SUNS 104 – TRAIL BLAZERS 91: THE RED SOX WON THE WORLD SERIES

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Still trying to come up with a last minute Halloween costume idea? Fear not, I got you. Just take all of my hopes and dreams, put them in a box, set that box on fire, stomp on it a lot, and if anyone asks, tell them you’re Miles “The Lesser” Plumlee. Either that or get a slutty cop outfit and say you’re the Blazers defense. Not a whole lot looked good in Portland’s 104-91 season opening loss to the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Arena on Wednesday, and it started with Plumlee.

The second year big man out of Duke scored a whopping 13 points total during his entire rookie year last season with the Indiana Pacers. But on Wednesday, he had 10 points by the end of the first quarter to finish with 18 points, 15 rebounds, and 3 blocks. Robin Lopez, playing against his former team for the first time, normally relies on his effort level to make up for a lack of skill, but Plumlee worked too hard and with too much athleticism to employ for Lopez to match. Not that any center in the league could have matched Plumlee on a night when he started hitting skyhooks and step-back jumpers. It’s hard to imagine that the Phoenix Suns had the player last night in mind when they traded away veteran center Marcin Gortat, clearing a path for Plumlee into the starting rotation. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that was anything more than a “tanking”—err, build for the future—transaction. But with a young 7-footer blessed with athletic ability, sometimes all it takes to get some production and confidence is high energy and not being afraid to make mistakes at full speed AND MEYERS LEONARD I HOPE YOU’RE READING.

Unfortunately though, Plumlee’s career night was far from the only issue for the Blazer defense. Starting at the point, the explosive quickness of Eric Bledsoe created problems for Damian Lillard throughout the game. Despite Lillard’s offseason commitment to improving his defense, Bledsoe is exactly the type of player that Lillard has the most difficulty with. Fast, strong, relentlessly attacking, Bledsoe ran Lillard into numerous ball screens, rarely ever slowing a moment to allow Lillard to settle and find his defensive position. In the second half, Portland tried Batum on Bledsoe and the Frenchman used his length and defensive savvy to better success. But that left Lillard on the rugged P.J. Tucker, who bullied his way around the basket to 18 points, sprinkling in a few corner threes for good measure. The Suns leading scorer, Slovenian guard Goran Dragic, took advantage of Portland defenders who consistently and lazily sagged off of him to finish with 26 points on an array of jumpers, midrange and otherwise.

Each time in the second half that the Blazers would close the lead to make a run, they would give up an easy bucket or turn the ball over or fail to make the kind of plays necessary to win the game. In doing so, they wasted two admirable performances from their two stars. Damian Lillard led all scorers with 32 points, finishing 6-12 from beyond the arc, and was joined by LaMarcus Aldridge with 28 points. As a shooter, Lillard looked fearless and deadly. As a slasher, he looked calculated and creative. Aldridge too looked as automatic as ever with that 17-footer. But you’ve heard all that before.

The rest of the squad, including the “much improved” bench, failed to contribute much of anything. Batum defended relatively well and led the team in rebounding with 13 but only scored 7 points on 3-9 shooting. Newcomer Mo Williams, maybe heartbroken once again that Eric Bledsoe made a cameo in the latest Lebron ad and not Williams, played terribly. Fellow acquisition Dorrell Wright was basically invisible and the newly promoted Joel Freeland looked about like the normal Joel Freeland, which isn’t a compliment. The leading scorer on the bench – don’t get too excited, he only had 4 points – was Thomas Robinson, who brought energy and fire to the game, but only played 9 minutes.

Losing another team’s home opener is an appealing game to write off as an outlier, as not indicative of the season to come, especially when that game is against a team with as low of expectations as the Suns led by a rare performance from a player of Miles Plumlee’s caliber. But there may be some lessons learned in this particular game. First, Lillard’s defense or lack thereof may continue to hinder the Blazers if their point guard cannot at least make it somewhat difficult for opponents to get into their sets.

Secondly, while Lopez’s defensive impact is difficult to quantify when the other center is hitting nearly unguardable shots, the Blazers had a trend last year of allowing career days from random big men like Reggie Evans and Chris Kaman. If that pattern does not stop, coach Terry Stotts will have to become more creative with his lineups and abandon the rigidity of the “true” center. Every lineup in this game featured Lopez or Freeland but when defense is ineffective, eventually we may see more Robinson at the 5 with Wright at the 4. Or maybe, just maybe, someone can finally convince Aldridge that his skills are best emphasized at center, where he can use his strong post defense ability to defend the other team’s center and on offense, lure shot blockers away from the rim with his jump shot. Dare to dream. Now if only the sky can stay up for another 81 games.

TRAIL BLAZERS @ SUNS PREVIEW: THE MONSTER AWAKENS

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For the so-called awakening of Trail Blazer basketball after its 6-month hibernation, I sure feel pretty familiar already with the Phoenix Suns. It must be like one of those dreams so vivid that when you wake up, you have an Usher song stuck in your head and there’s a dead body in your bathtub. What I mean is that after seeing the Suns beat the Blazers two summer league contests and one preseason game, I still can’t tell the Morris twins apart but I do have some vague malice towards P.J. Tucker to go with a little bit of fear of the offensive potential of Goran Dragic, Channing Frye, and Archie Goodwin. For a team expected throughout the offseason to be among the worst in the NBA, the Suns haven’t looked that bad – at least against the Blazers.

When watching preseason games, there’s always a comforting voice in the background to gently remind that the real games will look different. Don’t worry, the lineups and actions and varied levels of execution will all be better in the real games, it says in its a reassuring tone. With the Blazers though, that might not be entirely the case. Coach Terry Stotts did spend plenty of time experimenting with lineups in the preseason, as he admitted, but the groups that he played in the latter section of the preseason schedule looked suspiciously realistic. While the team did carve up opponents during that same stretch, dreams of devastating offensive creations built around LaMarcus Aldridge at center and Dorrell Wright at the 4 still seem to inhabit only my dreamscape. But nonetheless, learning or confirming how Stotts plans on using his lineup this season should be one of the main insights from this first regular season game.

For a playoff hopeful like the Blazers, this is the kind of game they need to win consistently throughout the season. Meanwhile for a hopeful lottery winner like the Suns, this is the kind of game they will need to lose consistently throughout the season to fulfill their goal of drafting one of the top-five messiahs next June. But the Suns players may not be as spiritless and failure-driven as the Suns management. Eric Bledsoe, acquired from the Clippers over the summer, will want to prove this season that he’s more than just an athletic backup and that he can stand comfortably with some the elite point guards in the entire league — one of which he’ll be playing against tonight in Damian Lillard. Plus, Bledsoe was portrayed calling LeBron James in the latest feature-length commercial from Samsung, for whatever that’s worth. Bledsoe’s backcourt mate Goran Dragic has shown that while giving up Steve Nash to turn the reigns over to Dragic may have been a bit too bold, the Slovenian guard certainly has the ability for some big scoring nights. Even backup, and former Kentucky Wildcat, Archie Goodwin brings some additional scoring talent to the wing position, albeit packaged in a frame that might weigh 85 lbs soaking wet.

Where the Suns gave Portland the most trouble though in the meetings over the summer and early autumn were with the versatility of the big men. Markieff Morris, his twin brother Marcus, and former Trail Blazer Channing Frye (back after missing last season with a heart issue), can all step outside and hit jumpers, which the Portland bigs were not comfortable defending. Also apt to step outside in another sense of the term is Phoenix’s bulldog of a small forward, P.J. Tucker, who seemed to involve himself in at least a few of the skirmishes that curiously plagued the preseason meeting between these two squads. Maybe leave Tucker alone this time. It’s only the first game and nobody wants to end up a body in P.J.’s bathtub.

SEASON PREVIEW: BASIC INSTRUCTIONS BEFORE LEAVING EARTH

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For the first time in a long time, the Portland Trail Blazers enter a new season without the irrational expectation of imminent greatness, or under a cloud of disappointment raining the meniscus particles of lost dreams, or glazed in the apathy that comes when making a bench out of paper-mâché and Jared Jeffries. Greg Oden is in Miami like flea market furniture. Brandon Roy is dried tears and an argument about retiring jerseys. The wounds might not be totally gone but at least they are no longer bleeding.

There is no more getting mad at the coach for allegedly holding the team back, getting mad at the players who allegedly tried to mutiny the coach for allegedly holding the team back, or living sadly in the rubble that it all left behind. If the era of the great Jail Blaze segued straight into the Roy-led “Rip City Revival,” then the late 1990s would have to be the last time that a new season of Blazers basketball felt this fresh, free from pressure, and self-contained. It’s just a basketball team now, rather than a runaway bandwagon or a vehicle for revolution or a pile of smoldering wreckage.

There is the established star in LaMarcus Aldridge and the precocious climber in Damian Lillard. There are the proven role players in Nicolas Batum, Wes Matthews, and Robin Lopez, as well as genuine NBA players to round out the bench in Mo Williams and Dorrell Wright. There’s the budding potential of Thomas Robinson, the ready-made shooting stroke of Allen Crabbe, and the ongoing excitement of the Will Barton experience. There’s even the hope of an eternal flame lighting inside of Meyers Leonard, Victor Claver finding consistency, and Joel Freeland doing whatever it is that he does at an improved level from how he used to do it. The team looks good enough to compete for a playoff spot, but still flawed—or maybe just unrealized—so as to remain free from pressure. What a perfectly benevolent space to inhabit.

The journey is the destination, if there can even be a destination when the journey could go so many different directions, or maybe it’s just a journey of pure exploration, and sorry but there has to be a “Trail Blazer” pun in there somewhere. The point is, the season should be fun. The outcome likely will depend heavily on how creatively and effectively coach Terry Stotts can employ the versatility of players like Lillard, Williams, Batum, Wright, Barton, and Aldridge to create kaleidoscopic lineups of surreal terror. It will also obviously depend on the players themselves: whether Lillard can avoid the dreaded sophomore slump and even improve where he lacks, whether Williams can consistently contribute as both a shooter and playmaker, whether or not Batum emerges finally into something resembling a star, whether Freeland can be a serviceable backup center, whether Robinson can live up to his pedigree, and whether Aldridge can remain a dispassionate machine of nightly 21 and 9 lines. But watching all of those variables manifest and collide and hopefully flourish in concert with one another will make for an exciting season, because nothing is more exciting than blazing a new trail into uncharted territory, and there’s that pesky pun I was looking for.

Too much is put into the importance of championships. Not to get on some “everybody’s-a-winner” ish, but it’s terribly unfortunate that the only team that gets to endure in the annals of history is the one that brings home the big trophy at the end of the year. Though the banner might officially legitimize the memory of that season as worth hanging onto, there are plenty of other teams whose names ring out in oral history because the experience of watching them was too damn exciting to ignore and their fans just won’t shut up about it. Think Baron’s Warriors or the ’04 Pistons or the entire existence of the ABA. They might have begun with little expectation and often with glaring flaws that never quite went away. But over the course of the season, the players gelled into a team to create an unorthodox, Frankenstein’s monster of an identity that allowed them to surpass anyone’s expectations and capture the hearts of their fans forever. This Blazer team may not be able to get on that level, but they do have some of the right ingredients, and watching those ingredients get put to use should be exciting enough.

Now first, to saddle them with the weight of expectation: 45 wins, 7-seed, first round playoff win over the Clippers.

ON DAMIAN LILLARD’S DEFENSE

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How good of a point guard is Damian Lillard?

Pretty damn good. Although only one season into his career, Lillard has already proven the caliber of his game. He won the Rookie of the Year award unanimously and connected on more 3-pointers (185) than any rookie in the history of the NBA. He played with the poise of a seasoned veteran and was an absolute force on the offensive end.

Yet on the other side of the ball, he doesn’t quite shine in the same way. Even Lillard himself has stressed the need to improve his defense in order to complete his own developing game, and to set a tone of defensive commitment for the rest of his team. So how bad was he really?

With any exploration into defensive evaluation one should first recognize that defensive output is far more difficult to quantify than that of offense. Statistics-wise, many defensive metrics are still in a state of development. Some of these formulas completely ignore numerous defensive actions (i.e. shot contesting, active help defense, quick and consistent rotations). With others, ample lineup data is needed in order to arrive at an accurate result (see specifics of RAPM for details). When examining film as well, some details are at times hazy — players’ actions often depend on the defensive systems they play in. With some teams players are taught to be more aggressive on the pick-and-roll, for instance, or to sag far off their man and help. There are times when their calculated micro-movements and defensive philosophies are not easily understood.

This is why it’s important to apply a healthy balance of advanced statistics and educated film analysis when concerned with someone’s defensive ability. Bearing this in mind, we can take look at Damian Lillard.

 

What do the stats say?

Talking Practice Blog’s IPVd is, in short, an all-encompassing stat that looks to evaluate how much a player is hurting or helping his team’s defense per 100 possessions. Last season, Damian Lillard’s IPVd sat at a -1.0, which dragged his all-inclusive IPV down to around 100th in the league (for a Rookie of the Year and soon-to-be All-Star, one might call this a disappointing rating). RAPM, similar in nature but with more emphasis on box score data, put Lillard in a similar boat. He posted a -1.5 RAPM rating on defense to rank at a mere 104th in the league. 82games.com’s on/off statistic also suggests the Blazers’ defense was worse with Damian Lillard playing, as they allowed an extra 2.4 points per 100 possessions. Basketball-Reference’s defensive rating says Damian Lillard allowed 112 points per 100 possessions when defending – noticeably higher than his team’s already poor defensive rating of 109.2. Finally, D-ASPM — a metric derived from exclusively box score data — gave Lillard a putrid 1.80 (for this metric, the higher the worse). This was notably inferior to other young, talented point guards: John Wall posted a -0.79 D-ASPM, Russell Westbrook a -0.56, Stephen Curry a 0.01, and Kyrie Irving a 0.80.

Only 82games.com’s Opponent Counterpart 48-Minute Production does not rate Lillard as harshly. Opposing point guards averaged a 15.5 PER when defended by Lillard. While this isn’t a great mark, it looks adequate when compared to that of players like Stephen Curry (16.5), and John Wall (19.7).

All in all, the vast majority of metrics appear to say the same thing in Lillard’s case: he clearly hurts his team on defense.

 

What does the film show regarding Lillard’s defense?

More bad than good. Below (enable captions):

First, Damian has a tendency to get caught up when encountering on-ball screens – not only does he not position himself favorably, but he also doesn’t recover well after making contact with the screener. This is important to note, given the importance of the pick-and-roll in modern NBA offenses. A good pick-and-roll defender will always have his head on a swivel (think Chris Paul or Mike Conley). These little guys cannot avoid getting hit by screeners sometimes, but gritting your teeth and pushing through, quickly accelerating afterwards, or gracefully rolling off the screener’s body can significantly help the team’s chances of getting a stop. Damian Lillard has yet to show much of that in his play.

Lillard’s defensive motor was also a cause for concern. He was seen at times to give up mid-play and his closeouts and shot-contests were often too half-assed. Even the innate reactions that shone so much on offense were very lacking on defense, as a quick first step often caught him off guard. At 6’3” and 195 lbs, Lillard isn’t the smallest point guard by any means, but he still would get pushed around sometimes by bigger, or more rugged, opponents.

 

Are there any good signs with Lillard’s defense?

Certainly, Lillard does have some things going for him. Mentally, he’s shown to be a very cerebral player on offense and as he gains experience, some of his natural savvy should translate over to the defensive end. Physically, he has great footspeed and a 39.5 inch vertical leap, both being coveted tools that should help with a large number of things on defense. In fact, while his on-ball defensive deficiency received most of the attention, overlooked was his effectiveness as an active help defender in Portland’s system. His near-6’8” wingspan will continue to come in handy for being a pest and shot contesting. Below, we see him buckling down where we get a glimpse of the havoc he can cause with active help and great length:

Can he get better?

At this point, Trail Blazers fans should feel relieved to hear their star point guard own up to his defensive deficiencies, which the stats suggest are very real. If Damian pushes himself to put forth more effort on defense, he should at least relieve the issues related to motor and focus. Defense doesn’t always come naturally, even to athletic and smart players — i.e. Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson, James Harden, or Amar’e Stoudemire — but given Damian’s tools, the rest can come if he realizes the mental and physical potential. Barring a growth in offensive output to a prime-Nash level, Damian Lillard must realize that potential if he’s to find himself involved in any “top point guard” discussions.

(PRESEASON) TRAIL BLAZERS 90 – WARRIORS 74: TIME TO CRAM

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So that’s it. The next one will count, which is to say it has a tangible impact on the possibility for the Trail Blazers to win the 2014 NBA Championship. The Blazers’ 90-74 win over the Golden State Warriors in Oakland’s Oracle Arena on Thursday only had a tangential impact on the possibility to win a championship, insomuch as it hopefully put the team in peak form to finish the preseason and transition to the regular season. Unfortunately though, Portland still could not get its expected regular season starting lineup on the floor together after guard Wesley Matthews experienced an irregular heartbeat at Wednesday’s practice, sidelining him for the time being. In his place, Coach Terry Stotts went with the more natural off-guard Will Barton over starting Mo Williams and Damian Lillard together. Maybe feeling the pressure of opportunity with opening day looming and the shooting guard slot open, Barton struggled with both his shooting on offense and his defense against the Warriors’ Klay Thompson, who scored 6 of his eventual 16 points in the first quarter. But more than a lack of production, Barton appeared to be playing more passively and conscious of himself, unlike his usual freewheeling and unpredictable style.

After trailing 48-41 at halftime, Portland opened the second half with Dorrell Wright in place of Barton, playing the 3 in a big lineup with Nicolas Batum sliding up to the 2. While most of the more intriguing lineups seen in the preseason have been various experiments in the realm of “smallball,” it was a refreshing change to see Stotts experiment in the other direction. Of course, it helped that it was a wild success. With 10:49 remaining in the third quarter, Marreese Speights scored for Golden State to take a 52-41 lead. From that point on though, the Warriors didn’t score again until 2:24 left in the quarter, allowing the Blazers to reel off a 22-0 run. Big third quarter runs have been something of a theme for the Blazers throughout the preseason, but normally they had been spearheaded by Damian Lillard completely demoralizing his point guard counterpart. The run on Thursday saw some more nice play from Lillard, who finished with a game-high 21 points, but it also featured a strong balance with contributions from Wright, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Robin Lopez – and 12 of the 22 points came at the free throw line. Aldridge would finish the game with 16 points and 12 rebounds, with Lopez adding 11 points and 7 rebounds, and Wright tacking on 7 points.

The most complete game of the night might have been turned in by the 5th starter, Nicolas Batum, who tallied 10 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 block, and 1 steal. When Batum takes criticism, which is not infrequent, it normally centers on his apparent propensity to disappear from games, despite allegedly being one of the stars of the team. But sometimes, he’s at his best when he’s not a shining star but a kind of black hole – not necessarily standing out with shining spectacles, yet the game just gravitating in his direction, allowing him to employ his varied skill-set with subtle but unrelenting effectiveness. Thursday was one of those kind of nights for Batum, who in addition to his high rebound numbers and ability to score when needed, also spent much of his time on the court—especially during the run in the second half—defending the Warriors star guard, Stephen Curry. Curry would finish the game 7-22 from the field and though he didn’t look sharp shooting the ball even when open, it’s hard to think that at least some of those struggles came from the harassing length and defensive focus applied by Batum.

So that’s it; we’re here, but where exactly is here? Lillard looks as solid as ever, with his scoring ability even deeper ingrained to go with his committed, and shown, improvement on defense. LaMarcus is LaMarcus, still filled with a bottomless supply of 17-footers and 21 and 8 nights. Batum still appears capable of disappearing into the game for both better and worse. Lopez is about what everyone expected, a big body who holds his own in the paint, attacks the glass with energy, but can’t score with any consistency. After that, though, it gets hazy. With Matthews out for now, Mo Williams has looked the better backcourt partner with Lillard, but Stotts seems wary of playing them together too much, possibly out of fear of being too undersized or maybe he feels Williams can be better served as a steadying playmaking hand with the second unit. Most alarming though is the development that Freeland appears to slated to be the backup center. Leonard didn’t play at all on Thursday until garbage time, with Freeland playing the lion’s share of the bench minutes at the 5 spot. What’s frightening there is that I feel like I’ve watched a lot of Joel Freeland and yet I still don’t even know what he does—like what is his purported specialty? I suppose he’s tall, he can get in the way of people, and he has a little jump shot that pokes its head out every now and again. I guess that I just wish that in all the lineup experimentation, Stotts had run a few more minutes with Thomas Robinson up front with Aldridge. No time left now though. Monday, it’s for real.

A FEW BASICS OF THE TRAIL BLAZER OFFENSE

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First of all, it’s good to be back. I know the collective Internet was worrying its pretty little head about where I went, but worry no more (ed. note: I cried every night.). Now, on to business. To get back into gear for the season I’m going to bring you some posts about the workings of last season’s offense and defense. This will be a refresher course of what the Blazers looked like a year ago (good and bad) and how that might translate to this season. This isn’t necessarily meant to be absolutely comprehensive. These were just some of the notable highlights.

 

1. LaMarcus and the left block

Assuming you didn’t just start caring about the Blazers yesterday, you know that LaMarcus Aldridge functions as a hub of activity for the Blazers’ offense. And his favorite spot? The left block. Almost 15 percent of all Aldridge’s shots come from the left side, 8-16 feet from the basket. From there, he shoots 44.7 percent, which is 5.6 percent better than the league average.

However, Aldridge doesn’t simply run to the block on every possession. To get there, he uses screens to create misdirection before receiving the entry pass.

Here, Aldridge is going to get a cross screen from Wes Matthews in order to get into position.

The screen helps Aldridge gain a clean seal and space around him for Lillard to enter the ball. A couple of dribbles, and the seemingly effortless turnaround over his right shoulder results in an easy bucket. There’s no doubt that this will continue to be a go-to set for the Blazers throughout the upcoming season.

 

2. Lillard, the attacker

Reigning Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard impressed a lot of people in his first season in the league. He was a prolific 3-point shooter with a polished game and rare poise for a young player. But what I liked most was how fearless he was in attacking the basket. Lillard was able to use his strong frame and hesitation dribbles to make his way to the hoop a lot last season. In fact, his 4.2 shots per game at the rim placed him in the top 15 for point guards last year. Though he only converted those attempts at an average rate, his close-range ability with both hands is a good sign going forward.

But Lillard didn’t just wantonly crash towards the hoop. Employing that aforementioned polish and poise, he often used his penetration to kick the ball out or dish inside at the last second.

The following play starts late in the shot clock after Lillard has shown patience in not forcing offense that wasn’t there. Fellow rookie Meyers Leonard then sets a high screen in order to get something going with 9 seconds to shoot.

The Jazz fumble with the pick and roll defense and the lane opens up for Lillard. Utah’s weakside defenders rotate into the paint enough that Lillard would either be forced into a mid-range pull-up or a contested attempt at the rim. But Lillard sees J.J. Hickson creeping along the baseline for an alley-oop finish. Bigs trolling the baseline, or even out of bounds, will likely be something the Blazers do more frequently this season, after George Karl effectively utilized the tactic like a mad man last year in Denver. With an ideal pick-and-pop partner like LaMarcus Aldridge and a big roll-man like Robin Lopez, these high screen looks will continue to allow Lillard to use his precocious savvy to create good shots for himself or his teammates.

 

3. Batum in the “Flow”

Of course, we can’t talk about Portland’s offense without discussing Stotts’ “Flow” system. The constant motion of wings around off-ball screens from bigs leads to a lot of beautiful cuts and open shots, as defenders lose their marks in the perpetual movement.

Here, Nicolas Batum will take two elbow screens off the ball from J.J. Hickson and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Batum takes the pass from Lillard, but immediately flips it back, shifting the defense’s focus off of him. But as he takes the second screen, Jared Dudley (who is already trailing too far behind Batum) gets caught up. Luis Scola makes a lazy hedge and Batum ends up wide open for a dunk. Variations of these sets can include crashing down the lane after the first screen or fading along the three-point line, all depending on how the defense reacts.

 

While the Blazers’ glaring issues last season on defense became more of a lightning rod for conversation, their versatility and varied skill-sets should have led to more than just league average production on offense. Now entering the second year under Stotts, the players’ greater familiarity with the “flow” system and their ability to better utilize and streamline the actions outlined above should go a long way to create a more dynamic, efficient attack.

(PRESEASON) TRAIL BLAZERS 109 – KINGS 105: VENGEANCE AND AIR GUITAR SOLOS

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Revenge is a dish best served when the stakes are low and it’s being served to starving eaters desperate for anything remotely edible to sink their teeth into (in that metaphor, we’re the eaters and our teeth is our enthusiasm and Thomas Robinson is that hopefully edible thing). Starting in place of the hobbled LaMarcus Aldridge against the team that drafted Robinson fifth overall in 2011 (before trading him halfway through the year to the Houston Rockets), the second year forward took the first possession of the game straight to the rack with the same strong spin move that he relied on heavily in Las Vegas Summer League. On the second possession, he knocked down a long two-point jumper from the top and things were off and rolling for both the former Kansas Jayhawk and the Blazers’ offense. Robinson would finish the game with 14 points and 8 rebounds while the Blazers rode their torrid shooting as a team to a quick 30-19 lead at the end of the first quarter.

The second quarter saw the single most spectacular moment of the game, a moment of explosion so awesome that it deserves its own paragraph. It began when Nicolas Batum missed an open three from the left corner. Robin Lopez, who had been working tirelessly on the offensive glass all night, found good position underneath to corral the missed shot, and boxed out Sacramento’s Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez. But as the shot bounced off the iron and then the backboard, caroming towards Lopez, Thomas Robinson, who had been out of the television frame for most of the sequence, all of a sudden appeared. And when I say appeared, I mean he surged in from the top of the key, leapt from just outside the restricted circle, soared over the mortals waiting hopefully for rebound scraps, then grabbed the ball at its highest point with his left hand and dunked it all over Patterson, Lopez, and the many galaxies contained within Lopez’s hair. Poor Patrick Patterson, bless his heart, was left frozen in the immediate aftermath with his arms out to his sides, slightly hunched over, seemingly frustrated that his favorite purple road uniform was now drenched in the invisible gore left from the violence of Robinson’s dunk.

Not to get lost amongst Robinson’s dynamism in the contest was the strong play from the rest of the Portland frontcourt. Robin Lopez toiled unrelentingly down low, both on the glass and in finding easy buckets, finishing with 14 points and 7 rebounds. Meanwhile, Joel Freeland played some very inspired ball himself, recording 7 points and 9 rebounds. They obviously didn’t see the post-ups or isolations that Portland runs with Aldridge out there, but some nifty passing and smart movement got the big men the ball in favorable positions, just as it also got the shooters open looks and found the wing players on cuts to the rim. In fact, even Meyers Leonard flashed an Arvydas-ian bounce pass from the high post through a tight window to find a cutting Dorrell Wright for a baseline dunk. If such unselfish, free-flowing play in the offensive end can carry into the regular season, the fate of the Blazers’ results may not be as tied to the shooting performances of the stars, which is not at all to say that their star shot poorly in this game.

Apparently Damian Lillard decided sometime this summer or early autumn that the third quarter would be the time when he lays waste to all in his path. On Friday, he used the period to burn Chris Paul’s hall of fame application essay. Then on Sunday, Lillard decided that no one player on the Kings felt worthy enough for his focused attention, so instead he just destroyed all of them, especially that nylon punk hanging all nonchalant from the rim. Raining jumpers off the dribble and spotting up, Lillard scored 16 of his game-high 28 points in the third quarter as the Blazers led by as many as 12 with 4 minutes to go in the period. During the game, Blazers team blogger Casey Holdahl tweeted that Lillard spoke after the Clippers performance about letting the game come to him in the first half before asserting himself more in the second half. Word, Damian, I’m pretty sure William Tecumseh Sherman said something similar before burning down most of Georgia. Keep getting in your Zen space in the first half and leaving behind scorched Earth in the second half.

But like the game against the Clippers on Friday, the Blazers’ surge in the third quarter didn’t leave their opponent as dead as Portland might have thought. The Kings stormed back into the game with a run that bridged the latter stage of the third quarter and first half of the fourth quarter, culminating in a three-pointer from Ben McLemore that gave Sacramento a 90-88 lead with five minutes left in the game. On Friday, Blazers coach Terry Stotts left his bench in the game to close out the Clippers, but in this one, he reinserted the starting lineup for crunch time. Both teams traded buckets for a short stretch until the Portland starters began to pull away. A three-pointer from Nicolas Batum put the Blazers up 9 with just over 2 minutes to play, effectively deciding the game.

The exciting performances from Lillard and Robinson may have highlighted the night for fans (and this blogger), but Stotts is likely to be thinking about how his team let an opponent close what should have been a comfortable gap for the second straight game, and he’ll most definitely be wondering how his team gave up 27 points to Patrick Patterson. Yes, Patrick Patterson scored 27 points. Patrick Patterson. 27 points. If Thomas Robinson needs any ingredients to cook up some more vengeance for when these teams meet again, he could probably start with that.

(PRESEASON) TRAIL BLAZERS 94 – CLIPPERS 84: GOD LOVES UGLY

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Ugly is a surprisingly versatile descriptor. At the most basic level, ugliness is Quasimodo, something so horrifyingly unpleasant that the only way to deal with it is to lock it away in a bell tower where no one except prying gypsies will ever find it. But another understanding of the word is in the description, “winning ugly”. To win ugly generally means to purposefully create an environment that is unpleasant and inhospitable to everyone except the designer. It is ugliness carefully crafted for a specific outcome, which sort of makes it not ugliness at all, since ugliness is the absence of anything attractive, and executing a plan to win is an undeniably attractive idea. Then there’s the kind of ugliness that is the mole on Cindy Crawford’s face. It’s when the sheer power of the surrounding beauty transforms a glaring, ugly imperfection into an interesting mark of character that only makes the beauty feel more special. I wish I could say that the Trail Blazers’ 94-84 victory over the Clippers on Friday night was ugly in the last sense, or even the second sense, but I’m afraid it was just a case of a nice gypsy with little care for physical appearance finding her way into the bell tower.

When NBATV finally cut over to the action at the Staples Center after the Bulls and Pacers finished their contest in Chicago, the still scoreless line at the 9:50 mark in the first quarter felt almost like a polite courtesy from the two teams for those of us arriving late. However, it soon became clear that the lack of scoring was more indicative of the poor quality of play, rather than any kind of thoughtfulness. The Blazers jumped out to a 7-0 lead, but their carelessness with the ball out-uglied the Clippers’ shooting woes, and the first period ended with the Clips holding an 18-15 advantage. With Wes Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge sidelined due to injuries, Will Barton and Joel Freeland started in their steads, and the lack of on-court chemistry surely contributed to the Blazers racking up a mind-boggling 19 turnovers in the first half, finishing with 26 turnovers for the game. But though discontinuity with some of the new lineups may have contributed to the sloppy play, it could not have been wholly responsible for the abjectly embarrassing display of ball security, highlighted by the Blazers somehow turning the ball over twice in one possession. Let the physicists of a future age theorize the explanations for how that happened. While they’re at it, they could probably also try to explain how, despite 19 turnovers and some alarmingly spectacular DeAndre Jordan feats of strength, the Blazers only found themselves down 43-42 at halftime.

Last Friday against the Utah Jazz, Damian Lillard took it upon himself to destroy the very fabric of Trey Burke’s existence, to menacingly grab a loose strand of yarn on the sweater of Burke’s soul and watch the rookie walk away. Of course, that was a week ago and Trey Burke is a weak and feeble rookie and it happened in Boise without television and so who even knows, right? But in the third quarter of this game, Lillard took it upon himself to destroy Chris Paul’s existence and, holy cow, was it so much more awesome. Beyond his usual array of pull-up jumpers and pick-and-roll prowess, Lillard drilled a deep jumper from a healthy two-step behind the three-point line, and backed Paul down hard in the mid-post for an easy turnaround floater. Lillard finished with 12 points in the quarter (and 16 in the game), including a 7-0 personal run, and even his defense looked inspired as he frustrated Paul into not being able to get his normal shots and facilitate the Clipper offense. After the game, Chris Paul’s son “Lil Chris” would be quoted by CSNNW’s Chris Haynes identifying Lillard as “the good one” and led by the best one on the court in this contest, the Blazers took a 66-59 lead into the fourth.

The Clippers fell behind by 17 points at 80-63 with nine minutes left in the game until Darren Collison started doing…umm…non-Darren Collison things. Collison, a solid backup point guard for most of his career, all of a sudden turned into the molten hybrid of Allen Iverson and Nate Robinson in this game, finishing with a game-high 31 points and keying a 15-2 run that cut the Blazer lead to 82-78 with about five minutes remaining. Fortunately, the Blazers bench was led by Will Barton’s 10 points and 10 rebounds, Victor Claver who drained a dagger three in the final minutes, and Thomas Robinson’s 13 rebounds, and they managed to hold back the Collison tide and hang on for the win. When I say “fortunately” there, I mean that without any hint of preseason sarcasm because for those players fighting for rotation spots, losing a lead like that so quickly could cripple their limited confidence heading into the season. Preseason or not, learning how to win and building the vital mutual trust in these games is critical for the development of these young bench players. Meanwhile over on the Clippers bench, young center Byron Mullens continues to audition for the role of glaring, ugly mole on the otherwise Cindy Crawford face that is the Clippers roster by shooting a stunning 0/7 from three-point range. Sometimes ugliness is just too perfect.

AN INTERVIEW WITH ANTHONY STEVENSON OF EA SPORTS ON NBA LIVE 14, DAMIAN LILLARD, PERSONAL STYLE, AND NEXT-GEN GAMING

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EA Sports will be relaunching the NBA Live franchise this year after not releasing an installment since NBA Live 10 in 2009. This past week, it was announced that the Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard would be part of the NBA Live 14 Lineup along with cover athlete Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Wizards’ John Wall, the Magic’s Victor Oladipo, the Bobcats’ Kemba Walker, and the Timberwolves’ Ricky Rubio. These six players were chosen under Live 14’s banner slogan, “Nothing But Next,” and as featured players, they had greater involvement in both the marketing and development of the game, ensuring the accurate appearance of their likenesses and that their signature moves would be included in the gameplay. I had a chance to interview EA Sports’ Senior Director of Marketing, Anthony Stevenson, on the same day that EA Sports released the first 5-on-5 trailer of Live 14 (viewable here). Stevenson spoke in more detail about how Lillard and the other featured players reflect EA Sports’ mentality in creating and marketing the game, the importance of personal style in the NBA game and the greater ability of next-generation gaming technology to bring that style to video games, as well as how modern basketball analytics influenced the game’s development and gameplay. Read the full transcript below (slightly edited for flow).

 

JS: As the Senior Director of Marketing with EA Sports, what were your goals and mindset with re-launching the Live franchise?

AS: Yeah, well it was great. We did a lot of research early on and we knew it was going to be a challenging year. And we were excited about the next generation of consoles to come out. And what we found is, we talked to a lot of basketball fans and they really love EA Sports. A lot of people enjoyed the Live series and while it was a rocky couple of years, people genuinely wanted us to come back. We were really excited at that opportunity to be able to kind of embrace our heritage but also look to usher in a new generation of technology and a new generation of NBA Live. And that’s kind of the mantra that’s permeated everything we do. It’s why Damian [Lillard] is one of our key ambassadors.

So the goals for this year were pretty simple: just to re-establish ourselves, make it clear that we’re focused on nothing but next generation, whether it be the NBA stars that we work with or just the consoles in general—we are only on PS4 and Xbox One this November—and really laying the foundation for what we kind of view internally as a 2-3 year journey where we hopefully will, at that time, get back on top of the mountain in a similar fashion to our Madden series, our FIFA series, our golf series, UFC when that comes out next year. The goal for EA Sports is always to be the premier gaming franchise for every sport that we play in. And so this is a multi-year journey for us and we’re really excited to get the first step here going.

 

So by picking that group of young, up-and-coming players, did that match the mentality that you had re-launching the game?

Absolutely, yeah, absolutely. You know, it started with Kyrie [Irving]. Every position on the court is important but what you find is that the NBA sort of goes through transitions where certain positions tend to get—almost seem like they’re elevated. And certainly, this generation feels like the young generation of the point guard. You know, Chris Paul and Derrick Rose, Steve Nash, those guys sort of got it going but now with Damian Lillard, with Kyrie Irving, guys like that coming in, there’s such immense talent at that position. And what we realized is when we talked about next generation technology—the art of the dribble. All of these players, that’s their signature. That is their calling, it’s their dribble. Nobody does a crossover the same way. Nobody does a hesitation or a step-back the same way. That’s their kind of unique paint brush that they use to kind of paint the picture of, tell the story of, their game. And so, we wanted guys that really personified that. So Ricky Rubio, Kyrie, Damian, we signed Victor Oladipo, the number two pick who’s gonna be on the Magic this year, and all those guys sort of share that.

With Kyrie specifically, and Damian as well, we really wanted to focus on players from teams that kind of help tell our story. So if you think about the Cleveland Cavaliers, they had it all when they had LeBron [James] there, right? And then LeBron left and they lost their way a little bit. But now with Kyrie, it really signaled a big time change. And they are certainly in contention to be a playoff contender this year with all the signings: with [Andrew] Bynum, and getting [Anderson] Varejao back, and [Tristan] Thompson, and all of those guys. Now, they’re rebounding. And that’s exactly what this franchise is doing. We have a strong heritage, but in a lot of ways this is a new beginning, a new generation for us both from a technology standpoint and from an overall brand standpoint. So that was why we went that way.

And you think about Portland, Portland’s got such a rich tradition, some of the best fans in the league from the days of, you know, [Clyde] Drexler—I mean you can go on forever and ever. But now they’re very young, and up and coming. LaMarcus Aldridge is an absolute stud, one of the best post players in the game today. Damian, being Rookie of the Year, has been amazing. You got [Nicolas] Batum—there’s just a lot of youth on that team and a lot of energy and that’s what we’re about.

 

When you were talking about picking these players because that’s the way the league was moving, becoming more of a point guard driven league, how else will that effect the gameplay? For example, you talked about the new dribbling technology, but will there also be a greater focus on the pick-and-roll and the AI around that?

Yeah, absolutely, and [that’s] one of the things that we really wanted to get—and that’s not to say that we’re not focused on post play, because we are. The way the game is built is really structured around the way the NBA is played. And right now, it’s very point guard. It’s very pick-and-roll. The post play is very physical. And that’s been a challenge, to bring that physicality to a basketball video game. So we really focused on bringing that. When LaMarcus is banging in the post, and then he turns around to get that jumper off, you’re gonna feel that physicality. You’re gonna feel the defender banging up against you—the momentum and force of the defender and LaMarcus as well. So, you know, that’s really what we do. We just look at the game.

And as far as point guards are concerned, it’s all about signature style. On the right stick [of the controller], we’ve got six signature moves tied to the most popular, the most dynamic point guards in the league, Damian as well. So whether it be Steph Curry’s step-back or Carmelo gathering his “J”, all of those things, you’ll do it in the game and you’ll go, “Oh my god, that looks just like so-and-so.” Having those signature styles, I think that’s what makes the NBA so unique in terms of sports games. You think about the NFL, you don’t hear a lot of people talk about Aaron Rodgers’s arm angle versus Drew Brees’s arm angle or the way that they pass. They’re just amazing quarterbacks and they’re cerebral. But in the NBA, it’s one-on-one battles and you really see the different styles. As I told you earlier, everybody’s crossover is different. And to bring that to life, we needed that Bounce-tek technology. So that’s one of the big things for us this year and really what that means is, we’ve separated the ball from the hand, which sounds obvious. But when you add the physics to it, it really allows you to bring those unique styles that each player has to life, and [it’s made possible through] the next generation technology, which is powered by our EA Sports Ignite engine. It’s a next generation engine that we share with FIFA and with Madden and for NBA Live 14 to be able to take advantage of that, to bring these point guards to life and show off their unique styles, it’s really exciting.

 

As far as Lillard specifically, how much was he involved in the development process?

A lot! So he came, he literally came to our studios, spent the whole day with the team. We did motion capture with him. So we’re tracking all of his movements and making sure we got all of his signature styles in the game, his signature moves in the game. And he got to see that first-hand and help us make adjustments, not only for his personal style, but also for the game in general. We did a face and body scan to make sure that his likeness looks just like himself in-game so if you’ve seen some of the teasers that we’ve released thus far—we actually had our first big 5-on-5 trailer that we released this morning and Damian’s featured in that. He looks just like him, and that’s the goal. So he spent the day with us, the team, and he had a lot of valuable input across all the areas of the game and certainly, he was most fired up about making sure his likeness and his signature moves were captured just right.

 

Cool, so that signature move of his, will that be the hesitation dribble that he has?

Yeah, you got it. You get a little bit of a taste of it in the trailer that we released today, so you can take a look at it.

 

So another thing is, the Blazers specifically have a guy, Ben Falk, and a lot of other teams have similar analytics gurus that have had greater influence on personnel and even the play on the court. How much of the modern basketball analytics are factoring in to your player ratings, gameplay, etc.?

Oh my gosh, I’m glad you asked this. It’s one of the things that really sets our game apart. So we have something that we call “Court Q”, and Court Q is really just, I guess at a high level, it’s the intelligence and sort of science behind the game of basketball: everything from the way the players move and the way they anticipate. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Synergy [Sports], but all of the NBA teams use this data. So we’re tracking over 70 traits and tendencies, and those traits and those tendencies inform every action that a player does on the court. The really neat thing about it is, again with next generation technology, that these games are always alive. They always feel fresh and new. We’re updating these player tendencies and traits, not daily, not weekly, not monthly, [but] within an hour after every NBA game. So if Damian nails from three-point, and he’s shooting at a 75% clip, we’ll update that immediately. And when you’re playing against Damian, he’s gonna be money from downtown. So we’re able to make those adjustments on the fly. And as I said, over 70 traits and tendencies, so it’s really, really deep and all of our gameplay is informed by this Synergy data.

 

So my last question—one of my favorite features in the old NBA Live game was the Dunk Contest as part of All-Star Saturday Night thing where you could take Tom Chambers and do double through the legs, throw it off the Jumbotron—will there be a dunk contest in this one?

[laughter] Well not in this one. You’ll have to stay tuned. As I said, this is a multi-year journey. And that was certainly one of the more enjoyable parts of NBA Live over the years. But for us, for this year with the new technology, the focus was all on gameplay and getting all of that right and laying that foundation. And then as time goes on—and you’re gonna see that across the board, our Madden franchise, our FIFA franchise—with the first year of the technology, a lot of it is nailing down that core, laying down that foundation. And then all of the sort of ancillary pieces – things like that, like Dunk Contests, stuff like that – that’s all stuff we’ll look to layer on over the next couple years.

 

NBA Live 14 releases for Xbox One and PlayStation 4 on November 19th.

(PRESEASON) TRAIL BLAZERS 99 – JAZZ 92: A GLIMPSE OF LIGHT

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Amidst the steady stream of self-deprecation and sarcasm on Twitter and the lack of people in the actual world with whom to discuss it, one would be forgiven for having a moment of personal crisis and asking why he or she is digging around the Internet or on some obscure cable channel to watch mere preseason basketball. But though the outcome of these games may not matter, we watch preseason basketball because it offers the opportunity to see glimpses—or what we can believe are glimpses—of our hopes, yet without the imminent fear of disappointment that will plague us later, since it’s only preseason, after all. We watch preseason basketball for moments like the 1st quarter of the Trail Blazers’ 99-92 win over the Jazz in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, when Damian Lillard was running the pick and roll with LaMarcus Aldridge to near perfection, turning the corner like a Formula One car, then finding Aldridge with an exquisite drop pass for a lay-up, or finding him back at the top of the key for an open jumper, or rotating the ball out to the wing to swing around for an open three-pointer.

For those 3 or 4 minutes, everything finally looked in his right place. Dorrell Wright, playing his first game in Trail Blazer black, was putting the I (as in, “I F***ing Rain Threes”) in “stretch 4” and the offense looked like a perfectly assembled 5-piece puzzle of tulips or a sunset or something beautiful, as they created and found space with the shameless ease of a gerrymanderer. Squint, and it wouldn’t be difficult to see these Blazers carving up the Spurs or the Clippers or the Thunder sometime around late spring. But open those eyes too wide or too long, and see Utah’s Enes Kanter looking unstoppable en route to 23 points, Gordon Hayward finishing with 20 points, Derrick Favors reflecting Blazer fans’ hopes for their own Thomas Robinson with 10 points and 17 rebounds, and Portland falling behind by as many as 12 in the third quarter. Good thing then that preseason is a place free from that fear of disappointment.

After Utah peaked at a 64-52 lead with 6:09 remaining in the third, the Blazers surged back with a 21-8 run to take a 73-72 lead heading into the fourth, led by strong performances in the backcourt from Lillard, Wes Matthews, Mo Williams, and Will Barton – all of whom finished with double-digit points totals. While Lillard’s 24 points led all scorers, it was Mo Williams’s play and his seemingly natural companionship with the young star from Utah’s own Weber State University that stood out. In the fourth quarter especially, the two guards appeared in perfect symbiosis, each vacillating effortlessly between on-ball responsibility and off-ball freedom and sometimes blurring the line between them, as when Sweet Mo slowed up on a fast break to lay off a perfectly weighted around-the-back pass to Wes Matthews for an open three-pointer, which Wessy Wes promptly knocked down in rhythm.

Although rookie C.J. McCollum’s recent decision to opt for non-surgical treatment on his wounded walker may quicken his return, to expect a young player who hasn’t played games that “count” since Patriot League action almost a full calendar year ago to contribute to a playoff hopeful team right away in such a nuanced role as Lillard’s sidekick or clone or both would be unwise, even without coming off the foot injury. Despite how automatic Lillard’s game can often seem, Damian Lillards are not just churned off some mid-major production line, nor are players who can so easily compliment them like Mo Williams did on Wednesday night — to the tune of 17 points. But if the glimpse of that partnership can become regular season reality, then having to squint to envision them in late spring may not even be necessary. Plus, Gordon Hayward was quoted in the pre-game as saying that Earl Watson’s wisdom helped Hayward become a better person, as well as a basketball player. So we have that too, which is nice.