6 Reasons You Can and Can't Believe in Portland Trail Blazers' Playoff Success
The Portland Trail Blazers have an opportunity to be successful in the postseason, but there are pros and cons worth discussing on that end.
The Trail Blazers started out the season by winning 21 of their first 25 games, which prompted many to believe they could win perhaps a round or two in the postseason, given how dominant they looked early.
Portland has since lost a bit of a steam. Head coach Terry Stotts has watched his team lose nine of 13 contests in March, and the losses have turned the Trail Blazers into a question mark more than anything.
Granted, the absence of LaMarcus Aldridge has been part of the reason for the stumbles. He has missed seven straight games due to back spasms.
With that said, the Trail Blazers have shown their best and worst stretches of basketball, which helps paint a picture of what to expect in the playoffs.
Can: Low-Post Scoring
Low-post scoring generally gives teams a strong advantage in the playoffs when games slow down.
Half-court execution is extremely important, given the in-depth scouting reports that opponents produce, which allow them to take away the first and second options in offensive sets.
A potent interior scorer mitigates these defensive schemes because of the attention he warrants. LaMarcus Aldridge gives Portland an edge on this front.
Opponents are obliged to send help his way both in post-ups and the pick-and-roll, which opens up the floor for teammates. Otherwise, he will get opportunities to score directly at the rim, where he is converting 65.1 percent of his field goals, per NBA.com.
Portland will struggle to advance in the playoffs because of its mediocre defense. Indeed, the team ranks in the bottom third of the league’s defensive efficiency numbers, and that will not get it done.
The Blazers are among the five-worst teams at defending the paint, per TeamRankings.com, because they lack an imposing defensive anchor on the interior.
The tandem of Nic Batum and Wesley Matthews offer some resistance on the perimeter, but once players get past them, there isn’t much that prevents opponents from scoring directly at the rim.
Indeed, only the Los Angeles Lakers allow more shots directly at the basket, per NBA.com. Porous defensive units usually have a hard time advancing in the playoffs because they ultimately play against teams that can string together stops and score just enough to win games.
Can: Damian Lillard in the Clutch
He has hit an assortment of shots in late-game situations for the Blazers, and his fourth-quarter play warrants the opposition’s respect heading into the playoffs.
According to NBA.com, he is among the top-five clutch scorers (defined as last five minutes of the game with scoring margin within five points) in the league.
More impressively, his field-goal percentage is superior to Durant’s, who many consider to be the best fourth-quarter player in the NBA. Lillard’s heroics may give the Blazers the edge they need to overtake opponents in April and May.
Can’t: Jump-Shooting Team
The Trail Blazers are a jump-shooting team, and those tend to get exposed in the playoffs. Portland ranks in the top 10 for three-pointers and mid-range jumpers attempted per game.
When Wesley Matthews and Co. are raining shots from all over the court, they are perhaps the most explosive team in the league. On the flip side, when jumpers are clanking off the rim, they are in danger of getting blown out. The 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks won the title with this specific formula, but they were outliers.
Dirk Nowitzki was both a long-range shooter and a killer post-up threat during that playoff run. Aldridge might be able to replicate some of what Nowitzki accomplished in the low-post area, but he will still need his teammates to convert shots with great frequency. However, there is little evidence that suggests the other Blazers will be up to the task.
The shooting has cooled off after a sizzling start (Matthews hit 51.7 percent of his treys in November, and has been under 40 percent in every subsequent month), and Portland has looked far more ordinary as a result.
The Blazers are a top-five rebounding team, which makes them a tough squad to beat. Indeed, Pat Riley once famously said “no rebounds, no rings.”
Controlling the glass can help make up for a bad defense because it takes away possessions from opponents. Portland does a great job of securing defensive rebounds and getting second-chance opportunities.
Thus, despite the fact that the Trail Blazers are a perimeter-oriented team, the job they do on the boards may end up rescuing them when they have tough shooting nights during the playoffs.
Can’t: Lack of Playoff Experience
Playoff experience won’t necessarily decide a team’s fate on its own, but a lack of it can complicate one’s path. Mo Williams (41 games in four playoff appearances) is the most battle-tested player on the Trail Blazers, which isn’t a great sign.
He has had a few disappearing acts in the postseason as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and it stands to reason it will be difficult to rely on him as the only Blazer to play in a conference finals.
LaMarcus Aldridge has performed fairly well in his three playoff appearances—with career averages of 19.8 points and seven rebounds on 46.2 percent shooting in 18 postseason contests (second most on the team after Williams), per Basketball Reference—but he has never been past the first round.
The absence of collective experience is worrisome enough considering that this unit hasn’t accomplished anything together as of yet, and very few of the players (Williams and Wesley Matthews) have actually contributed to a team that won a series. That’s a pretty big obstacle.