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PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland is abuzz after the Blazers set an NBA record for the largest margin of victory in a season opener Wednesday night, blowing out the Suns by 48 points. With the first game out of the way, 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 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 to it later on the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast.
This week's questions focus on the most impressive individual performances in the season opener, the Blazers' defensive effort against the Suns and predictions for the team's next three games.
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Meet our panelists
- Nate Hanson is a digital producer who contributes to KGW.com’s coverage of the Blazers, Ducks, Beavers and high school sports.
- 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.
- 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.
1. Even the most optimistic Blazers fan probably didn't see this coming: a 48-point win in the season opener for Portland. There was a lot to like in the 124-76 victory in Phoenix. Which Blazers player surprised you the most with his performance Wednesday night?
Orlando: This is probably the obvious answer, but the Blazers player that surprised me the most was Pat Connaughton. He went from the hype man, waiving the towel, to on the floor getting buckets. The career-high 24 points was nice, but it was how he did it. It wasn’t like he lit it up in garbage time. He stepped up and gave Portland a boost off the bench when the team needed it. Not too long ago the discussion circled around whether he belonged in the league and whether or not he would make the roster. Many of us were wondering who would fill the void left by Allen Crabbe and Connaughton proved he could be that guy. I don’t expect him to have many nights like this, but he couldn’t have asked for a better start. Let’s see what he does next.
Nate: I tried to think of someone else other than Pat Connaughton but he’s the obvious answer. He got into the game early due to the suspension of CJ McCollum and the early foul trouble of Maurice Harkless, and to his credit he made the absolute most of it. While the Blazers won by 48, many fans forget they were down 9-2 early in the first quarter and the offense appeared stagnant. Connaughton came in and gave the team a jolt, scoring 10 of the Blazers’ first 15 points and 14 points total in the first quarter. He knocked down 4 of his 7 three-point attempts and played the most minutes of any Blazer, which no one would have predicted before the game. While Shabazz Napier also played well, Connaughton was the surprise.
Jared: It's hard to pass on Pat Connaughton with this answer. His 24 points and four 3-pointers were certainly an emphatic answer to the question of who will replace Allen Crabbe this season. But the more I think about it, I was most impressed with Damian Lillard. As usual, he was dynamic on offense, pouring in an efficient 27 points in three quarters on a night when the officials weren't sending him to the free-throw line (only three attempts). But where Lillard really impressed was on defense. Lillard has been talking about improvement on that end of the court since the start of training camp. In the season opener, he backed it up. Not only did he have three blocks and a steal, but he also helped hold the Suns' best player, Eric Bledsoe, to 15 points on 5-of-18 shooting. His effort never waned and he fought through and slid around screens at a higher level than I've ever witnessed. When the night was over, Lillard had the third-best defensive rating on the team (a stingy 68.9), behind only Evan Turner and Jusuf Nurkic. It's only one game and we'll need to see more consistency on defense from Lillard before he can shed his deserved reputation as a subpar defender, but it sure was a nice start.
2. The Blazers held the Phoenix Suns to 76 points on 31 percent shooting from the field and 26 percent shooting from the 3-point line. The Suns may be a bad team overall, but they are not bad on offense. This is a team that finished ninth in the NBA last season in scoring at almost 108 points per game. What impressed you most about the Blazers' defense against the Suns?
Jared: I was really impressed by the trio of Evan Turner, Maurice Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu. When you look at the counting defensive stats, they don't jump off the page — the three combined for just two steals and two blocked shots. But the ability of those three players to switch on the perimeter and guard every position but center was what fueled the Blazers' defensive excellence Wednesday night. Jusuf Nurkic was a great foil inside and showed nimble feet and quickness when he had to switch onto guards on the perimeter. He is the anchor of the Blazers' defense. But having three athletic, physical wing players who are all 6-7 or taller with long arms and big hands swallows up passing lanes and allows the Blazers to switch at will. Suns guard Devin Booker averaged 24 points per game against the Blazers last season. Why did he struggle so much Wednesday, finishing with just 12 points on 6-of-17 shooting? Because he couldn't get a good look all game long. No matter what the Suns tried, he always ended up having to operate against one of those three players, who bothered him with their physicality, athleticism and length. He never got an easy look all game.
Orlando: Phoenix is not a contender in the West, but the Blazers proved they are capable of playing defense. That has been the issue all along. Maurice Harkless led the charge. He was all over the floor and he made life difficult for a couple of perimeter players that can light it up. Damian Lillard said Harkless can guard anyone on the floor — I can see why he said that. His play was contagious and others got involved. He also made the game fun to watch. This has to be a big boost of confidence for a guy who is going to have a full plate guarding some of the league’s top players.
Nate: They didn’t let Devin Booker and Eric Bledsoe get in a rhythm. Those two are dynamic scorers from the outside and each have the capability of dropping 40 points if they get hot. The Blazers didn’t let them get comfortable. Damian Lillard was playing over screens and as a team the Blazers were relentless in pressuring the Suns guards. Bledsoe and Booker combined to shoot just 11 of 35 overall and 1 of 9 from deep. The Blazers have been very open about how defense is a top priority for them this season and it was evident that’s where they wanted to make a statement. And they did in a way that I think caught the rest of the league’s attention.
3. Prediction time! Portland plays three more games before we meet again next Thursday for the next round of 3-on-3. The Blazers play at Indiana on Friday, at Milwaukee on Saturday and host New Orleans in the home opener on Tuesday. What do you think the Blazers' record will be this time next week? Which of the three games do you have them winning and which do you have them losing?
Nate: I think the Blazers are going to be 3-1 through their first four games. I think they’re going to beat Indiana with some help from a motivated CJ McCollum. I think they’ll also win their home opener against the Pelicans, although it will be interesting to see how the Blazers’ frontcourt defense plays against the tandem of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis. I think they’ll stumble in the final game of this season-opening three-game road trip at Milwaukee. It’s a road back-to-back which is always a difficult turnaround. Granted it will also be a back-to-back for the Bucks and they play Cleveland the night before, so that could help the Blazers as Milwaukee may be more focused on that matchup than the one against the Blazers. But a road back-to-back against one of the best players in the league, Giannis Antetokounmpo, will be a little too much for the Blazers to overcome. That matchup will be a real test for the Blazers defense.
Jared: The Blazers will be 3-1 by this time next week. Portland will beat the Pacers on Friday. Indiana showed it could score, putting up 140 points Wednesday night against a porous Nets defense. But they also let the hapless Nets score 132. They won't have as easy a time against Portland. The Blazers will also take care of business in the home opener. The Pelicans weren't competitive in a 103-91 loss to the Grizzlies in their season opener Wednesday and they look just as lost and discombobulated as they did last season. The Blazers' superior talent and depth, plus home-court advantage, will be too much for New Orleans to overcome. Sandwiched between those two wins, though, will be a road loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo was dominant Wednesday with 37 points and 13 rebounds in an impressive road victory against the Boston Celtics. The Bucks' defense is a threat. On Wednesday, they held the Celtics to 43 percent shooting, and Boston's starting guards, Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart, were held to a combined 29 points on 11-of-38 shooting. Both teams will be playing the second game of a back-to-back, but the Blazers come up short on the road at Milwaukee.
Orlando: It’s the first road trip of the season. Big picture, they need to win more games than they lose on these road trips. This is where they can really improve on last year’s 41-41 record. Winning two out of three on the road would be a success. Portland was swept last season against Milwaukee, losing both games. They split wins with the Pacers, losing at Indiana. My prediction, the Blazers beat the Pacers and lose at Milwaukee. The Moda Center will be rocking for the home opener against New Orleans. I have a hard time picking against Portland just based on that alone. At this time next week, I think the Blazers are 3-1.
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