The Toronto Raptors have a quick turnaround for Saturday. On Friday night they took on the Denver Nuggets and then hopped on a plane immediately after for the 140-minute flight to Portland. That right there is enough to make one cautious about Saturday’s game, especially since the high-powered Trail Blazers are well rested.
A minor positive is that Terrence Ross was the only Raptor to play more than 33 minutes on Friday (37) thanks to a 16-point lead entering the fourth quarter. The team played poorly in the fourth and coach Dwane Casey was reportedly angry with his charges afterwards.
Winning in Denver and starting off a five-game trip with a victory is a positive, but it couldn’t make me happier that the internal expectations have risen to a level where there are “bad road wins against .500 Western Conference teams.” That’s an important attitude for a team to have.
Anyway, Portland’s on the docket for Saturday night with a 10 p.m. tip-off on TSN.
33-13 and the number one offense in basketball. There’s no way any Blazers fan expected a performance like this through half a season; it must be a fun ride. Given where your preseason expectations were and their performance to date, how do you think Portland stacks up overall in the West moving forward?
That really depends on how the coaching staff reacts and how well the Blazers do in the month of March. For starters, they’ve had a relatively mediocre January considering their hot start, and a lot of that has to do with their schedule being so rigorous. The guys are really tired out and having the last few days off has been good for them. They spent some time together on Thursday night as a team and they really are close. I think that bodes well for them.
The other half of it will be on coach Terry Stotts and his staff. In addition to being fatigued, teams really have been out on the Blazers at the three-point line, disrupting their main offensive weapon. They’ve done a poor job so far counteracting overly-aggressive defensive strategies and now that there’s some tape on the Blazers offense, they’ll have to find new ways to score as teams figure them out.
As good as things have been on offense, this is also a 21st-ranked defensive outfit. The one thing that really sticks out is that the Blazers force turnovers less than any other team – this team has dome decent wing defenders, so are the defensive schemes just ultra-conservative?
Their defensive strategy is two-fold. First, they try to protect the rim as best they can from six feet or so. Second, their guards ride high and tight on the three-point line, fighting over screens playing ICE pick-and-roll defense. Their wings don’t really play passing lanes since they are so high up on their guys.
Portland tries to get you to shoot low percentage jumpers, plain and simple. They want guys to come off the pick-and-roll, take a step inside the arc, and fire up a long jumper. It has led to Portland getting down early in games as teams are fresh and have their legs under them. Slowly but surely, teams continue to shoot those open 17-footers and as the game wears on the averages come into play. It helps that Stotts is great at making halftime adjustments, but the Blazers really have been a second half team.
To answer your question, I would say it is a pretty conservative strategy since it’s based on advanced stats. Teams get hot for whole games and it puts the Blazers in trouble. They struggle big time with mobile fours who can shoot threes. The strategy also requires Portland’s offense to be clicking at all times so they can make up deficits.
Portland has attempted fewer than 15 threes in a game just once this year and fewer than the league average (21) just 11 times. Is there at all a way to chase the Blazers off the arc, or is the offense simply too creative and the players too unselfish to reliably do so?
Absolutely. I wrote about that this week in my breakdown for Blazers Edge, actually. The long and short of it is that teams have really put the Blazers in a bind by playing high and tight on the ball, while sagging in front of wings in order to stop kicks to the perimeter. Portland shooters like to get the ball up quickly, and other than Dorell Wright, you won’t see many pump fakes. That’s allowed defender to go rushing straight at them in closing situations. It’s actually been one of the big reasons the Blazers have lost four of their last six games.
If the Raptors have watched any recent tape of teams beating Portland, they’ll try to do the same thing. For the Blazers, the key will be getting to the paint and trying to finish as a means to draw defenders off the line. They really need to start being more aggressive as they attack the hoop.
DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge combine to take all of the mid-range shots. I don’t really have a question, the shot-charts are just going to be crazy in this one. So, uhh…LaMarcus is pretty good, eh?
LaMarcus has benefited from Robin Lopez in many ways. On defense, he really doesn’t have to guard the biggest guy on the floor anymore, and Lopez is so adept at boxing out it has caused Aldridge’s blocks and rebounds to spike. What people don’t mention is that he’s really able to save a lot of his energy for offense, putting him in an elite category for power forwards in the NBA.
He’s also added a few new wrinkles to his game. In years prior he had two weapons, the elbow jumper and his turnaround jumper on the left baseline. This year, he has really made an effort to drive to the middle of the lane from the left block since guys shade him so hard on the fadeaway. He also has started using this neat little move at the elbow where he receives the ball, takes a dribble with his head down, then uses his left elbow to create space for a little step-back. It’s basically another unstoppable move he added. He’s shown that he’s a complete player this year and that any franchise would be lucky to have him at the center.
I’ll be curious to see if DeRozan takes the bait Portland gives to him at midrange. He should be able to get to the rack against the Blazer wing defenders if he wants to. Whether or not he realizes it could change the outcome of this game entirely.
There’s not much in the way of lines available as of this writing and the Hollinger formula hasn’t been updated yet, so we’re left to our own devices to set an appropriate spread. On the second night of a travel back-to-back, on the road, against a pretty good team, you’d think the Raptors would be significant underdogs, perhaps in the area of seven points.
I’m not confident in the Raptors walking out with a win. Three key players are at less than 100 percent, the team figures to be somewhat tired and you lose some of a potential scouting/schematic edge by playing for a second night in a row (less video time). I’m not meaning to be negative, but this is legitimately one of the toughest games on the schedule – expect a loss, hope for a good fight and a victory is gravy on a pretty fun week for the team.