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.