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4 Trail Blazers takeaways from ugly preseason loss to Suns

Trail Blazers, Jusuf Nurkic, Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum

The Portland Trail Blazers labored through Wednesday’s rare matinee matchup with the Phoenix Suns, falling 119-74 despite Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic playing well into the third quarter. Chris Paul didn’t suit up for the Suns at all, while Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges watched the second half from the bench. Needless to say, there was a lot of bad to take from Portland’s third consecutive exhibition defeat.

Here are four (mostly negative) takeaways from the Blazers’ blowout loss to the Suns on Wednesday.

Early Start, Weary Legs

Portland was a step or two slow from the opening tip of Wednesday afternoon’s game. Phoenix scored its first eight points and led 23-11 after the first quarter despite some shooting struggles of its own. The Blazers were clearly more affected by the 2:00 p.m. tip time, though, no surprise considering they practiced at the team facility in Tualatin on Tuesday afternoon before flying to the southwest. The normal preparations all teams undertake on the road, even for back-to-backs, weren’t available to Portland, and it showed on both ends of the floor.

The Blazers shot 4-of-20 overall in the first quarter, clanking jumpers from all over the court and missing their first nine three-point attempts. They were sloppy with the ball, too, a continuation from the last time Portland’s regulars played together in the exhibition opener against Golden State. The more distressing similarity between that game and Wednesday’s? The Suns getting up a whopping 19(!) three-point attempts in the opening stanza, the result of lackadaisical rotations in the halfcourt and lagging transition defense.

There’s pretty much nothing positive to take away from the performance of the Blazers’ core, though the caveat that Lillard made a concerted effort to get his teammates involved as Phoenix ran up the score early bears mentioning. The early start of Wednesday’s game is a reasonable excuse; it just doesn’t explain away a 36-point loss that was every bit as ugly as the scoreboard suggests.

Opponent Three-Point Rate Is Already A Problem

Billups lamented after the loss to Golden State that Portland surrendered a whopping 69 three-point attempts. A couple days later, Lillard admitted that he “literally couldn’t think” of a two-pointer the Warriors scored while on his post-game drive home from Moda Center. Neither coach nor franchise player will be happy with the Blazers’ three-point defense against the Suns, but especially in light of those aforementioned struggles running Steph Curry and company off the arc.

Phoenix ended up taking only 41 threes, with nearly half of them coming in the first quarter. It was almost like the Suns stopped seeking the long ball after getting it whenever they wanted early, content to work on other areas of the offense before the games really start to matter. A few of their would-be threes ended up as long twos with feet on the line, too.

Regardless, the sense of urgency McCollum shows defensively below isn’t nearly good enough considering how much activity is required for Billups’ defensive scheme to be viable and the emphasis he’s put on transition defense.

Even when Portland is defending with a bit more verve in the halfcourt and staying true to its system, there will inevitably be times good shooters get open looks—most specifically when one of the Blazers’ many guards is tasked with tagging the roller and quickly rotating back to his man.

Ben McLemore doesn’t exactly move on the flight of the ball here. At 6’3”, he probably wouldn’t have affected Landry Shamet’s release much even if he did.

There are many potential drawbacks to the more aggressive defensive scheme that Portland’s incumbents swear is a superior fit for this team’s personnel. But if the preseason is any indication, most dire among them will be how many triples the Blazers give up to their opponents.

Staggering Lillard and McCollum?

The Blazers’ star backcourt didn’t play in their team’s second exhibition game, taking the night off. Wednesday’s game was just the second time Lillard and McCollum have played a game under Billups, and it further confirmed the notion that Portland’s rookie coach plans to stagger their minutes come the regular season.

McLemore came in for McCollum as Portland’s first substitution with the game clock reading 4:44. Lillard left just under the three-minute mark, replaced by Dennis Smith Jr. (Anfernee Simons and Nassir Little were both out). McCollum was back on the floor for the start of the second quarter with Smith, while Lillard returned with just over eight minutes left in the first half. That substitution pattern only somewhat resembled the one Billups used in the preseason opener, but is probably a good indicator of how he plans to allocate minutes and roles for Lillard and McCollum once the regular season tips off on October 20th.

As dominant as Portland is with both Lillard and McCollum on the floor, it still stands to reason that separating them for at least one significant chunk of each half is the Blazers’ best means of sustaining efficient offense. There was some thought that Billups’ egalitarian, movement-based offensive system would’ve allowed him to more closely tether Lillard and McCollum, his bench units not requiring the services of a top-tier creator. Ideally, that would still come to pass, and it bears reminding that Billups’ only coaching experience came with Ty Lue and the LA Clippers, who toggle their lineups and rotations as frequently as any team in basketball. For now, though, expect Lillard and McCollum’s scheduled shifts to look a lot like what they did with Terry Stotts pulling the reins.

Be Careful, Bosnian Beast

Nurkic picked up his fifth foul less than halfway through the third quarter on an and-1 floater by Cam Payne. He left for good after that, clearly frustrated by his longtime penchant for foul trouble reappearing. What left Nurkic most peeved? No doubt that each of his other fouls came on the offensive end, three while running dribble hand-off actions with Lillard and McCollum.

Further exploiting Nurkic’s playmaking ability from the elbow and top of the key will be a hallmark of Portland’s revamped offense this season, and rightfully so. He has a keen understanding of timing, angles and touch as a passer, not to mention years of experience playing with Lillard and McCollum. The Blazers’ sweet-shooting guards regularly getting pressured high up the floor—with or without the ball—is a perfect way to take advantage of Nurkic’s table-setting talents while attacking the defense downhill, too.

All that additional responsibility with the ball puts a bigger spotlight on Nurkic than in years past, and referees are already taking notice. The slightest movement into defenders after shoveling the ball to running teammates in the hand-off game will be enough for Nurkic to be called for a foul. Pivoting into defenders while passing will be an automatic whistle, too.

It would be a surprise if Nurkic’s foul rate didn’t tick back up this season given his role in the Blazers’ new defensive scheme alone—all the more reason he must exercise diligent caution while trying to set teammates up on the other end.