Restart Reviews: Blazers/Nets

August 13: Portland Trail Blazers 134, Brooklyn Nets 133

When I said this last night:

I meant it, because Lord knows I have made my fair share of ulcer-inducing picks. (No, I definitely never took 2014 Duke to the Final Four, then watched in horror from a Pizza Hut as they lost to Mercer. Never happened!) With little crowd noise and how tired we all were (if you’re silly like I am and live on Eastern Time), it felt so similar to the March Madness feeling we all desperately missed.

Think about it: on one side, you had a strongly-favored team that’s far from perfect, yet everyone understood was going to win this game. They’re simply too exciting not to. On the other, there was this team that few expected to get beyond 1-2 wins in the bubble because of how thin their roster was and is. And yet, they ended up playing hard every single night for a coach who wants this job more than possibly anyone else in America. And it was taking place on TNT late on a Thursday night with Kevin Harlan calling the game. Change the colors up a bit and you could’ve called it Oregon/UC Irvine.

As the game unfolded, the favorite held steady for most of the first 30 minutes, but simply couldn’t pull off multiple stops on defense in a row. Considering they possess far and away the worst defense in the bubble, this wasn’t a surprise. The underdog couldn’t miss for most of the game because they kept getting wiiiiiiiiiide open looks. Like, you aren’t supposed to get as open at the rim as you are from three, and yet they did, pretty frequently. Suddenly, the favorite stopped hitting, and the underdog didn’t stop. For a while, it really did look like we were about to witness August Madness.

But: Damian Lillard.

In what continues to be one of the most remarkable individual performances in recent history, this man used all 42 of his points and 12 of his assists to drag his team back into the game and later, over their opponent. Had he lacked one point or even one assist, who’s to say Portland wins? Starting in the second half, Brooklyn unveiled a defense meant to get the ball out of his hands as soon as he touched the half-court line. It was a relatively simple strategy of rushing Dame with a double team – an incredibly unusual move once you advance past college ball. It’s not exactly a box-and-one, but it’s close enough to a modified version that you could claim we got a box-and-one in the NBA Freaking Playoffs two years in a row.

Only the best demand such a defense. As much slander as he gets online, Stephen Curry is the only other shooter in recent memory to require this defense in the NBA, and his was just for the final five minutes of a game. The Nets did this to Damian Lillard for a quarter-and-a-half. That’s how hot he is right now. The funniest part of all: it still didn’t stop him from getting 12 huge points in the fourth quarter and 25 in the second half on the whole.

I want to make my official declaration: until the Portland Trail Blazers completely overhaul their defense (or fix various roster holes), they won’t escape the first round. Really, I can’t see how one would consider them a serious threat to pick off more than a game or two from the Lakers. Portland’s defense is so embarrassingly bad, so putrid, so offensive, that starting about midway through the second quarter I was legitimately shocked when Brooklyn didn’t score on them.

The Nets went to the paint over and over, and Portland had nothing to slow it down at all. Jusuf Nurkic does not appear to be up to game speed defensively yet; as such, they have no real rim protector out there to start the game, unless you’re willing to deal with Hassan Whiteside. Brooklyn went 17-for-25 at the rim:

And 15-for-27 on short mid-range twos, many of them within 10 feet of the basket. Whenever Brooklyn stuffed Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen in ball screen sets, the Nets could not be stopped, no matter how many players the Portland Trail Blazers threw out there. I want to hammer in just how bad of a look this is for a Portland team that’s been fawned over by many for two weeks. Here are the players the Brooklyn Nets used for this game, alongside their Offensive Estimated Plus-Minus rating from dunksandthrees.com:

  • Jarrett Allen (+1.3)
  • Joe Harris (+1.2)
  • Jeremiah Martin (+0.5, played nine minutes)
  • Caris LeVert (+0.2)
  • Everyone else -1.1 or lower

Essentially, the Nets had about 2.5 good offensive players that they played with any frequency in this game. (LeVert’s rating is low because, outside of this game, he’s been very inefficient.) It wasn’t like they really did have Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving available for this game; the highest-rated offensive guard is a guy that looks like he’d corner you at an event to talk about 1990s indie rock. And yet: they could not be stopped, ever.

Brooklyn simply kept getting open against this defense, to the tune of 1.304 points per possession, cementing Portland’s status as both the most-efficient offense and the least-efficient defense in the bubble. For the most part, the core for the Blazers is the same core that snuck into last year’s Western Conference Finals. Dame, CJ, Nurkic, Collins, etc. are still on this roster. I know Nurkic and Collins missed most of the regular season, but still: why, exactly, is this defense as embarrassing as it is? In my most recent post on this roster, I noted that very few gave the credit last offseason to how much their defense would decline without Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu to take the load on defense. The best remaining defender on this roster is Gary Trent, Jr., and LeVert made him look silly in the fourth quarter:

And yet: Damian Lillard.

Sometimes, you can have a player so good and so elite that it covers up a million flaws. That’s Dame right now. When the ball wasn’t in Dame’s hands in the second half, Portland struggled often to hit wide-open looks, and more than a few of these misses came from guys you’d expect to hit such looks:

But when it became Dame Time, you knew who was going to be controlling this game, no matter what it took:

What a story. What a game. If you pretend that there are no games on today’s schedule, it’ll feel better; let the final memory of the regular season be this game. I’ll see you all Saturday.

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