Trail Blazers Suddenly Paper Thin in Frontcourt
As Blazer fans, we all know that inevitably, injuries will occur. Up to this point however, the Blazers have managed to miraculously stay healthy amongst a rash of health concerns for other teams like Oklahoma City, San Antonio and the Clippers. In fact, Portland was the only team in the league to play the same starting five for every game through the All-Star break.
But that notable accomplishment ended on Wednesday when Dorell Wright started in place of LaMarcus Aldridge, who will be out a week with a nagging groin injury. With Joel Freeland already down after a knee injury a couple of weeks ago, the Blazers had just three interior players. But as is often the case with Portland when it comes to injuries, when it rains it pours.
Backup center Meyers Leonard, who would have seen his minutes increase significantly after Freeland and Aldridge went down, sprained his ankle in practice and will be out 1-3 weeks.
That leaves only Robin Lopez and Thomas Robinson as legitimate low-post players to fill the paint for the next week. This couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Already reeling heading into the break with losses in six of their last nine, the Blazers who were once neck-and-neck with the Thunder and Spurs for the top seed in the west suddenly find themselves battling with Houston and the Clippers for spots 3-5. The Blazers have managed to build a nice cushion for themselves up to this point, but there’s still 28 games left and a lot of western conference teams itching to take Portland’s spot in the standings.
The organization elected not to make any moves at the trade deadline on Thursday and so now the team will just have to right it out until Aldridge returns and it’s no guarantee he’ll be back in a week. Groin injuries can be tricky and Portland can’t afford to rush their best player back too soon.
So for the forceable future, it’s up to Lopez, Robinson, Wright and the resurrected Victor Claver to manage the middle. Doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence now does it?
‘Defense’ Continues to be Hot Topic with Blazers
On Wednesday, The Oregonian’s Jason Quick wrote an interesting column on the Blazers’ defense so far this season and whether they could muster enough of an effort on that end of the floor to make any kind of noise in the playoffs. He spoke with San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich about the topic and Popovich talked about how a player has to have the right mind frame and character to succeed on the defensive end.
“A lot of defense is focus,” said Popovich . “And I think it kind of reflects the character of an individual.”
Does that mean Portland has players with character issues? Probably not. But what is the purpose of basketball? To put that little round ball in that little net. Period. When that’s the goal, every player is going to be thinking about accomplishing that because that’s the reward for playing the game.
It’s also a reward you can see, literally. Defense on the other hand has no visible reward so in a sense, a player simply doesn’t put in as much effort or focus in that area because subconsciously, it doesn’t really provide much joy because they can’t physically see a satisfying outcome.
The players and teams that are able to see satisfaction and purpose in defense are the ones that end up winning championships. Based on that mentality, Portland isn’t ready to contend.
They’re fourth-worst in the league in points allowed and dead-last in forcing turnovers to manufacture easy baskets. In the playoffs, games are played at a slower, half-court pace and this results in lower-scoring games due to teams being able to have their defense set and ready to go.
As we saw last night, Portland has serious concerns on defense when they are ready to defend. Patty Mills shredded the Blazers on pick-and-rolls multiple times in the second half and recent three-point champ Marco Belinelli had one wide-open three after another.
Quick talked about whether or not the Blazers were rotating correctly, fighting through screens and contesting shots among others. The answer to all of these things is no. The only player who seemed committed 100 percent of the time was Wesley Matthews. You could say that about a lot of games this season.
Popovich mentioned that he thinks Portland has played ‘great defense’ at times this season and it’s because of the personnel.
“They can get to you, and they can contest shots because of their length and athleticism. That’s important, especially these days, because we all know how important the three-point shot is,” said Popovich.
So at least one coach, the best in the league, thinks Portland is capable of being a great defensive team. That’s encouraging. But once again, it comes down to seeing defense as a reward on the same level as putting the ball in the basket and right now, the Blazers don’t seem to see it that way. With 28 games left to play, they don’t have much time to change that mentality.