Running The Break: March 24th, 2014

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How has Batum turned into a monster on the boards? Do the Trail Blazers have to shoot well from distance to win down the stretch? Seven 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. As of March 21st, 2014, Nicolas Batum leads the NBA in total rebounds for the month of March (143). How is Batum - a career 4.8 rebounds per game player - pulling down 13 boards a night?

Casey Holdahl (@Chold), TrailBlazers.com: He's crashing the boards in a way he's never done before. And while not having LaMarcus Aldridge out there grabbing double-digit rebounds a night certainly helps, that's only part of the different. More than anything, he's trying harder to get rebounds because he knows someone has to with Aldridge out of the lineup. It's also not as if he's hunting uncontested rebounds, which is a fairly common practice, particularly for big men who don't get to touch the ball on offense very often. Batum is actually out there fighting for rebounds.

Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes), CSNNW.com: It’s a different mindset he has. He told me he's channeling his inner Kevin Love. But on a serious note, with LaMarcus Aldridge out, he has to take more responsibility on the glass. Now, the totality in which he’s doing it is ridiculous. He acknowledged that he's surprising himself. But I think once Nic figures out how to do something, he wants to do it more. Sort of like when he was stockpiling those assists. This is his new steady.

Mike Tokito (@mtokito), The Oregonian: I think it’s mostly a need thing – with LaMarcus Aldridge out, the Blazers need more rebounding from their wing guys, and Batum, with his 7-foot wingspan, is equipped to do that. It helps Batum that he is not guarding point guards quite as much as he did, and if you look at his numbers, he’s hitting the offensive glass more – he’s averaging 2.5 offensive rebounds in March, which would be in the league’s top 10 over a full season.

Erik Gundersen (@BlazerBanter), The Columbian: The simple answer is because he has to. The Blazers were already rating about the league average in defensive rebounding and with Aldridge out that facet of the game becomes even harder. Batum reads the game better than just about anybody on the Blazers and usually knows what the teams will need extra help with. Right now, they need rebounding and he's providing that.

Mike Acker (@mikeacker), Willamette Week: It’s simple: Batum is an incredibly well rounded basketball player. He wants to be involved as much as possible, and he’s worked on every aspect of his game every season since his first in the NBA. The part B answer is that Batum has noticed a pretty glaring hole in his team’s frontcourt since LaMarcus Aldridge has been out, and he’s made it his life’s mission to fill that hole by hitting the boards like crazy.

Dave Deckard (@blazersedge), BlazersEdge: LaMarcus Aldridge has been out, his replacement (Dorell Wright) is a non-rebounder, and opponents have figured out to draw Robin Lopez out of the lane or keep a body on him constantly. That leaves Nic.

Batum’s work on the boards has been impressive. It’s interesting to note, though, that during his incredible rebounding streak the team’s rebounding edge over the opponent hasn’t risen. He’s picking up slack for everyone else.

SlyPokerDog (@SlyPokerDog), RipCityTwo.com: Batum has defiantly been more aggressive in rebounding but more importantly like Aldridge, Batum has been taking advantage of the space Robin Lopez provides in sealing off opposing players away from the basket.

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2. After recording 32 assists as a team Thursday night against Washington, Wesley Matthews credited the ball movement as a main reason why the Trail Blazers were such a hot team early on in the season. Can their teamwork and tenacity (Portland ranks No. 1 in Second-Chance points with 1,144) overcome their downfalls on the inside (Portland ranks 26th in Points In The Paint with 2,590)?

Holdahl: It can, but it seems as though the ball doesn't move as easily as of late, especially while Aldridge has been sidelined, as it did earlier in the season. This is a purely anecdotal observation, but it seems like guys have started to look for their own shots a bit more as they've struggle since the All-Star break. Now, I think that has a lot more to do with wanting to help the team win than wanting shots, but the outcome is still the same.

Haynes: They’ve made a killing being who they are this season so there’s no reason to believe it can’t continue. Their best post player in Aldridge prefers the outside shot so points in the paint aren’t going to come in bunches. They are who they are at this point. And they’re pretty good.

Tokito: The words “overcome” and “downfalls” seem to suggest some kind of handicap that the Blazers have to overcome with pluck. Even when the Blazers were hot in the first two months, they were not a big points-in-the-paint team. That’s not who they are. I think sometimes fans and commentators put too much weight on points in the paint, as if there’s a moral imperative to score on postups. You know who leads the league in PIP? Detroit, by a wide margin. The Blazers are who they are – when they’re moving the ball and themselves, they are at their best.

Gundersen: It did really well at the beginning of the season. The Blazers are a jump shooting team and don't get to the rim too often. If they want to succeed, they will have to make up for their lack of scoring around the rim with second chances and jump shots. It's not the most efficient game plan but if Lillard can continue attacking the basket the way he has been lately when Aldridge comes back, that helps Portland's efforts to score in the paint a lot.

Acker: The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that the Blazers have to find a way to get motivated during the last few weeks of the season. Ball movement and tenacity were hallmarks of how Portland opened the season, but so was a very obvious sense of motivation. The Blazers entered the season facing minimal expectations. Those lowered expectations lit an early fire. The fire hasn’t really gone out, but some of the motivation seems to have waned since the All-Star Break. Finding the incentive to win games is going to be as important as moving the ball around and crashing the offensive glass during the final stretch of the season.

Deckard: Sure. They have been all season. They have to watch out for teams who can take those offensive rebounds away from them and teams with enough defensive tenacity to guard them straight up instead of helping out constantly on defense. The former will take away the second-chance points, the latter the ability to share. Once those start to slip the Blazers don’t look as good.

SlyPokerDog: That's a huge discrepancy. Teamwork and tenacity won't overcome that. You can only hope it minimizes it's advantage and the Blazers are able to use their strengths in ball movement and outside shooting to win.

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3. When a player of LaMarcus Aldridge’s caliber is inserted back into the lineup there may be a tendency to “stop and stare” when the All-Star has the basketball. How can the team and Coach Stotts ensure the offense continues to have the same ball movement, player movement that makes Portland so dynamic when Aldridge does indeed return?

Holdahl: I think it's the exact opposite. The ball moves much better when Aldridge is on the court, as his drawing double teams results in the passing along the perimeter that has gotten the Blazers so many good looks from three this season.

Haynes: I think initially there’s going to be that feeling-out period when Aldridge returns. He’s going to have to get his touches in order to get his timing back and players will be standing around watching. We saw that happen when Aldridge came back from his groin injury. The excellent ball movement was no more. During the first part of the season, the reason the ball went from left to right so fast was because Aldridge commanded a double. Teams aren’t going to send doubles until he proves he’s back to form. But for the first couple of games upon returning, I expect the offense to struggle.

Tokito: Whatever they can do – run more pick-and-rolls, pick-and-pops, get him crashing the offensive glass – to get Aldridge going will be vital. We all know the Blazers aren’t going far if Aldridge can’t get back to his pre-injury form.

Gundersen: Something that could help the Blazers may not even have to do with everybody else on Aldridge's post-ups. Aldridge has shown an ability to get to the basket and the paint. Teams aren't doubling off the catch anymore like they did which gave Portland's shooters good looks. The best answer here would be that Aldridge try and drive into the paint and kick out after the defense sucks in. His jumper is still a weapon to be respected but if he can add a little bit more drive and kick to his post-ups it should be beneficial if the Blazers can make those shots. The other players could run some type of action but you also don't want to get too much stuff going on that it crams the spacing for Aldridge on the block. The Blazers also run quite a few handoffs with Aldridge and perhaps if he hands the ball off to cutters more it could make them respect it more. Variance is Portland's best friend, they just need to find it again. However, Coach Stotts is much more innovative mind than I so I'm sure he has some ideas once LA comes back.

Acker: Stotts can show the team footage of how they’ve played over the last few weeks without LA on the floor, and the team can watch. It will serve a dual purpose. The bad game footage will show that the Blazers have a tendency to look for an offensive bail out, and without LA in the rotation, that offensive bail out usually consists of a contested three late in the clock. The good game footage will show that when this group, sans LaMarcus, gets their collective heads together they can make a lot of plays, get open looks from three (and sometimes knock them down), and play a little bit of inspired team defense. The purpose of watching both the good and the bad of the stretch the Blazers have played without their best player is to show that LaMarcus is an important piece of the offense, but he’s just one piece. Even when LA comes back, the Blazers have to remember that this season they have been at their absolute best when they play like a team.

Deckard: First of all you have to ask which Aldridge will return. Will we see the pre-groin-injury version who scored in multiple ways and kept defenses stymied or the slower, post-injury version who lofted turn-around jumpers from a single spot and missed them? When Aldridge is slow and still he’s far less effective. The whole team grinds to a halt on his possessions. The Catch-22 is that the Blazers can’t be effective against good teams without him. If the defense doesn’t bend towards him their offense doesn’t work.

If Aldridge is mobile again I don’t think you have to worry about the team standing and watching as much. Defenders will collapse towards him, creating space which Portland’s players will fill. They’re happy to share the ball under those conditions.

SlyPokerDog: "Stop and stare" at your All-Star is a complacency that happens with all teams that have a dominant player on the roster. It's a long season, offensive and defensive focus can be lost. With the playoffs rapidly approaching, playoff positioning tightening and now even the remote chance that the Blazers might not even make the playoffs the team is not going to just give the ball to Aldridge and then stand around and watch what he does with it. The Blazers will continue with the strong ball movement they have while Aldridge has been injured and they had at the beginning of the season with him in the lineup.

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4. In Portland’s 45 wins this season, they’re shooting the 3-pointer at a 40-percent clip compared to 32.7-percent in their 24 losses. For a squad that takes the second-most shots from downtown (1,749), does their chance to succeed in the postseason really boil down to the arc?

Holdahl: Pretty much. The Trail Blazers don't have the personnel to play any other way. Improvement on the defensive end would certainly improve their chances in the postseason, maybe even more so than hitting threes. But they haven't shown much ability to play improved defense for extended stretches this season, so hitting three-pointers at a high rate is probably their best bet.

Haynes: They’ve shown that they can win games in other ways, but for a team that shoots as many threes as Portland does, it is likely that they’ll live and die by the three ball in the playoffs. Usually jump-shooting teams don’t have much success in the postseason but most teams in today’s game are jump-shooting teams. So there’s that.

Tokito: It’s never going to be just one thing. Obviously, the Blazers do great when they’re hitting threes, but it’s going to be at least as important, especially in the playoffs, to be able to hunker down defensively.

Gundersen: The arc and the midrange. Aldridge is their most high-usage player in the midrange but guys like Mo Williams, Wesley Matthews and Damian Lillard also use it as a weapon. If the jumpers fall, Portland's tough to beat. And, you're not going to win in the playoffs if you can't shoot anyway.

Acker: Yes and no. Yes because if Portland gets hot from deep in the postseason, it could be the difference between winning and losing a series. No because if the Blazers make the mistake of relying too heavily on making threes to win games, their stay in the postseason will be a very short one. The Blazers aren’t the most versatile team, in terms of offense, but to win in the postseason they will have to do a lot more than bomb away from deep.

Deckard: Not entirely. Not every three is created equal. Damian Lillard (and sometimes others) will launch threes off the dribble without the ball moving. Whether those go in or not they don’t have the same effect on the opponent as the weak-side three where the ball crosses the court, moving through 2-3 players’ hands, before the shot. One-man threes don’t move the defense. Weak-side threes create pressure, weakness in other defensive zones which the strong-side players can take advantage of. Plus those threes are more open.

Over the long run that 40% vs. 33% clip has as much to do with what kinds of threes are attempted as it does with hot and cold. The Blazers have to do all the things that lead to those open, weak-side threes in order to succeed. That means a healthy Aldridge drawing attention, well-spaced and unselfish players at the top, brisk cuts to draw extra defenders away from the play area, and accurate shooting on the other side of the court. Those are the keys to Portland’s success. Otherwise the triples are bailing the Blazers out of trouble instead of propelling them to victory.

SlyPokerDog: The Blazers have won the majority of their games in the regular season with ball movement and outside shooting. I don't see them suddenly using a different recipe in the playoffs.

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5. Three years ago the Blazers, Grizzlies and Hornets all had 34 losses heading into the final two games of the season. Memphis sat their leading scorer, Zach Randolph, those last two games - both losses - in an attempt to matchup with the No. 1 seed San Antonio Spurs. Their strategy paid off as the Grizzlies defeated the Spurs in six games. Obviously, it’s too early to think of positioning, but could you envision the Trail Blazers performing a similar strategy if the opportunity presented itself?

Holdahl: I've thought quite a bit about this over the last few weeks, and I think I've come to the conclusion that it's not really going to matter. Any matchup is going to be incredibly difficult, and while they might have a better chance against the Thunder or Clippers than they would against the Rockets or Spurs, I think it so marginal that it's probably not worth the trouble of trying to take a dive for any particular first round opponent. Besides, this team would be better serviced with some confidence-building wins late in the season than anything else.

Tokito: Nope. Terry Stotts always tells us that while he isn’t superstitious, he does believe in karma. Things change so much in a playoff series that whatever your perceptions of a matchup are based on the regular season, they’re not going to hold for all four to seven games. Remember in 2010-11 when some many of us thought Dallas would be a good first-round draw for the Blazers? That didn’t really work out, did it?

Gundersen: Of all of the teams in the top-four, the team that's looking the weakest right now is Houston. Do the Blazers really want to fall to 6th or 7th where they could be facing Kevin Durant or the dominant Blake Griffin? In a world where the Rockets didn't look like a mortal lock for the 4th seed, then perhaps. But this opportunity won't present itself this season. Portland still has an opportunity to catch Houston and get home court as they are 1.5 games back of the 4th spot. I don't think they will fair any better against the Spurs, Thunder or Clippers while starting on the road. Dwight Howard just had to get his ankle drained and have a cyst removed. They're also wildly inconsistent in their defensive execution/effort. They can lock you down and other nights they're asleep at the wheel.

Acker: I can envision it because I have a pretty good imagination, but there is no way Terry Stotts pulls that kind of stunt. With wins being as hard to come by in the last month and change as they have been, dropping a couple games on purpose to try and work a better match-up seems like a poor choice. Also, there really isn’t one match-up in the West the favors the Blazers more than any other. Portland has played well against both San Antonio, and Oklahoma City, but losing games to try and get one of those two teams in the first round doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. My guess is Portland’s marching orders will continue to be “win as many games as possible.” If the Blazers don’t win enough games to avoid the Spurs or Thunder in the first round, that’s how it goes; Portland will deal with that when it comes.

Deckard: No. Who would wish for any of the top-bracket teams this year? Every potential matchup will be tough. How the Blazers are playing heading into the playoffs will matter more than their opponent.

SlyPokerDog: Sure I can see something like that happening. The Blazers match up better against the Spurs than they do against teams like the Rockets. If losing a game or two during the regular season means the Blazers have a more favorable matchup in the playoffs you have to look at it.