A Solid First Night
Victories in the preseason are always followed by comments like, "yeah, but it was just an exhibition win. Don't get too excited." That's certainly true, and I realize that perspective is a good thing when you're wanting to avoid unreal expectations. But, there is nothing wrong with optimism, and Monday night we saw a lot of reasons to feel positive about this year's Portland team.
I suppose it was a very good sign that all five new Trail Blazers converted on their first field goal attempts in this game. It probably doesn't mean much in the long run, but it was interesting. Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford, Nolan Smith, Kurt Thomas, and Craig Smith, at one point, were all 1 for 1.
Okay, that was the quirky stat. There were others that were much more meaningful, and much more impressive.
I'll get to the offensive stuff, but it was the defense that was probably the most impressive part of this 110-90, wire-to-wire win over the Utah Jazz. The Blazers were one of the top teams in the NBA in the steals catagory last season, and I seriously doubt that's going to change. They recorded 15 steals on Monday night, and forced Utah into 23 turnovers. Some of that was sloppy play by the Jazz, but most of that was because of a smothering half-court defense by Portland.
As Nate McMillan always preaches, if you're going to be a running team it starts with defense and rebounding. When you've got Wesley Matthews and Gerald Wallace out on the edges, aggressively going after every pass, looking to trap at every opportunity, and diving after every loose ball, you're going to cause havoc. At the very least, you're going to force tempo, and take your opponent out of their comfort zone. That leads to offensive opportunities.
The Trail Blazers made the most of their offensive opportunties on this night, shooting 68.5% on their two-point attempts in this game. They shot 72% from two-point range in the first half alone. They weren't good from behind the three-point line (6 for 23), but when hit everything else, who cares?
Wallace was terrific, and disrupts as well as anyone. He's got such a great nose for the ball, is fearless, and is strong enough to simply rip the ball out of your hands if you show it to him. He and Matthews alone were reason to get fired up.
As my partner pointed out on the TV broadcast, it's been Portland's style to sit back a bit on defense and simply react and protect. This new style is different. Again, if you want to play up tempo the most noticable change will be on the defensive end. What they've been working on is trapping, getting in passing lanes, and taking chances. That plays so well to the strengths of Wallace and Matthews.
A couple other thoughts, and then you can take over and post your comments.
As we've noticed in practice so far, this team just seems to work well together. That hasn't always been the case in the past, and obviously it won't always feel that way this season. But, the chemistry feels very, very good. They've got some young parts, but have some veteran guys who simply know how to play the game. McMillan has talked a lot about that.
It's strange to think that Crawford and Thomas just got here. I'm not sure either one of them were ever even in the wrong place in this game. And, not to state the obvious, but Thomas will be very good for this team.
If not for all of the other stuff going on with this team the past two weeks or so, we would have probably been focusing a lot more on the big change at point guard. That always gets a lot of attention. Well, it hasn't in this case, and maybe there's good reason for that. Raymond Felton is one of those guys who just seems to fit right in. He can score when you need him to, faciliate when you need that, and, like Andre Miller, he's crafty.
It was also nice to see Elliot Williams make the most of his limited minutes. Perhaps no one's role was potentially effected more, by the arrival of Crawford, than Williams. That hasn't seemed to bother him. We've talked about how impressive he's looked in practice, and in this game had 13 points in 12 minutes of action. He will have his moments this season. With this crazy schedule, depth will be huge, and the Blazers appear to have pretty good depth.
In short, there was a lot to be happy about after this first exhibition game. It's just a first glance, and Utah didn't play well, but you can see why these guys have been smiling so much after practice. They've bought into this tweaked system, and that, believe it or not, is more than half the battle.
We'll talk to you from Salt Lake City on Wednesday night.