The Portland Trail Blazers finished the regular season ranked sixth place in the Western Conference, escaping the play-in tournament for their eighth-straight playoff appearance. Much of the team’s success remains centered on its high-powered offense: The Blazers’ offensive efficiency of 117.1, per NBA.com, trailed only the Nets’ 117.3, marking their third-straight season in the top three. That’s even more impressive when you consider that star guard Damian Lillard spent more time with longtime teammate CJ McCollum off the court (1,330 minutes) than on it (1,068).1
Portland’s offense barely dropped off (116.6 points per 100 possessions), but the team’s net rating shrank by over 9 points without McCollum, the team’s second-leading scorer since he joined the starting lineup in 2015-16. It’s only natural for Portland’s margins to grow thinner with an elite backcourt cut in half, but the Blazers’ defensive liabilities threatened to sink them entirely.
Fortunately, Portland learned to thrive within those margins by leading the league in clutch-time point differential (+112) and trailing only Phoenix (25) out West for the most wins in those situations — when the game is within 5 points with five or fewer minutes to go — with 24. Lillard accounted for 162 clutch-time points to lead the league for the first time in his career. He’s the only player to rank within the top 10 in each of the past five seasons.
“I think this season has just been different,” Lillard said a few days before the Blazers’ first game of its first-round playoff series against Denver. “In the middle of the season, losing [Jusuf Nurkić] and losing CJ to so many injuries, myself getting banged up, us having such a rough stretch towards the end of the season, and then, you know, finding our way out of it and playing our best basketball of the season at the right time. … I don’t remember a time of us being in this type of groove [and] in this fashion going into the postseason in all those other seasons.”
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That end-of-the-season valley began April 18 with the start of a five-game losing streak, tied for the team’s longest in the past four years. Over those four years, the Trail Blazers’ defensive efficiency ranking has regressed from sixth in 2017-18 to 29th this past regular season.
A drop in Portland’s defense
Defensive rating for the Portland Trail Blazers since 2017-18
A key culprit in 2020-21 was Portland’s habit of allowing the same buckets they should feast on. Only the lottery-bound Timberwolves and Cavaliers allowed catch-and-shoot 3-pointers at a worse rate than the Trail Blazers. Even more concerning is Portland’s lapse in protecting the paint. Last season, despite Nurkić making only 13 total appearances between the regular season and playoffs, the team ranked a respectable 11th in field-goal percentage allowed from the restricted area. This past regular season? The Trail Blazers fell to 28th.
Enter the trade deadline acquisition of 2019 NBA champion Norman Powell, whose defensive activity and overall versatility helped spark Portland’s stretch run. The Trail Blazers followed up their five-game losing streak with a league-best 10-2 record down the stretch. From April 27 to the end of the regular season, they ranked 11th among all teams in points per chance allowed near the basket.
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Over that 12-game span, Powell, Lillard, McCollum, Nurkić and 2018-19 All-Defense selection Robert Covington made for the NBA’s most active lineup (199 minutes) and sported a defensive rating of 105.9 as Portland notched wins over Utah, Brooklyn and Denver. That unit outscored opponents by 13.2 points per 100 possessions as Powell found a way to bring value to his new team’s playoff run.
“More and more, I’ve gotten comfortable in talking to the guys on what I see defensively throughout the game,” Powell said recently. “Telling the guys to pull over or be in the gaps, and different ways we can help with rotations and things like that. I’ve felt the respect of having a championship in the locker room — the guys have said it a couple times.”
Much of that came together in Portland’s Game 1 victory in Denver, as the Blazers set a team playoff record with 19 3-pointers. More importantly, Portland stifled Denver’s offense by granting MVP favorite Nikola Jokić more room to score (34 points on 27 shot attempts, second-most in his playoff career) than create for others (a playoff career-low one assist).
Those efforts exploited the void left by Jamal Murray’s season-ending injury despite Jokić filling more gaps in his absence. Since April 14, the team’s first game since Murray tore his ACL, the Nuggets are shooting just 28 percent on 3-pointers via pass from Jokić. That figure ranks 38th among 39 passers to create at least 100 such assist opportunities in that span. The Nuggets shot a respectable 9-22 (41 percent) on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers in Game 1, but they finished with one make on five such attempts from Jokić’s setups.
Limiting Jokić’s assist opportunities “was huge,” Lillard said. “We know when they’re at their best, he’s setting the table, he’s dominating the game as a playmaker, and he’s scoring. You know, he’s just kind of having his way. … We didn’t want to allow him to score and pick us apart. And, you know, I think that played in our favor.”
Portland replicated this approach in Game 2 by limiting Jokić to just four assist opportunities on catch-and-shoot setups, but the Nuggets held a 22-point advantage on points in the paint against the only team to average fewer than 40 such points this past regular season (39.3).
It remains to be seen whether the Trail Blazers can sustain their recent strides, but the timing couldn’t be better. Crafting a hot stretch into a deep postseason run is a tall task, but Portland’s defense could provide necessary answers toward eventually escaping the crowded Western Conference.
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