How good can the Blazers be?
It's getting real now for the Portland Trail Blazers, who open the NBA regular season Wednesday, Dec. 23 at Moda Center against Utah fresh off three preseason clunkers.
The key word there is "preseason" and you won't find many players or coaches concerned about preseason play — perhaps except this year, with the Trail Blazers implementing a new defensive scheme, integrating new players, a shortened NBA training camp, followed by a tight 72-game schedule.
The Blazers looked good in winning their preseason opener against Sacramento, then gave up 121 points to the Kings and 126 and 129 points to Denver (including 37 3-pointers) in two blowouts in the Mile High City.
"The good thing is we have a relatively veteran team," coach Terry Stotts said. "As poor as we looked the last couple games, we're still a good enough team we can turn things around pretty quickly."
"You want to play well and execute well, but you understand none of this counts," CJ McCollum said before the fourth and final preseason game, and then added after the 129-96 defeat, "It's not ideal (with the losses), but we (had) a few days to get things right, and get ready for a real game. I feel OK. I've been in the league long enough, some of the guys have been in the league long enough, you know when you're not playing good basketball. And you have a short window the way the season turned around to tighten things up."
The NBA schedule has the Blazers, like all teams, playing a lot — three and four games a week. After Utah, the Blazers play Houston at home (Dec. 26) and at Los Angeles Lakers (Dec. 28) and L.A. Clippers (Dec. 30). That's four games in the first eight days of the season, and that's the norm now.
It'll be intense, and coaches will be careful about minutes. In Portland's case, Stotts has to be mindful of how much Damian Lillard and McCollum and others play.
The beauty of the Blazers, at least on paper, is the team has more depth. The core group of Lillard, McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic has been joined by new acquisitions Robert Covington, Derrick Jones Jr. and Enes Kanter and the return of Carmelo Anthony and Rodney Hood to go along with Gary Trent Jr. and Anfernee Simons off the bench.
Zach Collins won't be available till mid-January, still recovering from ankle surgery, and Simons has been hobbled with a hamstring. Until Collins returns, Harry Giles remains a big-man option off the bench.
Kanter said the Blazers need to keep learning the defense and about each other.
"We are a pretty new team," said Kanter, the post who helped Portland make the Western Conference finals in 2019 before playing last season in Boston. "We're trying to adjust to a new system, but nobody is going to feel sorry for us. We have to go out and compete and have fun. When we're having fun, we're a really good team."
What makes up fun? "Play hard both ends of the floor," Kanter added, along with communicating with teammates, trusting teammates, getting good minutes from bench players and playing solid defense. "We have amazing leaders."
Despite the past three preseason games, the Blazers feel better about their defensive potential and versatility. They allowed 116.1 points a game last season (26th out of 30 teams), including 122.0 in the NBA bubble.
Covington and Jones Jr. are solid defenders who could individually take on the best players in the Western Conference — LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, Devin Booker, Zion Williamson, etc. The new Portland defense features more pressure and rotations, Stotts said. He added after the first Denver loss that "we were indecisive and in the wrong places at times. It's not a question of not knowing what to do, but we didn't react or get into the right spots. … We looked disorganized, which was very disappointing."
"We're tightening up defensive principles and concepts and rotations," McCollum said.
Offensively, it'll start with Lillard, the NBA's third-leading scorer in 2019-20 (behind James Harden and Bradley Beal) at 30 points a game. He and McCollum fill up the stat sheet most nights, and having Nurkic back for the long haul of the season will help balance the team offensively. Covington and Jones started in the preseason, and Anthony and Hood came off the bench; if the plan sticks, that provides ample scoring off the bench with Anthony and Hood.
The Blazers ranked sixth in the NBA in scoring last season (115.0 points a game).
"We're going to be a good offensive team," Stotts said. "The concern is defense, and doing some things differently in a short amount of time is challenging."
Stotts said teams that continue to get better during the rigorous game schedule will be the ones that make the NBA playoffs.
Another factor in the NBA season is how players adapt to various government restrictions because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Denver, the Blazers couldn't gather to eat meals together or go through walkthroughs in the hotel ballroom. In addition, players and coaches have to be regularly tested for the coronavirus.
And, big and empty arenas lend themselves to hearing what opposing players and coaches say —and even what play-by-play announcers say, McCollum added. It's different than the NBA bubble in Orlando, which featured smaller gyms and more intimate settings with screens of fans and lots of music to fill the air.
"It's what we have to overcome," McCollum said.
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