PORTLAND, Ore. — The Trail Blazers are off to a great start this season, winning eight of their first 11 games. They rank in the Top 5 in offense and defense and are coming off a win against the Bucks, the only other team in the NBA right now that can boast Top 5 rankings on both ends of the court.
It's time to check in on the Blazers with another edition of the 3-on-3 Blazers podcast.
This week's topics include whether the Blazers' strong start is legitimate or "fool's gold," Portland's best and worst wins of the season, and predictions for the next three games.
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1. What reasons do you have to believe that the Blazers' strong start is legitimate? What reasons do you have to believe it's fool's gold?
Orlando: Plenty of reasons to believe the Blazers' strong start is legitimate. This is essentially the same team from last year. They’ve racked up plenty of mileage together. While other teams are trying to figure out how it’s all going to work, the Blazers were able to hit the ground running. The chemistry is real. They’re getting production from multiple sources, it’s not just Dame and CJ. Five players are scoring in double figures on average and two others are averaging eight points per game (Stauskas and Aminu). CJ McCollum has had some off nights and Maurice Harkless has played in less than half their games and still, the Blazers are 8-3. On the flip side, it’s easy to dismiss the team’s strong start. Just look to last year’s 13-game win streak to be reminded of “fool’s gold.” Their schedule has been favorable, with half the games coming against teams with losing records. Also, they’ve played just four games away from the Moda Center.
Nate: The strongest argument for why this hot start is legitimate is because the Blazers have been consistent. The team’s best player has been consistent. The bench has been consistent. They’ve generally been a decent 3-point shooting. They’ve consistently been a good offensive and defensive team. If the Blazers were 8-3 but playing well in some games and struggling to pull out wins in others, I’d have more pause. But we keep seeing the same team perform at a high level night in and night out. On the other hand, we all saw what happened last season. A 13-game regular season winning streak and the third-best record in the Western Conference meant nothing in the postseason. I know this is a different team, but me and a lot of fans need to see playoff success before we’re no longer skeptical about the Blazers’ regular season success.
Jared: What makes this start appear legitimate is mostly everything the Blazers are doing on an individual and team level appears to be sustainable. Portland ranks third in offense and fifth in defense. Where they're excelling the most — rebounding (second in the NBA, fourth last season) and opponent shot-making (fourth in opponent effective field-goal percentage, fourth last season) — are areas the team succeeded last season as well. Considering this team returned its starting lineup and 11 of 15 players from its roster, that shouldn't be a surprise. Notice in the argument above, I said "mostly everything the Blazers are doing ... appears to be sustainable." I don't know if the Blazers can sustain their level of shot-making. Portland ranks seventh in effective field-goal percentage and fifth in true-shooting percentage. Last season, they ranked 23rd and 17th in those two areas, respectively. The biggest difference makers, individually, have been Zach Collins (65% effective-field goal percentage / 70% true-shooting percentage in 2018 vs. 46/48 in 2019), Jusuf Nurkic (55/59 vs. 51/53) and Evan Turner (54/56 vs. 49/52). If those three can sustain their improved shooting percentages, the Blazers have a good shot at keeping this going. If not, the offense could come back to earth.
2. What was the best win of the season so far? What has been the worst loss of the season so far?
Nate: It has to be the win over the Bucks. Milwaukee was bulldozing over opponents but on Tuesday it was the Blazers who took it to the Bucks. Portland controlled the action throughout the game and held Milwaukee, who had beat the Blazers four straight times, to their lowest scoring output of the season. Aminu and Turner made it difficult on Antetokounmpo, forcing six turnovers and limiting him to 23 points. Offensively, McCollum stole the show, but as a team, the Blazers got out of their brief 3-point shooting slump. It was an all-around effort against one of the hottest teams in the NBA so far this season. The worst loss is Washington. The Blazers did not play well defensively but were still in perfect position to pull out a win. But defensive miscommunication led to overtime and the Wizards were able to pick up one of their two wins so far this season. That’s game the Blazers locker room would tell you they should have finished.
Jared: The two games I was most surprised to see the Blazers win were the victories in Indiana against the Pacers and at home against the Bucks. I was pretty certain before those games tipped off that the Blazers were going to lose. I'm tempted to pick the Pacers game because it was on the road, but I think I was more shocked by the win against the Bucks. Milwaukee has only two losses this season, while Indiana has lost five games. The Bucks rank second in net rating while the Pacers rank eighth. Plus, Milwaukee seems like such a bad matchup for the Blazers. They have the kind of length and switchable defenders who have given Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum trouble in the past. Both of those wins are excellent victories, but the Milwaukee win gets the slight edge. For worst loss, it's a no-brainer for me. The loss to the Wizards is as embarrassing as it was infuriating to watch. Washington has just two wins and ranks 28th in net rating. They're losing games by an average of 10 points per contest. The Blazers have no excuse for that ugly loss.
Orlando: Maybe I’m a prisoner of the moment, but the best win was their last one against the Bucks. This was the best team they’ve seen this season. Every Blazer scored points, they shot 52 percent from the field and McCollum was a lot of fun to watch go to work. Defensively, they kept one of the league’s best players from going off. We saw Portland play at a high level and win convincingly. There’s only three to chose from when it comes to the worst loss category. As much as Blazers fans hate losing to LA, I’ll take the Wizards game as their worst game. Washington has been terrible this season, winning just two games up to this point. Even after McCollum dropped 40 points on the Bucks, he still mentioned the Wizards during his postgame interview with Brooke Olzendam. Portland blew a 10-point lead, shot 28 percent from long range and Portland made critical mistakes defensively in crunch time.
3. The Blazers play three games between now and the next time we meet, starting tonight at home against the Clippers (6-4), then Sunday at the Moda Center against the Celtics (6-4), followed by a road game Wednesday at the Lakers (5-6). Which games do the Blazers win and which do they lose?
Jared: I'm going to jump on this bandwagon and give the Blazers a sweep of all three games. None of these games are easy. Homecourt advantage should give Portland the edge in the first two games. The Clippers are 2-3 on the road and in their three road losses, against the Pelicans, Thunder and 76ers, they've lost by a combined 11.3 points. I still believe the Celtics are one of the best teams in the East, but they're so inconsistent right now. The game in Portland will be the final stop of a five-game road trip for the Celtics. The road trip is already off to a bad start for Boston, with losses at Indiana and Denver. Boston is good, but the Blazers will be catching them in a vulnerable position, so I'll pick Portland to win. The up-and-down Lakers are just 2-3 at home, and I believe Portland will be looking to avenge their four-point loss at home against the Lakers. In that game, the Blazers shot 35 3-pointers and made only six. The Blazers' bench played its only bad game of the season, scoring just 26 points and missed 21 of their 32 shots, including 12 of 14 3-pointers. Despite that, the Lakers had to hold off a furious Blazers rally and won by just four. Portland will play better in L.A. and beat the Lakers for the second time this season.
Orlando: This feels like a 2-1 type of week. Portland has won three straight against the Clippers and it should be a favorable matchup for the Blazers bigs. Keep the Clippers off the free throw line (third in the NBA) and the Blazers will be all right. I like the Blazers at home. Boston has been a problem for Rip City. The Celtics won both meetings last year, a heartbreaker at the buzzer and the other decided in the fourth quarter. Jayson Tatum and Al Horford are tough matchups for the Blazers. I will say, this is a great time to host the Celtics who are struggling offensively but this team is too talented to be down for long. I think Portland bounces back at LA. The Blazers got down by 20 and came back to make it close. The Blazers have the better team right now and that’s the team we’ll see Wednesday.
Nate: I’m going to pick the Blazers to go 2-1. I’m most excited for the game against the Clippers tonight. I think it’s going to be a fun, back-and-forth matchup. Like the Blazers, the Clippers are top 10 in offensive and defensive rating. They lack a star player but have otherwise been a complete team so far this season. I think they beat the Blazers, coming off the big win against Milwaukee, in a thrilling game. Portland bounces back against Boston and finishes off the homestand with a win. And the Lakers, again? Like the previous two matchups, I’m going to pick Portland. The Blazers won’t go 6-for-35 from 3-point range like they did in the last meeting. Portland starts a 5-game road trip with a win.
SEASON PREDICTION RECORDS
- Nate: 6-5
- Orlando: 6-5
- Jared: 5-6
MEET THE 3-ON-3 BLAZERS TEAM
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 and other topics for KGW.com. Jared has written about the Jazz and 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.