The Portland Trailblazers are battered and bruised, with what seems like an endless list of injuries. From LaMarcus Aldridge picking up some small but annoying hand injuries as well as Nicolas Batum and Chris Kaman both carrying minor complaints, all on top of the season ending Wes Matthews Achilles injury. Things do not look favourable for a team trying to get a roll on ahead of the playoffs.
Getty Images: Can Afflalo step up on the defensive end?
Despite the gaping hole left by Matthews at the shooting guard position on both sides of the floor, the Blazers, who have been able to get the most out of Aldridge and Damian Lillard in crunch-time situations, (see Rockets playoffs series), there is still a great deal of optimism in the group that they will be able to not only compete but still be a contending team in the West……that is if they can keep everyone out on the floor.
I spoke with Blazers big man LaMarcus Aldridge, via teleconference yesterday and with the All-Star power forward nursing a sore hand, he sees not only his injury, but the team’s ailments as an opportunity to increase their concentration on the small details as the margin for error is now much smaller. Aldridge noted, since he picked up his thumb injury a couple of months ago, he has been shooting the ball five-per-cent better from mid-range, something he puts down to a renewed level of concentration.
“I think the injury just makes me focus on my shot more because I have the tape on the hand so I think it makes me focus on my form more and since I’ve focused on my form, my shot has been better,” he said.
In terms of the Blazers team, that heightened concentration will have to come on the defensive end of the floor. Whilst their defense has been great through the firs two-thirds of the season, their recent four-game losing streak saw them struggle, especially on the perimeter defending the three, perhaps the area they are missing Matthews the most. Quite frankly the Blazers have been getting killed on the perimeter with Arron Afflalo in the starting line-up, something that will hopefully improve as he gets more time to absorb the information and learn the Blazers’ defensive strategy.
Going back even further, since the All-Star break, the Blazers defense has plummeted to 23rd in the league. Even worse, since the Matthews injury, they are rated as the second worst defense in the NBA, per NBA.com.
“Losing Wes is definitely tough because he’s a very competitive guy on the defensive end and he makes plays most guys can’t make on the defensive end,” Aldridge said.
“What we’ve done well since he’s been out is try to guard as a team more with more team defense and not relying on guys.”
This suits the Blazers just fine in that their defense hasn’t been heavily relied on one guy making big plays and getting stops. They are at their strongest when the team is defending in cohesion, staying in front of their man and providing great help defense.
When looking at Matthews’ injury, the saving grace that emerged via the trade deadline, however you want to look at it, was the acquisition of Afflalo. Although he isn’t the level of three-point shooter, nor defender Matthews is, he can provide for the Blazers a level of poise, leadership and experience as well as solid offensive contributions.
“It’s going to be very important,” Aldridge said of the two-guard’s leadership and experience.
“We need him to score and be a threat on the floor at all times. He scores in a number of different ways that should make us hard to guard in the playoffs and for the rest of the regular season.
“His confidence and his offense is going to be key for us going down the stretch, because we need him feeling good about the way he’s playing with us and have him in a really good rhythm so teams can’t key in on myself or Damian.”
Whilst the Blazers defense is struggling, their saving grace is that their offensive production is still where they want it to be, even more impressive given the addition of Afflalo into the starting line-up. Since the All-Star break, encompassing the deadline day move and the Matthews injury, the Blazers have had a top-five offence, averaging 106.4 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.
At times during the season, as well as during last season’s playoff run, there has been a bit of an over-reliance on Aldridge and Lillard on the offensive end. Matthews had eased some of that burden, but now it will be a combination of Afflalo and the Blazers bench being able to be called upon when the team is missing guys as well as in the playoffs when the double-teams get tighter and more frequent and the intensity elevates.
“I think our bench is a lot better than last year. C.J. [McCollum] came back a lot better than last year. He’s more poised, he’s figured out how he can get his shot off and how he can score,” Aldridge said.
“Dorell [Wright] wasn’t feeling as healthy last year. He was having some issues with some things last year, but this year, he’s been feeling more healthy, he’s been moving better, he’s been playing better. So I think overall our bench is better as far as experience goes for the young guys.”
Getty Images: Lillard and Aldridge must find a way to get the best out of their teammates.
The big issue for the Blazers is that you want to go into the playoffs on a roll, have all your pieces in place and healthy. The Blazers have neither of those things and finding the right balance is something that will challenge Terry Stotts’ roster and schedule management.
“You definitely want to get momentum and you want to have the team playing at a good rhyme and pace. But also you don’t want to win every game in the regular season and then go into the playoffs limping and not have full strength in the playoffs, Aldridge said.
“We’re trying to do both. Trying to make sure guys are healthy and ready to go. We’re also trying to keep a good rhythm so we go to the playoffs ready to go.”
With a four-games in five-nights run greeting them on their return home where they will face the Warriors first up, things aren’t getting easier.
If the Blazers are to steady the ship and make a legitimate run at the playoffs, they must correct the biggest thing that has gotten them into this position, their slick, team-first defense.
A lot of things have to go right for them, but what they do over the next two weeks will tell us a whole lot more about how legit they really are.