers fits, similar to the Bobcats in recent years against the Lakers?

Casey Holdahl (@Chold), TrailBlazers.com: Phoenix just plays a style that Portland doesn't match up particularly well against. They've got guards in Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe that can get by Portland's guards, creating points in the paint opportunities for themselves and three-point opportunities for their teammates. The Trail Blazers had numerous pick and roll coverage mixups in the last game that lead to open three-pointers for the Suns, so I guess you could point to that.

But in the end, I don't think there's much too it other than the Suns just hit shots against the Trail Blazers. They've got a lot of players who hit midrange shots, and since Portland's defense is geared toward making opponents shoot midrange shots, the formula doesn't work as well as it does against most other teams.

Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes), CSNNW.com: Phoenix has multiple bigs that can shoot the ball. And shoot it well. Channing Frye and the Morris Twins are deadly from deep. It’s always tough for bigs to keep in mind that they have to close out on shooters rather than retreating back to the paint on pick-and-rolls. Big guys have been told all their lives to protect the paint, so when a team plays an unconventional big that’s capable of stretching the floor, it has the potential to throw the defense off. Portland’s bigs aren’t the only ones who struggle with that type of personnel. Good thing Portland doesn’t play Phoenix again until April.

Mike Tokito (@mtokito), The Oregonian: The Suns’ style of spreading the floor with shooters and using transition to set up three-pointers is tough for Portland. All of the Blazers’ bigs – Aldridge, Lopez, Freeland and Robinson – are paint defenders first, and the Suns have a bunch of bigs who play more like wings and shoot threes.

Erik Gundersen (@BlazerBanter), The Columbian: I definitely think that Phoenix's commitment to playing small is a big factor in this. Coach Stotts has been vocal about his preference to keep two big guys on the floor and the defensive line-up data show that he is right about that. Line-ups with Lopez and Aldridge, which have played over 450 minutes this season, are defending at a top-ten defensive efficiency rate.

And, every team has a small ball unit but what makes the Suns different is they just do it all the time. For this particular Blazers team which is now better because of their added size, the Suns big men and their ability to shoot causes problems for the Blazers.

It also helps that in two out of three wins the Suns shot well above average on long-twos. So, perhaps they just have confidence. Also, they may just have trouble with Dragic's unique game and straight line drives to the basket.

Mike Acker (@mikeacker), Willamette Week: The Suns have been a tough match-up for the Blazers so far because as much as they’ve preached paint defense, this team still gives up a lot of points inside and the guards for Phoenix live in the paint. Those same guards (Goran Dragic in the second game and Eric Bledsoe in the first) had huge shooting nights against the Blazers. Big shooting nights and big scoring nights are always a possibility with guys like Dragic and Bledsoe. Add two big nights from some really talented guards to a couple of pretty dismal shooting nights for Portland, and you have a the reason why the Blazers are 0-2 in Phoenix this season.

Dave Deckard (@blazersedge), BlazersEdge: Phoenix has that magic combination of guards who can score and bigs who negate the effectiveness, or at least impact, of Robin Lopez and Portland’s interior defenders. In this case that negation comes through outside shooting, drawing Portland’s big men away from the paint. That takes away rebounding and leaves the key wide open for Dragic and company.

The Phoenix games highlight how well Portland’s coaches and players have maximized the talent and contributions of each individual. Normally the Blazers run like clockwork, each part contributing to the whole and nobody having to exceed their limits. The Phoenix games also show how necessary maximization of talent and clockwork precision are to Portland’s success. When one or two parts break down the whole system blows. Take away Robin Lopez’s ability to defend or Wesley Matthew’s weak-side threes and Portland has a hard time compensating. LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard are the heart of this team, but these victories aren’t just about them. The Blazers need all hands on deck to keep the ship afloat.

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2. Every team has a glaring weakness, what is the Trail Blazers' through the first month of the season and is it correctable?

Holdahl: First off, I don't know that I agree with the premise of this question. I see a couple of teams -- the two that played for the championship last season come to mind -- that look rather complete to me. If those teams have weaknesses, they're certainly not "glaring."

As for the Trail Blazers, I guess I would say guard penetration has been an issue, but then again, that's the case for a lot of teams. They're a bit susceptible to giving up points in the paint, but even that seems to have abated somewhat over the last few weeks.

Haynes: If I had to nitpick, points in the paint has been a recurring issue. Portland is tremendously better in that area compared to last year but it still remains a slight concern. However, it’s quite silly to overly criticize this group being that they continue to find ways to win ball games. Every team, even the great ones, have to give up something. You can’t take away everything.

Tokito: Can you have a “glaring” weakness if you start 15-3? That said, their inability to hold onto big leads is an odd quirk that could cost them a game or two later in the season. Asked Wesley Matthews about it, and his theory is that the Blazers had so many close games and made so many comebacks last season, when they rarely blew teams out, that they’re more comfortable in tight situations than they are when they have the luxury of a big cushion. It’s almost like they need the extra pressure of a close game or big deficit.

Gundersen: Defensive rebounding. They've been a pretty disciplined defensive team as they haven't been getting scored on with ease in the half court and they've tightened up things on transition. They have a top-ten opponents effective field goal percentage. But while they've been forcing tougher shots and now allowing easy looks, they are allowing a lot of extra possessions.

The Trail Blazers are currently 20th in defensive rebounding percentage and it's understandable that you can't win every defensive category. Something like this is likely correctable because it's a mental issues. They've improved on it as they did a good job against Indiana last night, but they still need to make more improvements there if they want to really make in the playoffs.

Acker: I think interior defense is still a bit of an issue. I also think the Blazers still rely a bit too much on the three-point shot to keep them in games. However, at least in the last few games of the month, I think Portland’s biggest weakness is not knowing how to play with a lead. The Laker win in LA was a great example, but it happened at home against the Knicks and it’s happened a few other times. Playing poorly well ahead is a good problem to have, it means the Blazers have been getting leads, and I think it can be corrected by continuing to get leads early in games. If the Blazers can figure out how to get ahead early and then they figure out how to put teams away late, they’ll be in pretty good shape going forward.

Deckard: It’s got to be the points in the paint gap, right? The Blazers rank 26th in points in the paint allowed per game, 29th in points in the paint scored. Granted, they weren’t built to score in the middle but then you have to find a way to shore up the key somehow. Portland is brilliant defending the three-point arc but those layups and free throws in the key add up over 82 games. Lack of interior scoring and defense will combine to give the Blazers a small margin of error when their shots aren’t falling.

I’m not sure the issue is correctable with the current personnel. If the Blazers change the scheme to shade inside on defense they’ll be giving up the arc, which they don’t like to do. Nor do the Blazers have inside scorers sitting around. It’d be nice to see them make a move to help in one of those two directions.

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3. Your November NBA Player of the Month for both the Eastern and Western Conference is…?

Holdahl: LeBron James and Kevin Durant, though to be fair, I don't spend a ton of time paying attention to the rest of the NBA. It's tough enough covering just one team closely.

Haynes: Miami’s LeBron James and Oklahoma’s Kevin Durant are my Players of the Month. Both teams and players are playing great, as we would expect. And they are arguably the two best players this league has to offer. Yes, Paul George and Kevin Love are doing some amazing things, but K.D. and LeBron are on a different tier.

Tokito: Paul George seems a no-brainer in the East, even before his performance here Monday. I’m sure Haynes has a bottle of Fresno champagne ready to go.

The West is surely LaMarcus Aldridge versus Kevin Durant. I was trying to think like a voter on this, and it’s amazing the sort of arguments you make in your head, such as Terry Stotts has already won Coach of the Month, so you should spread the honors around. Or Durant’s going to win a lot of these, so why not give it to Aldridge? But OKC went 11-3, meaning they had same number of losses as Portland, and Durant’s numbers are off-the-charts good, so I’d say he wins.

Gundersen: I am always against the "voter fatigue" argument and for the East I'm going with LeBron James. The guy, somehow, keeps getting better. So far this season he is shooting 48 percent on threes and is shooting nearly 60 percent from the field as well as 80 percent from the line. If LeBron can get to 60/40/80, he will be the first player in the NBA to ever do that for a whole season.

In the West, it's LaMarcus Aldridge, proximity be damned. His overall shooting percentage might be down but that tells such a small tale. Right now he is the best player on the best team in the West. He's taking over games when he needs to and deferring when he needs to. I'm tempted to go with Chris Paul. Having seen Aldridge on a nightly basis and games like Golden State and Indiana where he took over against very good defenses makes it easier for me. He's also averaging career highs in rebounds, points, field goal attempts and his team is the best in the West. His turnaround is also slowly becoming the most unguardable shot in the league this side of the Dirk one-legged shot.

Acker: For the Eastern Conference, you have to go with Paul George. He’s the best player on the best team in the league. Makes sense, then, he would be the MVP of the first month of the season for his conference. By the same token, I would say LaMarcus Aldridge is November’s MVP for the Western Conference. The Blazers have been fantastic (even if they are our home team), and LA has probably been the biggest reason for that success. To not sound so much like a homer, I’ll also say Kevin Durant has been pretty fantastic in this season’s first month.

Deckard: It’s pretty hard to go against Kevin Durant in the West. His team is 11-3 and he’s doing everything he can to keep his team strong in the face of spotty play by Russell Westbrook. LeBron’s a perpetual candidate in the East but I prefer Paul George just because the Pacers are doing so well.

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4. Who is your Trail Blazers MVP for the month of November and why?

Holdahl: It's got to be LaMarcus Aldridge. He's eighth in the league in scoring at 22.7 per game, eighth in minutes at 37.2 per game and 14th in rebounding at 9.6 all while playing spectacular defense. He's playing the best basketball of his career, and while the play of Wesley Matthews has been integral for this team's success so far this season, it's a footnote without Aldridge taking care of the heavy lifting.

He's also the leader of a team that has shown themselves to be mostly unflappable this season. That's no small thing.

Haynes: There’s no debate, LaMarcus Aldridge is the MVP of this team. This season he has become more of a closer down the stretch and somehow his jump-shot has gotten better. He has embraced being a leader and if you ask any of his teammates this question, “L.A.” would be what they’d say without hesitation. I think that says a lot.

Tokito: Aldridge. Indiana coach Frank Vogel said Monday that what makes Aldridge one of the best power forwards in the league is he excels on both ends of the court, and he’s right. Consider this: Aldridge is second on the Blazers in steals, one behind Nicolas Batum. I’m not positive, but I think many of his steals are actually blocks in the paint in which he strips the ball before the player brings it up to shoot (he has 21 steals, 17 blocks). Either way, he’s having his best defensive season while he’s on pace for career highs in scoring and rebounding.

Gundersen: Back to the top, I'm going with Aldridge. Matthews' shooting has been fantastic, Lopez has had great energy, Lillard and Batum have both been very good. But Aldridge is the rock. I can't overlook a basically guaranteed 20 points, 10 rebounds and consistent defensive impact every night.

Acker: Since I gave LA my MVP vote for the Western Conference, I’m going to say Portland’s MVP has been Terry Stotts. He’s basically been outstanding in every facet of his coaching. He’s figured out rotations, he’s maximizing his guys when they’re on the court, he’s managing games expertly, his out-of-timeout play calling has been fantastic. There’s a reason he won Western Conference Coach of the Month honors. More than anything, though, I feel like he’s coaching a group of players who are all-in on his system. Trusting the head coach is going to be important as the season progresses, especially if the Blazers cool off a bit and maybe lose a couple games in a row.

Deckard: LaMarcus Aldridge. He brings it every night and he’s the least replaceable player on the team right now. People are more agog about scintillating contributions from the role players because those are less expected. But take LaMarcus out of the equation and all the rest of it goes for naught. Besides, have you seen that face-up jumper this year? He might as well be dunking it.

Coming into the season, many felt the overarching goal of the Trail Blazers was to just make the playoffs. After such a quick start, should expectations be raised (Getting out of the First Round, Division Championship), or does the 13-3 just simply give the team more room for error in their goal of being one of the Top 8 teams out West?

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5. Coming into the season, many felt the overarching goal of the Trail Blazers was to just make the playoffs. After such a quick start, should expectations be raised (Getting out of the First Round, Division Championship), or does the 13-3 just simply give the team more room for error in their goal of being one of the Top 8 teams out West?

Holdahl: This is kind of like asking if I should expect nice weather in a month because the sun is out today. Sure it would be nice, but my opinion is inconsequential to the sun, and he/she/it sure isn't changing any behaviors because of it.

The only goal this team has is to make the playoffs. That's not to say they'll be patting themselves on the back if they squeeze in as the No. 8 seed and get bounced in the first round, it's more of an acceptance that the point of the regular season is to qualify for the second season, when slates are wiped clean and every team, in theory, has the same chance to win a championship as any of the 15 teams left standing.

Haynes: Their quick start has definitely given them some cushion if they were to cool off. As far as new expectations, I think simply making the playoffs should remain the goal and if they were to secure homecourt advantage in the playoffs, it should be viewed as a plus. This season needs to be kept in perspective: making the playoffs would be a successful season.

Tokito: You can see the players going back and forth between keeping that underdog mentality and feeling like they’re getting into the upper echelon. I still like the idea of, just play and add it all up at the end.

Gundersen: I said last week that injuries to top-west teams have opened the door a little bit for them and I still standby that. Houston got a big win at San Antonio where they played great defense and perhaps they will be consistent on that end but we still have a long way to go. For me, hosting the 4-5 series in the West is an attainable goal especially with the consistency we've seen from these guys on the road so far this season.

Acker: I think the goal this season for the Blazers is to be competitive and win games, and I don’t think that should change now. It’s true that getting a good jump on the season probably increases the margin of error to sneak into the playoffs. That being said, this team clearly isn’t interested in just getting into the playoffs. If the goals are going to change from this point on, it might make sense to not focus on how the season is going to end. If I’m Portland, I’d focus on something like not losing to teams that are under .500. I think if this team decides they’re content on finishing with the eight seed, that’s what’s going to happen.

Deckard: Probably the latter still. The conference standings are the tell-tale sign. As I’m typing 11 teams in the West hold a winning record. The Blazers have been playing out of their minds and they’re only 3.5 games ahead of the 7th seed, 4 games ahead of the 8th seed, and 4.5 games ahead of the 11th-place team in the conference. It’s always better to be ahead than behind but you wouldn’t trust a 3-4 game lead going into the last month of the season, let alone after the first. The middle of the West will be packed this year. You hope November gave the Blazers enough of a head start that they can absorb some bumps and still end up near the top of that mid-conference heap. Maybe the bumps they can absorb became a little bigger because of this start. But they’ll have to play this well through February and March before you can start dreaming about a Top 3 seed in the conference being real.

Inside the locker room, however? They should dream plenty big.