The Blazers are 8-2, and isn’t it fine! They’re off to their hottest start since 1999-2000, when they began the season 10-1 and lost to the Lakers in game 7 of the Western Conference Finals in one of most heart-crushing collapses in Blazers history (warning: this link is NOT for the faint of heart). The mention of 1999’s late-game lead-squandering is apropos, since it’s one of three distinct areas that the Blazers absolutely need to button up if they hope to be even half the team their 8-2 record suggests they can be. Here they are, starting with the least critical:
- FREE THROW SHOOTING: The Blazers’ free throw shooting may be north of mediocre at 14th in the league, but it leaves plenty to be desired. Some of those misses have come at inopportune times, like when LaMarcus Aldridge bricked a pair with 5 minutes left and the Blazers’ 17-point lead was evaporating today against the Raptors, or when Thomas Robinson clanked out 3 of 4 with about 4 minutes left against the Suns with the Blazers down by just a few points. Aldridge at least was able to make up for his misses by nailing a pair with 45 seconds left… but had he made just one of the other two, the game wouldn’t have gone into overtime. In the words of Bill Schonely, “You’ve GOT to make your free throws!”
- BLOWING HUGE LEADS: LaMarcus Aldridge called out his team after a win against Detroit that was closer than it needed to be, and his message was clear: the Blazers need to stomp on their opponents’ throats when they get up big. After an encouraging double-digit win in Boston, the Blazers had their biggest collapse of the season today against Toronto when their 17-point lead with just 8 minutes to go was eviscerated in a puff of tentativeness and an inability to slam the door shut. It was great that the Blazers kept their composure and got the gritty overtime win (on the road no less!) after blowing such a monstrous advantage, but let’s be real: the fact that it even got that point should be a warning. Imagine if the Blazers had a 6- or 8-point lead against a good team. A comparable collapse would mean losing by 10 or more. They just can’t allow that to happen.
- GIVING UP POINTS IN THE PAINT: There’s one word to describe Portland’s interior defense: poor. Of the NBA’s 30 teams, the Blazers are dead last in giving up points in the paint (48.2 per game), and have been slightly worse over their last three games (48.7). Yes, their last three games have all been wins, and they’re carrying an 8-2 overall record, good for third in the NBA behind the Pacers and the Spurs. So what’s the big deal? The big deal is that such defense won’t fly against teams like Oklahoma City, or San Antonio, or any of the league’s elite in a 7-game series when (yes, when) the Blazers make the playoffs, likely as a lower seed. And while having Robin Lopez is certainly a far sight better than having the undersized and defensively-challenged J.J. Hickson manning the middle, he’s but one man, and he can’t do it all himself.
There are a lot of reasons for Blazers fans to be pumped. I know I am! Even check out this blog article from Barry’s Tickets which labels the Trail Blazers as a team on the “upswing.” But lasting dominance comes from recognizing your teams’ weaknesses and doing your best to mitigate them. Let’s hope the Blazers’ coaching staff is three steps ahead of us on these points and are already finding ways to lesson their impact as the season trudges forward.