I have not watched that much NBA. My house lost power for three days due to Hurricane Isaias. Trees blocked main roads. The Starbucks drive-thru line weaved all the way out to the parking lot. On the bright side, the outage has become a convenient excuse to forgo a longer, more thorough bi-weekly article and instead drop two quick takeaways from the bubble.
I see what the Blazers are going for now
Portland confused me this past off-season. They salary-dumped Moe Harkless and let Al-Farouq Aminu walk for what I thought was a team-friendly deal. This alone is fine. Aminu turns 30 in September. Harkless missed time due to injury in both of his last two seasons as a Blazer. As cold and calculated as it was to let them go, I understood if Portland no longer trusted them to provide reliable starters’ minutes.
My confusion came from what happened after. Portland did not replace Harkless or Aminu with new lanky defensive-minded forwards. Kawhi, LeBron, Paul George, Luka, and James Harden all play in the Western Conference and this team planned on starting Kent Bazemore and Zach Collins at the forward positions.
Perhaps the opportunity to acquire a big wing stopper never arrived in the off-season. Portland quelled some of my concerns by trading Bazemore for Trevor Ariza in January. However, Ariza chose not to play in the bubble since he has been granted a one-month visitation period with his son in an ongoing custody case. This is when replacing two long wing defenders with one came back to haunt Portland.
As tremendously ill-equipped as they may be to check King James in a potential 1-8 playoff matchup, their strategy of going big with Collins and Nurkic clearly has its own advantages that were not clear to me until I saw it on the court. They have rolled teams with their size and have two bigs who can both protect the rim and hold their own on the perimeter. This rare advantage has allowed Stotts to modify pick and roll coverages. The Blazers historically drop on pick and rolls. However, when Nurk and Collins share the floor, the big guarding the pick and roll often strays from the rim while the other big rotates in.
The Blazers became so drunk off their interior size against Memphis that Terry Stotts played Hassan Whiteside and Nurkic together for three minutes. The +19 net rating that this lineup posted obviously means nothing, but it did seem like it worked. It will almost always make more sense to play Collins in place of one since he can shoot, but I think they can get away with Nurkic and Whiteside units. Most teams could not, but Damian Lillard famously stretches the defense out to thirty feet which provides enough spacing to incubate two non-shooting bigs.
Even when Collins plays, some of Portland’s sets involve two bigs inside. Notice how Nurkic has plenty of space to roll and pass to Collins in the dunker spot. This is the Lillard effect.
Nurkic has picked up exactly where he left off last season in every regard, especially in passing the ball. Dame and CJ now run through screens off-ball with a spring in their step knowing Nurkic will find them with a well-timed pass or dribble hand-off. I’ve gotten this far without mentioning Gary Trent Jr. who destroys souls on both ends. This team can do so much cool stuff and I now watch them hoping for more bizarre Nurkic/Whiteside lineups instead of worrying about their dearth of lanky wings.
Ja will be fine
I am not on Twitter for the time being, but I can imagine Memphis’ reception in the bubble among NBA Twitter has been lukewarm at best. They are 1-5 and seem to be doing the bare minimum to clinch the ninth spot. I would also posit a guess that Ja’s poor performances against Portland and New Orleans have been put under a microscope. I remain no higher or lower on Ja after watching both of these games. First of all, this is the bubble. Second, these games did not give us new information; they merely shined a light on Ja’s areas for improvement.
When Ja gets downhill against a compromised defense, he is one of the most exciting and destructive players in the league. He is a tremendous finisher off two feet and can make every passing read imaginable. Some teams have simply become better at not letting him get downhill.
New Orleans went under on almost every ball screen and he went 1 of 10 from three. Blazers bigs sagged off Ja on switches and he looked out of his element trying to break them down off the dribble. Morant has shot 32% on pull-ups from three according to Second Spectrum data provided by NBA.com, just low enough for teams to feel okay ceding this shot.
Despite his struggles in both games, there were moments in which his talent shined through. Half of his 22 points against Portland came in a four minute stretch in the third quarter when the Blazers slacked off for a few possessions. As smart as teams may become at exploiting Ja’s current weaknesses, executing these schemes for a full game takes discipline. If you slip up for even a few minutes, Ja will punish you. He’s too smart not to.
I do not know exactly if or when his shot will improve, but I trust him to find enough ways to be highly effective on offense until then.