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

  • 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.

Restart Reviews: Blazers/Mavericks

August 11: Portland Trail Blazers 134, Dallas Mavericks 131

I mean, is this the best sport in the world or is it not? Because I can’t see an argument for anything else after that.

Per, one of my favorite sites, this currently ranks as just the sixth-most exciting game of the bubble and its third-highest level of tension. Neither team led the game by more than ten, and in the fourth quarter, the gap either way never exceeded six points. The game was within two possessions for the entirety of its most tense quarter, and within one possession for all of the final five minutes. It is everything you could possibly want from a basketball game that meant a lot to both teams.

It obviously means more to Portland, who just wants to be in the playoffs. A loss here meant that the Phoenix Suns would leapfrog them in the standings, and considering teams are happily lining up to get the Suns in (Grizzlies fans, don’t tweet these things), this was a do-or-die fixture. Phoenix can’t win a tie-breaker with Memphis, but they don’t play the same number of games as Portland. Any loss could be a season-ender, which would be wild for a team that started the playoffs three games ahead of Phoenix and went 5-3.

Dallas, with a win, would’ve jumped to just half-a-game back of 6 seed Utah with one more to play. Not that this is exactly a shocking take, mind you, but literally every team in the NBA would rather play Denver in the first round instead of the Clippers. Fairly simple brain logic.

Anyway, the game. As seen above, it was one of the most exciting and tense games played all season. Neither team is good at all on defense (we’ll get to this, promise), so it predictably meant an offensive explosion. You got 265 points, including a combined 97 from each team’s top scorer. It was a fantastic basketball game filled with fun moments. However, years from now, only one thing will be remembered: Damian Lillard, and his 61-point show.

In one of the best individual performances of the season, Dame single-handedly dragged a Portland roster completely uninterested in defending Dallas for large portions of the game to the finish line. The team around him combined to score 73 points on the other 68 possessions; had Dame himself scored at that rate, the Blazers would’ve lost by 17 points. However, Dame Time is a real thing, and his effect on this team’s postseason fortunes cannot possibly be understated. It was a night-long highlight reel for Dame, capped with that above insane three-pointer. Dallas had no one that could stop him from getting to the rim:

Had no one that could cover him from three:

And even when he wasn’t shooting, they had no one that could stop passes like these because of all the attention he draws:

Make no mistake: Damian Lillard is the Portland Trail Blazers. There is no other player capable of carrying this team, or even somewhat assisting them to the finish line. Not Jusuf Nurkic, who had a rough go of it offensively. Not C.J. McCollum, who shot 2-for-14 and was completely lost on defense. Not Hassan Whiteside. Not Gary Trent, Jr., their, uh, “best” perimeter defender, who had a couple of steals but also missed five of six threes. Not even Carmelo Anthony (26 points), the only other player on the team to top 11 points, who shows up once every 25 possessions or so on defense.

None of those guys are enough, and that goes back to Portland’s offseason roster construction. The Blazers’ front office let Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu go. Both players were fairly frustrating offensive cases, to be certain, but they also happened to be Portland’s two best defenders. They were the only players on the roster that could hang with opponents on the perimeter. As much as I like Jusuf Nurkic, he’s too slow and clumsy outside of the paint to be that replacement. Same for Zach Collins. Carmelo, as nice as the nostalgia hits can be, is not a player you’re counting on to get a stop. When Mario Hezonja grades out as one of your best team defenders, you’re in serious trouble. That’s how Portland came into the bubble 3.5 games back of the 8 seed.

Even in the bubble, their defense has been recklessly embarrassing. Dallas scored 1.248 points per possession in this one, and on the whole, Portland has allowed almost 1.2 PPP in their seven bubble games. They’ve played the second-worst defense of anyone in the bubble, and Denver’s lower rating is at least partially because they still haven’t played a game with their normal starting lineup. Whenever I hear “Portland is going to be a serious threat to the Lakers!”, my first reaction is to laugh, because no defense this bad is taking anything from a championship contender.

And yet: Dame.

Damian Lillard is dragging this bloated, old, overpaid roster to the playoffs. The fact it took all 61 of his points to get Portland to win a game by three should be alarming, not encouraging. This roster is Dame, and Dame is Portland. We are the chaos, and defense is meaningless when you have a player that can score 112 points in two games. No one can stop this man right now; not even Instagram.

This is why, despite knowing the series would go five games at most, I really do want a Blazers/Lakers first-round matchup. Lillard has every right to take 30+ shots, maybe even 40+, in each game. There is no other way these bloated Blazers can pick one off of Los Angeles. It will take heroic efforts from Dame every single night, and that is what we best describe as “must-watch television.” The Dame Show can’t stop now, because you don’t stop the show in the middle of your greatest hits.

Flipping the switch to talk Dallas: the Mavericks were eliminated from the 6 seed last night. They will be the 7, play the Clippers, and it will be what it be. What’s funny, though, is that despite giving up 61 points to one player, I thought the Mavs looked fairly solid. They had a great offensive night marked by three 24+ point performances. They got all sorts of good shots. They generally contained most non-Melo/Dame players on the Blazers. They forced McCollum into a 2-for-14 shooting performance. It wasn’t all bad! They had a lot of good! And yet: Dame.

Anyway, the story here with a Mavericks win would’ve correctly been about Kristaps Porzingis’ rise in the bubble.

It’s not like he faced even a mediocre defense, but who cares? A 7’3″, 240-pound forward should not be allowed to shoot 7-for-9 from three. It should not be comprehensible. However, Kristaps’ mere existence in this form is beyond comprehension. We are not supposed to have guys like this; the “Unicorn” title, mostly overused, is apt in this specific moment. Thank God that he got out of New York, and thank God we get to see him pair up with Luka and this super-fun Mavs offense.

There were two other good-to-very-good outings: Luka, of course, and Tim Hardaway, Jr. Luka got to 25 despite a few bad pull-ups from downtown along the way. Simply put, he just isn’t all that elite at threes yet. That’ll come in the next Luka Patch. He remains elite at scoring at the rim, though, which is an asset that sets him ahead of nearly every other guard out there.

Less expected was the Tim Hardaway, Jr. 24-point night. In the bubble, Dallas has seemed to get one surprising performance from a non-Luka/KP cast member in each important game. It’s been Trey Burke, Dorian Finney-Smith, Boban, and now it’s Hardaway’s turn. It shouldn’t be all that surprising, as this was his best season yet (40% from three), but he hasn’t had a game like this in the bubble where he was as important to the game as Luka/KP.

If he’s able to have a game like this in the playoffs, it won’t matter how weak the Dallas defense is. If all three of these guys are on, it really will take a heroic individual effort from their opponent to stop them.

Lastly, aside from Dame, you can blame turnovers for this loss. Dallas committed 17 to Portland’s 8, which is strange as Portland’s defense is not one to force many turnovers. Gary Trent, Jr. had active hands as usual, but it was plays like this from Melo that helped put Portland over the top:

What a game. If only we had six more of these to go.

Restart Reviews: Raptors/Heat; Nuggets/Thunder; Rockets/Blazers

Welcome to a new series on Stats By Will titled Restart Reviews, where I’ll be discussing games from the previous day or two and going in-depth on its result. The goal is to post these three times a week, with this week’s edition(s) likely featuring multiple games in each. There will be GIFs, stats, and all of the general moods and feelings you likely expect by clicking on this site. I hope you enjoy.

To skip ahead to a different game, click below:

August 3: Toronto Raptors 107, Miami Heat 103

The Eastern Conference has been considered a one-team race for most of the last…seven? months, and it’s not difficult to see why. The Milwaukee Bucks crushed competition for most of the season, had easily the best margin of victory in the league, and will be the East’s #1 seed when the playoffs start. (An embarrassing loss to a putrid Brooklyn team yesterday will not change this.) However, there seems to be growing momentum to declare this a two-team race for the Finals, and I’d like to sign on to the Toronto Raptors having a serious chance to pull off the repeat.

Off the back of a hilarious and insane 36-point Fred VanVleet performance, the Raptors survived a game where they didn’t get many shots up and allowed several wide-open threes in the fourth quarter to the Heat. It wasn’t easy, but it’s just the latest statement by this incredibly fun Toronto team: they’re a legitimate title contender, and not just a dark-horse one. For this particular statement, they had a great day from downtown and owned the game defensively.

The story of this one will be VanVleet’s wild 36-point performance, though this was aided by 13 free throws. VanVleet has essentially always been a good value and a pretty consistent player, but he’s never had quite this level of a scoring performance. He did good work on defense, making it a memorable and great two-way performance for the beloved Wichita State product.

On the whole, this was kind of a strange offensive game for the Raptors. They did several things they don’t usually do, like commit a bunch of silly turnovers:

They had an awful game inside the perimeter, making just 10 of 23 attempts at the rim:

But: they took advantage of their few transition opportunities, and the non-VanVleet players shot 9-for-20 from three. It was a great day from downtown, and any time you can push the pace in an effective manner like the Raptors did, it’s a good day. This was also a quietly very good Pascal Siakam outing. Siakam scored 10 of his 22 in the first and wasn’t the driver of the offense in the second half, but he hit four of his seven threes:

And he also did a great job defensively when called upon. notes that he held his Miami opponents to just 2-for-9 from the field on two-pointers, a very good rate.

For the Heat, this is a tough loss to take for a myriad of reasons. They took a lot of threes they’d normally love to take, but simply didn’t hit them. They had the advantage of a really good rim protection game, holding Toronto to just 10-of-23, but gave up 32 threes – many of them unguarded – in return. Lastly, and most damaging, they are no longer a likely contender for the 3 seed. This probably locks Miami into the 4-6 range, and at this point, it would be hard to blame them for hoping to fall to 6 simply so they can go two rounds without having to play the Bucks.

However, if Miami even wants to get to a second or third round, they’ve simply got to get much more from Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn on a nightly basis. Robinson may sit as the best value in basketball at just $1.4 million and is a phenomenal shooter, but when he’s off like he was in this game, he doesn’t offer much more to keep him on the court:

Likewise, pretty good rookie Kendrick Nunn went 0-for-7 from the field and committed four fouls, which kept him glued to the bench. If Nunn, a 35.8% three-point shooter on the season (the league average is 35.7%), can’t hit these, teams like the Bucks and Raptors will rightfully take their chances in sagging off from him on the perimeter.

Nunn even posted a steal and two blocks in his 16 minutes, but it still wasn’t enough to get him on the court for more than a minute in the final quarter. (Robinson didn’t play at all, giving up his time entirely to Tyler Herro.) Those two performances didn’t single-handedly lose it for the Heat, but they helped sink the boat. It’s a shame, because the Heat may have wasted one of the few vintage Goran Dragic performances the guy has left in him.

Dragic scratched and clawed his way to an amazing 25-point outing, going 5-for-5 at the rim and being a supercharger for the Miami offense that felt so moribund for the first 30 minutes of this game. With Dragic on the court, the Heat outscored the Raptors by 13 points in his 15 second-half minutes; without him, they were outscored by 13 in his 9 minutes on the bench. Every single second he played mattered, and he flashed some of his old defensive skills, too. It was like watching 2013-15 Dragic again, remembering all of the joy he’s still able to provide when on fire.

Likewise, it was an even more rare Great Outing for Kelly Olynyk:

Olynyk made four of his 11 three-point attempts and helped keep the offense moving, especially in the otherwise-ugly first half where he was the Heat’s leading scorer. Olynyk won’t get more than 18-20 minutes a night in most playoff games, but it’s nights like these why he gets that many minutes to begin with.

Two final notes:

1. On the individual front, Jimmy Butler had a phenomenal defensive game. He wasn’t much for the other side of the ball, but any time you force opponents to shoot 0-for-8 against you and pick up two steals and two blocks, you’re doing something right. It’s not in this GIF, but he was also the only player to slow VanVleet down for any meaningful amount of time.

2. Miami had an alright defensive game, but they’ve got to be much more consistent in terms of contesting outside shots. When they contested hard, the Raptors’ offense struggled mightily, converting just 5-of-22 attempts. When they left the Raps more open, it was kind of ugly: 24-for-45 from the field, including 7-for-11 for Siakam and 7-for-12 for VanVleet, mostly on threes. Their playoff ceiling depends on being a tad bit better on this end of the floor.

NEXT PAGE: Nuggets/Thunder