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Time to be Pitfall and Catch Some Trailblazers

Published: February 2, 2009

Matchup: Hornets(28-16) v Trailblazers (29-17)

Off Efficiency: Hornets 107.0(7th), Trailblazers 110.6(2nd)
Def Efficiency: Hornets 103.4(11th), Trailblazers 105.6(18th)

First off – the banner Dariusz put together for tonight’s game is priceless.  The Tyson Chandler-Joel Przybilla hate-fest that threatens to explode every other game between Portland and New Orleans is entertaining as hell, and that picture chronicles a particularly exciting episode.

We all know what the Blazers are capable of – we’ve seen them three times this year and those games have been hard-fought and intense.  Unfortunately Tyson won’t be around for this one with his bad ankle, but maybe Hilton Armstrong will feel inspired and knee Joel in the balls going for a rebound or something.

Tonight – several things are at stake, not just the ongoing battle for seeding in the Western Conference. If the Hornets win, they take the tiebreaker over the Trailblazers for seeding purposes in the playoffs.  The Hornets also need to win to avoid their first 3-game losing streak in two years. 

In order for that to be possible, West needs to knock the rust off his game and get past that stiff back.  If the Hornets are going to keep feeding him in the post, he needs to produce, or we’ll be in for a long night.  The Blazers will also allow open shooting so Posey or Stojakovic need to give Butler some support from deep.

Now, instead of my usual game preview, I’m going to slide into an email I solicited from Henry Abbott, the founder of our very own ESPN Truehoop Blog Network.  Henry also happens to be a Trailblazer fan, and after I posted last week that the Blazers were the 3rd best team in the Western Conference, I sent him a  question about the Blazers.  Henry, of course, responded with an essay that contains a nice bit of analysis about his team, so with his permission, I include his response here:

Hornets247:  The third best team so far in the West has been the Portland Trailblazers. It’s pretty bizarre seeing the team with the 20th worst defense in the league sitting that high on the charts, but their offense has, quite simply, been that good.

The Blazers are an odd group, flying in the face of the stereotype that teams looking to simply outscore their opponents try to run the opponent out of the building. Portland, far from being a running team, is by far the slowest team in the league, averaging only 87.2 posessions per game. Looking at the raw numbers, it seems to me like Portland lures its opponents into a trap. The opponent knows if they just settle into a half-court offense, they’ll eventually pick the Blazers apart and get a decent shot, so they slow the game down, work the ball and score. Unfortunately, they’ve just played into Nate McMillan’s hands, because he too wants a slow game, because his guys are even better at picking a defense apart.

So what happens when Portland is forced into a fast-paced game. Is that a good way to attack them?

Henry Abbott:  This pace thing is really weird, when it comes to the Blazers, and I think it’s a bit of a red herring.

It’s plain to see that Portland really really wants to space the floor with shooters, to give Brandon Roy room to penetrate and create a shot for himself or a teammate. That’s the plan, and it’s plainly efficient. It’s also just not something you do in four seconds.

Just about every player Kevin Pritchard has ever acquired can shoot, so the Blazers are happy to work the ball around to find the open man. An early good look is not something they feel they have to pounce on. They can get good looks late in the clock. So they don’t rush. They’ll wait for the defense to make a mistake. Or Roy will put the ball on the floor, and pull up from mid-range, get to the rim and get fouled, or hit wide-open LaMarcus Aldridge, Travis Outlaw, Steve Blake, and Rudy Fernandez. (When Roy drives late in the clock, teams always leave those guys.)

So, yes, they are pretty slow.

But they are also two things that totally skew the pace factor: Fantastic at offensive rebounding, and not prone to turnovers.

Pace stats are based on number of possessions. But if the Blazers get five consecutive offensive rebounds, as happened the other day, they’ll keep the ball for more than a minute. That all counts as one possession. In terms of pace, they look SLOW. But they shot the ball, as I recall, every 12 seconds on that possession. So they’re not so slow, you know?  Also, a turnover by either team is a change of possession, which makes each team faster in terms of the pace measurement. But it doesn’t mean either team is actually faster than if they didn’t turn it over.  As it happens, Portland does not force a lot of turnovers, nor do they commit many of them.

Put all that together, and I suspect the Blazers are not as fantastically slow as they may appear to be in that pace factor. I have proposed some other measure (adding FGAs, defensive fouls against, turnovers committed, offensive fouls committed, for instance) as a more meaningful measure of how fast  a team actually plays.  Because when I see Portland play, I see a team that’s pretty slow. But I don’t see a team that’s clearly the slowest in the NBA, as the pace factor suggests.

Rebounding is a factor. Portland sends players like Brandon Roy to the defensive glass — which keeps him from streaking down the wing and catching a pass like he might do on a different team.

There is also a personnel thing. Our starting point guard for most of the season, Steve Blake, is not Mr. Fast Break. And know that his backup, Sergio Rodriguez, loves to run, but tends to get benched when he gets cute on the break and starts causing turnovers. Neither one finishes at the rim all that well, so their aggressive breaking really relies on teammates finishing, and that’s not the efficient way to break, and Nate McMillan doesn’t play inefficient basketball.

I can’t prove it, but I bet that if you look it up the team is pretty fast when Jerryd Bayless is in. He thinks fast break, and has been empowered to play that way a little bit. And he loves to attack the rim every day of the week, and twice on Sundays. He also has a growing collection of dump-off assists to his credit.

So, to make a long story longer … Portland has assets like Rudy Fernandez, Travis Outlaw, Jerryd Bayless, Sergio Rodriguez, Nicolas Batum, and LaMarcus Aldridge (if there’s a faster big man down the floor, I don’t know who it is) who love to run. But somewhat like the Cavaliers under Mike Brown, I think the Blazers will really only let that unit run if and when the system to do so is very efficient.  (I half think they should make a run at Andre Miller to anchor a speedy second unit.) Until then, they really only do it opportunistically.

And as for making opponents slow, my take is that Portland has a deep roster loaded to the gills with long healthy athletes. They play hard. You’re not going to catch them napping. They get back and make you play. They are also sneaky with zones, which makes teams think. Which takes time.  But they’re super young. And when you put them in situations where they need to be very savvy, with a lot of helping, switching, and picking and rolling, you can find good shots.

So … Portland can find good shots, but only with time. Opponents can find good shots, but again, only with time. So a Portland game is fairly slow. And Portland has some quirks with offensive rebounding and low turnovers that makes it seem like they’re even slower than they really are in the pace factor.

And yet, they have plenty of players who excel going both ways on the break, and I am quite certain they’d like to break more than they do. It’s a matter of sorting out the proper formula, and point guard, to do so. Until then, I don’t think Nate McMillan will be giving them enough rope to hang themselves by running — as he’s a coach with a long track record of being allergic to turnovers.

But can you freak Portland out by making them go fast? I doubt it. You’re not going to make their offense fast without giving them uncontested layups. And on defense, you have to beat some focused young athletes down the floor, or else you’re not running either. So I don’t think speed is their kryptonite.

Point guards who can get into the lane at will, however … that seems to work against Portland. And the Hornets have a guy like that.

Thanks Henry.

Enjoy the game tonight.

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