Blazers find their identity in the long ball

Blazers find their identity in the long ball
November 20, 2013, 9:15 pm
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(Anthony Gruppuso | USA Today Sports Images)

“I think we’re shooting an appropriate amount of threes for the type of team that we have. I’m glad we’re shooting a good percentage" - Coach Stotts

MILWAUKEE – This Portland Trail Blazer team has found their identity.

When they hired Terry Stotts to be its next head coach in the summer of 2012, Stotts promised one thing: We’re going to shoot a lot of threes.

And to me, that’s exactly what this team is doing…sort of.

“We’re not shooting a lot of threes,” Stotts argued. “I think we’re shooting an appropriate amount of threes for the type of team that we have. I’m glad we’re shooting a good percentage, but that doesn’t surprise me because the five guys that we got shooting are all good shooters.”

Coming into tonight’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks, Portland was ninth in three-point attempts per game (23.2), fourth in three-point percentage (42%), and the 256 threes made puts them eighth in the league, some distance away from Houston who is tops with 313 from downtown.

Those are pretty impressive statistics, and it’s going to be imperative that Portland remains within the Top 5 percentage-wise in order to continue this early success with the style of ball they play. They still continue to give up chunks in the paint, but if that long ball is dropping at a high rate, it negates the points in the paint.

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“I think everything is relative in this league. Defensive field goal percentage, points per game. What’s really important to me is where we rank in the league,” Stotts said.

“When Rick Pitino coached the Knicks, they shot 50 percent more threes than the next team. That amount would have been 29th last year. It’s all relative. 25 years ago that was out of the box thinking. Now, it’s not shooting enough threes. I think you have to coach your team and play to your strengths. I don’t want to apologize for having good shooters.”

And he shouldn’t.

Wednesday night the Trail Blazers didn’t win with their shooting, it was with their defense. As a group, they shot 11-for-31 from downtown in a 91-82 win over the Bucks. They got the same shots they were getting in the first 11 games. Shots simply weren’t falling. Matthews said they had to dig deep into their arsenal to finish out the game.

Portland has five guys who are threats from behind the arc – Lillard, Matthews, Batum, Mo Williams and Dorell Wright. And whenever Meyers Leonard gets back into the fold, he’ll add another perimeter shooter.

This team has shown through the course of this early season that they’re capable of winning games in a multitude of ways, but make no bones about it, they’re going to win the majority of their games using the long ball.

“Our threes are important,” Lillard said after scoring 19 points and pulling down six boards. “We shoot a lot of them so we need those shots to fall. It’s going to be games where it doesn’t fall and we’re going to have to find other ways to make it happen. But I like how we’re shooting.”

The NBA is about adjustments. The Trail Blazers have been receiving some nice publicity as of late for their strong start. It won’t take long for teams to attempt to take away their strengths.

Chasing guys off the three-point line is what opposing coaches will have first and foremost on their scouting report from here on out. Bucks coach Larry Drew said prior to Wednesday's game that he would like to force the Trail Blazers to put the ball on the floor rather than them taking those deadly threes. Other coaches will follow suit.

Stotts knows it’s a strategy they will have to deal with eventually.

“That (getting chased off the line) is going to be a priority,” Stotts admitted. “That’s where decision-making is going to come into play. I want us to shoot good threes and if teams chase us off the line, we have to be able to drive, kick and create a problem and maybe that turns into a better three now that the team is in rotation because they overreacted to our first three-point shooter.

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“Now the second or third shooter might be open. Or we might have a drive to the basket and score more points in the paint than we do now. I think the most important thing in any offensive system is that your decision-makers are making quick and smart decisions that lead directly to baskets or opportunities to make basketball plays.”

I think I can say without hesitation that Portland is the best team in the league at moving the ball and finding the open man. Stotts constantly tells his guys to trust the past. It gets contagious. If they’re open, nine times out of 10 that ball is going to go in.

It’s one thing to have shooters on the floor, but if there’s no way to get the shooters open for quality looks, it serves no purpose. An All-Star power forward surrounded by efficient gun-slingers is a recipe for success, as in a 10-2 start with an eight-game winning streak to go along with it.

“We got good shooters and we take the time after practice,” Lillard said. “Some guys are there before practice getting their shots up. If we’re going to be a team that shoots jumpers, depend on the three, mid-range pull-ups, pick-and-pops, we know we have to work on those shots so we’ll be able to make them.”

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Portland continues to shock the nation. A four-game road trip sweep only adds to the intrigue. People are wondering if this team is for real. People are waiting for the roof to cave in.

It may never occur. Yes, they’re going to lose some games here and there but maybe this team is legit. Stotts has these guys believing in themselves. They are willing to run through a brick wall for the guy because they know he has their best interest at heart.

When you got the player’s ear, that’s half the battle. And it helps when you install a player-friendly three-point offense that is fair game for all those equipped for the task.

This team will continue to let it fly.

“Coach gives us the freedom to make plays,” Matthews said. “If you’re open, he wants you to shoot it. When you play for a coach that has confidence in your abilities, the game comes to you easier. I believe this level of play is sustainable for us. We’re going to keep rolling.”