Blazers’ Corner: Adversity, Rookie Debuts, Experimenting with Bench

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Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews
Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews | (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

Portland No Longer Sneaking Up on People

If there’s one thing to take away from Portland’s recent slump (losing 4 of 7), it’s that the honeymoon of anonymity they enjoyed for the first two months of the season is gone.  Teams like Philadelphia and Sacramento remembered the drubbings they took at the hands of the surprise Blazers earlier in the season and they came prepared (guarding the 3-point line, doing work in the paint) in their victories.

Portland can expect this to continue moving forward as teams now have two months of game film to pore over.  But this can be said for every elite team in the league.  Oklahoma City, San Antonio and Indiana have all suffered multiple uncharacteristic losses recently and that’s a product of both attrition and in-season experience.

But an encouraging sign in Portland’s four losses recently is that they’ve all been by 4 points or less.  Winning close games tends to balance itself out as the season progresses and after enjoying a 13-1 record in games decided by 9 points or less, the Blazers are starting to see that the proverbial ball doesn’t always bounce their way.

Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews
Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews | (AP Photo/Don Ryan)

Another positive to take away from the recent struggles is that the problems (shooting, turnovers) are correctible.  In the case of shooting, while teams have made it a point of emphasis to pay closer attention to the Trail Blazers on the perimeter, Portland is still getting good looks, they’re just not hitting them right now.

The turnover problem lately has been interesting.  Terry Stotts’ free-flowing offense involves a lot of improvisation in the passing game and teams are picking up on this by guarding the passing lanes better and getting deflections.  This disruption has caused the offense to be more vulnerable to fast-break baskets.  Nicolas Batum in particular has been guilty of a number of risky passes either in the lane or across the court that are not getting through.

Does the tighter defense mean Stotts will try to reign in the loose offense to avoid easy buckets at the other end?  My guess is no.  Why change your identity after it’s worked so well up to this point?  Portland is simply dealing with some adversity at the moment and how they deal with it may reveal how well and how prepared they are come playoff time.  It can’t always come easy.  Maybe this recent reality check is a good thing for the Blazers.

CJ McCollum Makes His Debut

CJ McCollum finally made his first appearance of the season on Wednesday night and despite a turnover early, the rookie appeared calm and cool under the bright lights.

In 14 minutes of action, the guard recorded 4 points on 2-of-5 shooting as well as 2 rebounds.  Nothing special, but he seemed to make a conscience effort to stay in control which will be important for him if he wishes to crack, and remain, in the rotation.  Stotts even ran a play for him out of a timeout that got McCollum his first NBA points which had to be a sigh of relief for the young player.

Perhaps McCollum can act as a perfect complement to Williams off the bench.  Williams likes taking risks and shooting early in the shot clock which can be good and bad at times and having a player like McCollum who’s more deliberate and methodical could be a nice change of pace.

Stotts Beginning to Experiment With Bench More

Coach Stotts has been tinkering with his player rotation lately.  First he began giving Meyers Leonard minutes in place of Thomas Robinson and the second-year center has played solid.  He grabbed 7 rebounds in just 12 minutes of work in a win against the Clippers on December 26 and he collected 8 points and 10 rebounds in a blowout win versus Charlotte.

Thomas Robinson - Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas Robinson was a spark off the bench on Wednesday night. | (Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)

Another recent development is Dorell Wright being benched.  Wright just hasn’t been right (no pun intended) since a 5-for-5 3-point night in Philadelphia on December 14 and Stotts finally made the decision to put in Will Barton in the second quarter of Portland’s loss at Sacramento.  Barton actually hit the team’s first 3 of the game, but that was really all he did on Tuesday night.

The Orlando game saw the debut of McCollum and the emphatic return of Robinson.  Though his sudden inclusion in the rotation was probably more due to Orlando playing small ball, Robinson was a bundle of energy in 11 minutes.  He scored 6 points on 3-for-3 shooting (including an impressive put-back dunk) and he threw in 3 rebounds and a monster block.

All of these random sightings from normally anonymous players is a sign that Stotts is beginning to realize that it might be time to expand his normally strict 9-man rotation.  But it feels like a 6-man rotation as Mo Williams is the only player getting legitimate minutes off the bench.  Joel Freeland has been good in limited action, but Stotts hasn’t trusted other guys enough to give them consistent time.

But we are reaching the halfway point of the season and the starters are most likely beginning to feel the affects of the grind that is the NBA schedule.  McCollum returning will be beneficial, but the team will need more help from the bench as the season moves along.

Passionate about movies, sports and writing, Ryan hails from Bend but lives in Springfield now. He earned his college degree in journalism from the University of Oregon and hopes to one day write a novel. He also enjoys sunsets and long walks on the beach.

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