We only got a quick look at what the Portland Trail Blazers looked like in their first scrimmage, here are 3 takeaways from the game with the Indiana Pacers.
Despite a disappointing 88-91 loss, there were many positive things that the Portland Trail Blazers can take away from Thursday’s scrimmage against the Indiana Pacers. Although we will have to wait a bit longer to see what Nassir Little (concussion) and Hassan Whiteside (Achilles) look like, Thursday’s scrimmage served as a great first look into what kind of damage the Blazers can do with a healthy Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic in their lineup.
The Lillard-Nurkic Pick & Roll is Still Deadly
It has been a long, long time since we’ve been able to see Jusuf Nurkic and Damian Lillard in a pick-and-roll together. While Hassan Whiteside is undoubtedly a talented player, he has nowhere near the ability to set screens, catch passes, and find teammates on the roll that Jusuf Nurkic has.
Every time the Blazers went to this set, things seemed to flow well for them. Even if the possession ended in a miss, the execution was solid, and the newfound court spacing was refreshing to see. While teams could comfortably give Damian Lillard a hard hedge in pick-and-rolls with Whiteside as the roll-man, they’ll likely have to stick to single coverage with Nurkic because of his ability to distribute and shoot the ball off of the initial catch.
Although this play doesn’t involve a pick-and-roll, it is evident that Nurkic can punish teams for giving too much attention to Damian Lillard in the pick-and-roll with jumpers like these:
In a late first-quarter possession, the Blazers punished the Pacers for similarly overplaying Lillard. As Nurkic set a high ball screen for Lillard out near half-court, Aaron Holiday and TJ Leaf both stuck with Lillard, causing Doug McDermott to have to choose between showing help towards Lillard, picking up Nurkic on the roll, or staying with Zach Collins on the weak-side. As he decided to help on Lillard, Dame made an easy pass to Collins in the paint for an easy dunk.
Had McDermott chose to stick with Collins, Lillard likely would have found CJ McCollum in the corner, who was wide open as a result of TJ McConnell showing help towards Jusuf Nurkic, or finished at the rim. This Lillard-Nurkic pick-and-roll is so lethal because it forces the opposition to make tough decisions on defense. It is tough to let Jusuf Nurkic catch the ball in space going towards the basket, but perhaps even tougher to play a primary ball handler with the 40-foot range that Lillard has with single coverage. Opponents will just have to pick their poison and hope for the best.
Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic Haven’t Missed a Beat
Had you not known that Zach Collins (shoulder) and Jusuf Nurkic (leg) were playing in their first games back from significant injuries, you would never have suspected it. While there were some visible (and expected) rust and sloppiness in the game overall, Collins and Nurkic looked particularly sharp on the court and confident in themselves each time up and down the floor. Many players, such as Gordon Hayward, have shown significant hesitation upon returning from a compound fracture like the one that Nurkic suffered last season. Luckily for the Blazers, Nurkic’s game looked much more fearless and physical than it did hesitantly.
I’m tempted to go as far as saying that we may look back on this Orlando restart in a few months with the feeling that Nurkic and Collins are both better now than they were last season, as they both looked to have added a few new skills to their games during rehab: For Nurkic, a three-point shot, and for Collins, a post-game that utilizes both his left and right hands.
The Blazers’ 2nd Unit Has Some Nasty In It
While we had already been starting to see Gary Trent Jr. come alive for the Blazers shortly before the season’s postponement in March, something about the way Trent Jr. defended and hustled in a meaningless scrimmage game was especially pleasing to see. I mean come on, look at this defense from Scary Gary on Victor Oladipo:
It’s plays like that that may make Stotts’ decision of who to play in crunch time tough. Will it be Trent Jr. at SF or Carmelo Anthony? I find it hard to leave out a guy that is willing to guard the opposing team’s best player and shoot the ball with no fear out of a late-game situation.
And if he starts being able to make plays like this off of the dribble consistently? Look out.
Something that we hadn’t gotten a healthy dose of before the season’s postponement was Wenyen Gabriel. Gabriel finished the game with 6 points, four blocks (!), two rebounds, and an assist. But what doesn’t show up in the box score were the numerous times that Gabriel altered shots at the rim and kept offensive possessions alive with his hustle. Just look at this defensive possession from Wenyen!
Although Stotts said that he would likely stick with an eight-man rotation in the eight “regular season” games that presumably includes today’s starting five alongside Hassan Whiteside, Gary Trent Jr., and Nassir Little / Anfernee Simons, I find it hard to believe that Gabriel won’t get a chance at some meaningful minutes at some point in this season/post-season, especially with the frequency that Whiteside and Collins get in foul trouble.
- The Blazers looked to finally have enough spacing with Nurkic and Collins out on the floor to make back door cuts out of the post like they did last season without completely clogging up the court. Collins’ dish to a cutting CJ McCollum was a prime example of this recovered luxury that the Blazers missed so much.
- Anfernee Simons doesn’t quite look ready. I wonder if his skill-set would be better suited to the SG position, where he can come in for CJ McCollum and play off the ball next to Lillard. He seems to struggle to make the appropriate read out of the pick and roll, as he routinely speeds himself up so much that he forces up a wild shot or throws a bad pass/turnover. This is something that he’ll have to develop over the next few years.
- Mario Hezonja looked confident, which is something we can’t often say. He led the team with 15 points, four rebounds, two assists, and two steals. Hopefully, this continues!