Somehow, almost subtly, the Portland Trail Blazers have been flying under the radar as one of the best teams in the NBA this season.
The Hawks and Warriors have taken many of the headlines for their blistering lead paces, and other teams like the Grizzlies and Raptors, for good, or the Knicks and 76ers, for bad (very, very bad), have also drawn a lot of attention.
But, just a bit more quietly, the Blazers can rightly say they have been just as good as anyone, hanging around the top of the Western Conference all season. Now they face a major challenge to continue that form into the NBA’s second half.
LaMarcus Aldridge has a torn ligament in his left thumb that, with surgery, will keep him out 6-8 weeks. He is putting off such an operation for now, hoping to play through the pain the rest of the year, but that is a mighty big ask out of a man with about four months left in the season, play-offs included.
If Aldridge decides he needs the surgery at some point, or, worse, aggravates the injury in some way, his importance to Portland will show through.
It was already underscored tidily last week, with the Blazers’ loss to the unimposing Celtics on Thursday minus Aldridge juxtaposed with their commanding 103-96 win over the Wizards on Saturday night as he returned.
The problem, as the Celtics loss showed, for Portland without Aldridge is scoring points. He is one of the league’s best, and importantly most distinctive, offensive players, a devastating 6ft 11in matchup problem who can score some from outside, owns an accurate mid- and long-range two-point shot and who can score effectively in the post. Without him against Boston, the Blazers scored just 89 points.
For the season, when he is off the floor, Portland are scoring just 99.6 points per 100 possessions, a whopping eight-point drop-off from when he is on the floor (107.9 per 100).
The Blazers’ biggest strength is in one of the deepest rosters of quality defensive players in the game. At 99.4 points allowed per 100 possessions, they have the NBA’s third-best defence.
But what the likes of Thomas Robinson, Dorell Wright, Will Barton, CJ McCollum, Meyers Leonard and a few others can add defensively, giving Portland such great top-to-bottom depth, they simply cannot reproduce offensively.
Robinson, a likely would-be replacement for Aldridge in Portland’s starting line-up, particularly is a limited player offensively, not remotely able to stretch the floor the way Aldridge can.
In fact, you could say he’s not remotely able to stretch the floor, period – 58 of his 81 field goal attempts this season have come within about five feet of the hoop.
That’s big for the Blazers, who rely elsewhere for points largely on one of the league’s top two or three backcourt combos in Wesley Matthews and Damian Lillard. Both, in addition to being good to very good defenders, are excellent at getting to the rim and connecting from three – but without Aldridge around to create space and command attention from a defence, their ability to do both becomes much trickier.
It wasn’t super evident against the Wizards, but Aldridge’s ability to draw defenders like Nene or Marcin Gortat away from the rim is crucial to opening up the pockets Lillard and Matthews work with inside. When he sets screens around the perimeter, he forces defences either to switch – an almost impossible ask – or hold the guard defending Lillard or Matthews just a step back.
Matthews takes the most catch-and-shoot threes, a shot typically produced from an off-ball screen outside, in the NBA. He hits 40 per cent of them, which isn’t magnificent, but at that volume makes for a ton of efficient points all the same. Lillard, for his part, also hits 40 per cent on his 3.1 catch-and-shoot threes a game.
The Blazers as a team score the second most catch and shoot points per game, 31.7, and take the fifth-most catch-and-shoot threes.
Portland also take the fourth-most pull-up (defined as coming after at least one dribble) three point-attempts in basketball, typical from a guard utilising a screen outside, and shoot the fourth-best (34.9 per cent) on those attempts in the game. Lillard in particular accounts for 3.9 attempts a game, shooting 34.1 per cent. Again, like Matthews on catch-and-shoots, not spectacular, but at a high volume it becomes efficient all the same. And Matthews, on three-point pull-up attempts, shoots 38.2 per cent on 1.5 such attempts per game.
Generating open threes is, basically, a major function of their offence (explaining things a bit more simply – they take the second-most three attempts in the NBA, behind Houston, and score them at the fifth-highest rate).
Aldridge is a major facilitator of that.
When Aldridge, Lillard and Matthews have played together this season (920 minutes), the Blazers have scored 108.7 points per 100 possessions, easily Portland’s best trio of any significantly used Blazers combination (in 530 minutes Matthews, Robin Lopez and Aldridge have also registered 108.8 points per 100).
He also happens to be an excellent rebounder, helping the Blazers secure the highest percentage of rebound chances (62.8) in basketball.
Basically with Aldridge, the Blazers are a clear title contender. That can be said of Lillard and Matthews no less, too, but they aren’t the ones with a torn ligament in their thumb.
“I just wanted to come back and play,” he said on Saturday as he returned. “I wanted to test it out at home, and versus these guys because I felt they were a physical team, and if I could play against these guys then that would be good.
“And I was OK.”
The hope is that he stays that way.
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