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PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Trail Blazers bounced back from their worst loss of the season, Friday against the Brooklyn Nets, with two solid wins against the Denver Nuggets and Orlando Magic. It's time to check in on the Blazers with another edition of 3-on-3, a weekly KGW feature.
Every Thursday, three members of the KGW sports team will answer three questions about the Blazers. You can join the conversation on Facebook during a live chat with our panel every Thursday afternoon at 3. Can't join us on Thursday? No problem! You can listen later on the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast.
This week's questions focus on the emergence of Shabazz Napier, the Blazers' impressive defense and predictions for the next three games.
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Meet our panelists
- Orlando Sanchez is the sports anchor and reporter for KGW News, Sports Sunday and Friday Night Flights. Orlando has covered multiple NBA Finals, NCAA Basketball Tournaments and World Series.
- Jared Cowley is a digital media producer who writes about the Blazers for KGW.com. Before he came to KGW, Jared wrote about the Utah Jazz and Golden State Warriors as a sports editor at two daily newspapers.
- Nate Hanson is a digital producer who contributes to KGW.com’s coverage of the Blazers, Ducks, Beavers and high school sports.
1. What in the name of Damon Stoudamire is going on? The Blazers' newest folk hero is Shabazz Napier, another diminutive point guard proving the haters wrong. In the past four games, Napier has averaged 20.5 minutes per game off the bench (after playing a total of 23 minutes in the previous nine games), averaging 12.5 points while making 18 of 30 shots (60 percent), including seven of nine 3-pointers (78 percent). Has Napier earned a permanent spot in the rotation? And do you think Coach Stotts will give more run to that three-guard lineup we saw Wednesday night against Orlando with Napier, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum sharing the court at the same time?
Jared: The apparent impediment to Napier playing more minutes was Stotts couldn't play him alongside either Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum, because Napier, at 6-foot-1, wouldn't pair well defensively with Lillard or McCollum, who are both listed at 6-3. Well, Stotts blew that narrative out of the water Wednesday by playing all three at the same time. Stotts went with that lineup, along with Maurice Harkless and Jusuf Nurkic, for a combined 11 minutes, 43 seconds to end the second and fourth quarters, during which the Blazers outscored the Magic 34-16. Count me among those surprised to see this ultra-small lineup thrive defensively. It's not like they were playing against a small Orlando team. During both of those stretches, the five Orlando players on the court were Elfrid Payton (6-4), Terrence Ross (6-7), Evan Fournier (6-7), Aaron Gordon (6-9) and Nicola Vucevic (7-0). But Orlando’s size advantage didn’t matter. I don't know if playing a small lineup like that is sustainable. I think a lot of teams would exploit it. That said, I think Napier keeps getting playing time. His outside shooting, shot creation, and high energy level off the bench are all things the Blazers need.
Orlando: Going small wasn’t supposed to work, right? Well, it has lately. Shabazz Napier is on a roll offensively and he had a big night on defense against the Magic. He has proven in the last couple of games that he’s not a liability and he gives Terry Stotts another option off the bench. Until teams adjust to the small lineup with Lillard, McCollum and Napier, you gotta ride the hot hand. Even if Stotts goes away from having those three on the floor at the same time, Napier has earned his spot in the rotation. He’s been reliable, not a liability, when he’s out there. It’s an easy call to find minutes for the 6-1 guard when he’s contributing at this rate.
Nate: I’m not going to go as far as saying Napier has earned a permanent role in the rotation. But for the time-being, he has certainly provided a spark and confounded opposing teams. His presence on the floor has an obvious positive impact on the offense. The ball moves more freely and he’s proven to be a good shooter so far. I think Stotts will continue to ride the hot hand and we’ll see Napier on the floor with Lillard and McCollum over the next few games. When they’re on the floor together, it puts defenses in a really difficult spot because double-teaming is essentially ineffective because teams are forced to leave a good shooter open. And the move hasn’t hurt the Blazers so far on the defensive end. But, I want to see a larger sample size and see how teams react to this lineup as they prepare for it in the scouting report, and not have to rely on in-game adjustments.
2. Before Wednesday's game, the Blazers ranked third in the NBA in defense. Then they went out against the Magic, a team that averages about 109 points per game, and after giving up 33 points in the first quarter, held Orlando to 61 points the rest of the way and 94 for the contest. Over the past five games, the Blazers are allowing only 94 points per game. It's only 14 games into the season, but is the Blazers' defense for real?
Nate: Yes. The effort is there, the communication is there and the results are obviously there. They were there over the 20 games Nurkic played with the Blazers last season. Now we’ve seen even better results through 14 games this season. That means the Blazers have been a top-10 defense for nearly half a season’s worth of games with Nurkic. So far this season, the Blazers rank in the top 10 league-wide in defensive rating (3rd), rebounding (5th), opponent points per game (3rd), opponent rebounds (3rd), opponent field goal percentage (6th), opponent 3-point field goal percentage (3rd), opponent assists (1st), opponent fast break points (7th), and opponent points in the paint (10th). Lillard, McCollum and Turner are active on the outside disrupting passing lanes. Nurkic, Vonleh and Davis have been fantastic protecting the rim. And the Blazers have been doing this without their best all-around defender in Al-Farouq Aminu for half of this young season. With the offense taking a step back this is, and needs to be, the identity of the 2017-18 Blazers.
Jared: I believe in this defense. This is more than just a 14-game sample size. Jusuf Nurkic was added to this team right before the All-Star break last season, and his presence completely transformed the Blazers' defense. Before the All-Star break, the Blazers ranked 26th in defense for the season. After the All-Star break, the Blazers ranked 10th in defense. So, if you count Nurkic's 20 games with the team last season and the first 14 games of this season, that 34 games during which the Blazers have performed at a Top-10 level on defense. At 34 games, it stops being a small sample size. Nurkic ranks fourth in the NBA in defense among starting centers. He is one of the best defensive centers in the NBA, a smart defender who impacts the game in so many ways and makes his teammates better. The Blazers have good, versatile defenders up and down this roster. You can't find a bad defender in the Blazers' rotation anymore. The main defensive liabilities from last season are either gone (Mason Plumlee and Allen Crabbe) or have transformed into effective defenders (Lillard and McCollum) this season. Barring injury, this defense is for real.
Orlando: This has probably been the biggest surprise for me. Through the first 14 games this team has flipped the script on its defensive reputation. At this point last year, the Blazers were the worst team in the league on D. Coach Stotts says it’s been a goal and there’s been a focus on defense this season. He says it’s across the board with contesting shots, transition and rebounding. It’s at the individual level as well and it’s showing in their defensive ratings. Stotts made it a point to mention Damian Lillard’s improvement saying, “for as much criticism as Damian’s gotten in his first five years, I think it should be noted how well he’s playing this year.” The defense has been a strength for this team, so far. Let’s see if that holds true with a larger sample size against a tougher schedule.
3. Prediction time! Next Thursday is Thanksgiving, so we'll be bringing 3-on-3 to you next week on Wednesday. The Blazers will play three games between now and when we meet again next Wednesday. Portland plays a back-to-back against the Kings (3-11), in Sacramento on Friday and at home on Saturday. Then Portland begins a five-game road trip out east with a Monday game against the Memphis Grizzlies (7-7). Which games will the Blazers win and which will they lose?
SEASON-TO-DATE PREDICTION RECORDS
- Nate: 10-4
- Jared: 9-5
- Orlando: 9-5
Orlando: Time to see what the Blazers can do on the road. Like last week, this is a great opportunity to put together a win streak. Sacramento has been terrible this season, sporting a 3-11 record and the Kings spent the week with three straight double-digit losses, including a 46-point defeat against the Hawks. Portland will see the Kings in back-to-back games. I’m looking forward to a rematch with Memphis. I expect another close, physical game. Can the Blazers slow down Mike Conley? Will Tyreke Evans have another big night off the bench? Memphis could be riding a 4-game losing streak by the time Portland comes to town, but I’m taking the Grizzlies at home. Blazers go 2-1 this week.
Nate: For the second straight week, I’m going to pick the Blazers to go 3-0. The Kings have been atrocious this season and are playing their worst ball of the year right now. They’ve lost three straight games by an average of 30 points, and are coming off a 46-point drubbing to the Atlanta Hawks, who like the Kings, have only three wins this season. A loss to the Kings would be the Blazers’ worst of the season (yes, even worse than the Brooklyn loss). And I’m going to pick the Blazers to knock off Memphis. The Grizzlies have lost six of their last eight games and allowed an average of 106 points per game during that stretch. Granted, Memphis did beat the Blazers and it was the only game they held a team under 100 points during their rough eight-game stretch. But Nurkic was in early foul trouble and Lillard really struggled to shoot the ball in that game. And yet, McCollum still had a shot to win it at the end. I think the Blazers will knock down a few more shots and Memphis will continue to struggle defensively.
Jared: I predicted a clean sweep last week and the Blazers burned me a bit with an inexcusable loss to the Nets. Will that scare me away from picking the Blazers to go 3-0 again? Nope. Portland should win all three of these games. The Kings are among the worst teams in the NBA. In fact, they might be the worst. They lost Wednesday night by 46 points to the Atlanta Hawks, who have won just three games all season. Road-home back-to-backs are tough, but this is a Sacramento team that is losing games by an average of 14 points this season. The Blazers should win both of those games. Monday's road game at Memphis is a tougher call, but I think Portland will avenge their one-point loss to the Grizzlies at home. Memphis has lost three in a row, and since starting the season 5-1, the Grizzlies are 2-6. Also, Mike Conley sat out Wednesday’s game and continues to deal with a bad Achilles. Even if he plays Monday, he’s clearly not in top form. If the Blazers are a serious team, these are the kind of games they need to win. Blazers go 3-0.
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The KGW sports team breaks down Shabazz Napier's performance, the Blazers defense and the upcoming schedule.Posted by KGW-TV on Thursday, November 16, 2017
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