In almost every single game this season, Portland television announcer Mike Rice has pointed out after halftime that the Blazers always seem to flip a switch in the third quarter. He’s right, even more than I could have guessed. Portland’s Net Rating (difference between offensive and defensive rating) in the third quarter this season is an absurd 18.5 points per hundred possessions. The offensive efficiency this team boasts in the third frame, 116.9, would qualify as the greatest offense in league history if sustained over a full season. Their defense also suddenly becomes elite, allowing 98.4 points per hundred possessions.
Not only that, but without the third quarter, there’s nothing at all statistically special about the Blazers. Their net rating with the third removed comes to +0.1. Any way you look at it, it’s stunning. Terry Stotts might deserve Coach of the Year for his halftime adjustments alone. But what are those halftime adjustments? What, or who, changes between the second quarter (incidentally Portland’s worst by far) and the third.
For one thing, there’s a redistribution of shots between the team’s two primary offensive creators. Damian Lillard’s usage drops by three percentage points, and his efficiency plummets. LaMarcus Aldridge, meanwhile, sees his usage rise slightly and his efficiency skyrocket. (The exact opposite effect happens, by the way, in transition from the third to the fourth quarter. Lillard goes Super Saiyan, while Aldridge takes a backseat.)
But the sum of those is basically zero. The real difference, at least on offense, seems to be Nicolas Batum. Much was made of Batum’s turnaround at halftime of the New Years Eve game against OKC, but he has been doing it all year. His true shooting percentage in the second quarter is 42.6, or about what Nolan Smith managed last season. In the fourth, that shoots up to 63.4 (!), or mildly less efficient than LeBron James was last season.
What accounts for this? It looks like the third quarter is the point in the game where the Trail Blazers’ offense starts to really incorporate Nicolas Batum. His most productive quarters are the first and the third, and the shot makeups for both are similar. Two-pointers go up, three-pointers go down, points in the paint go up, and the percentage of made twos on which he is assisted is in the high fifties, rather than the low thirties. So in those quarters, possibly thanks to a strategic adjustment, Portland’s offense has Batum moving toward the hoop and receiving passes in the flow of the offense, rather than manufacturing his own shots, which has never been his strong suit.
We’re no closer to finding out what happens in the locker room at halftime, but it’s clear that the team is far better at capitalizing on Nicolas Batum’s talents in the third quarter. His involvement seems to be crucial to the Trail Blazers’ offense, and maximizing his engagement as more than a spot-up shooter is a huge determinant of its success.
*Nearly all of the stats in this post come from NBA.com’s statistical database