Running The Break: Assessing The First Month

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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?

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.

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.

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…?

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.

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.

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?

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

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?

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.

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.