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3 Trail Blazers bright spots from loss to Warriors in preseason finale

Trail Blazers, Jusuf Nurkic, Chauncey Billups, CJ McCollum, Norman Powell

The Portland Trail Blazers bookended exhibition action the same way it started, with a double-digit loss to the Golden State Warriors. Unlike the preseason opener and a dispiriting two games to follow, though, the Blazers’ performance in the preseason finale provided some optimism how about how they may play on both ends of the floor come the regular season—at least before Steph Curry caught fire late in the first half.

Here are three bright spots from Portland’s 119-97 loss to the Warriors.

(Early) Defensive Execution And Intensity

Chauncey Billups spared his team no criticism after its lackadaisical defensive outing in Wednesday’s 36-point drubbing at hand of the Phoenix Suns. With just one more chance to prove they’ve made strides defensively before the regular season opener, the Blazers came out with a pointed sense of edge and urgency on that side of the ball. The result? Portland held the Warriors to just 17 points in the first quarter, executing and communicating in Billups’ aggressive scheme with a newfound consistency.

The Blazers’ guards were much more active getting into ball handlers’ chests and fighting over screens at the point of attack. Backline help was early, loud and active. Finally, Portland was making the multiple efforts it takes to cover up teammates’ mistakes and frustrate an offense capable of moving the ball with speed in the halfcourt.

Look at Norman Powell on this possession as he notices Dennis Smith Jr. getting hung up chasing Jordan Poole through screens.

In an ideal world, the leak below that sparks a series of rotations never happens. But the amount of help that comes after Marquese Chriss gets beaten initially—from Greg Brown III, C.J. McCollum and then Chriss himself—is notable nonetheless.

The wheels came off for good during the last few minutes of the second quarter, when Curry took over the game the way only he can.

The Blazers were beaten backdoor and lazy in transition on a few possessions early, and it bears mentioning that Golden State missed 10 of its first 11 threes. The extent of Portland’s success on defense in the first quarter obviously wasn’t sustainable. Once Smith, fully committed if not especially effective guarding Curry, picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter, Portland had no one with left with even a passing chance at slowing down the two-time MVP.

But given the gravity of the Blazers’ defensive struggles through their first three exhibition losses, any sustained measure of progress is worth a minor celebration. We saw it for the first 18 minutes of Friday’s game, and on more isolated occasions thereafter. At least it’s something.

Early-Offense Attacks

There’s only so much to glean from Portland’s offense in any game that doesn’t include Damian Lillard. Billups maintains his team’s strategy and approach offensively is static irrespective of available personnel, but it’s inevitable the Blazers will play differently without their superstar point guard.

A feature of Billups’ offensive ideals on full display against Golden State that’ll be a staple throughout 2021-22, though? The way Portland attacked early in the shot clock at pretty much every opportunity, regardless of make or miss from the Warriors. You could even see Smith motioning with his hands to inbound the ball as quickly as possible so he could pitch it ahead.

That emphasis was mostly manifested in ball screens and dribble-handoffs with McCollum and Nurkic, a true two-man game accomplished by keeping the strong corner clear. The Blazers got to those same basic actions with more intricate sets a few times, too, with Nurkic looping up from the weak side of the floor to run empty-corner action with Powell.

Portland made a frequent and concerted effort to get to the side two-man game throughout Friday’s contest, and it won’t be any different in the regular season. Lillard will absolutely feast on those actions. One note of caution: Nurkic’s limitations as a scorer on the roll were laid bare against Golden State. Substantial improvement in that regard was always a pipedream, but even more marginal growth seems to have eluded him over the offseason again.

The 14th Roster Spot

Go ahead and rule out Patrick Patterson and Quinn Cook, consummate professionals who’ve enjoyed long NBA careers for a reason, for Portland’s 14th and final roster spot. They didn’t get off the bench on Friday and had obviously fallen behind in the bottom-roster pecking order since the preseason tipped off. Patterson was always a particular longshot. But the battle between Dennis Smith Jr. and Marquese Chriss continues, and they didn’t make Neil Olshey’s choice any easier versus Golden State.

Both were particularly active defensively; Smith swiped three steals and Chriss had two. The former did a much, much better job dealing with Curry than McCollum, his dogged defensive demeanor most evident when he skied for effective recover contests after getting beaten backdoor. Physically, at least, Smith looked the part of a defender who at least wouldn’t get regularly abused checking Curry. Who else definitely fits that description on this roster?

Chriss wasn’t immune from the mental mistakes on defense that have plagued both he and Smith throughout their careers—and eventually befell Portland on Friday. His mobility helping and recovering stood out often, though, no surprise considering what Billups’ defense asks of its centers. Chriss not only traps Curry toward halfcourt on the possession below, but recovers to Nemanja Bjelica at the wing and stops the ball at the rim before stripping Moses Moody of a would-be layup.

Smith has outplayed Chriss in the preseason, and momentum seems in his direction. But the Blazers could do worse than Chriss as a third center and fourth traditional big man, especially in light of the injury bug already biting Cody Zeller. Chriss would prove useful hopefully if, though more likely when, it comes for Nurkic or Larry Nance Jr.