The Portland Trail Blazers are incomplete as long as LaMarcus Aldridge remains injured, but they’re close to their best when Damian Lillard changes his game a bit to become more of a passing point guard, as it seemed to make quite the difference in a 116-103 win over the Washington Wizards.
Lillard has two options now with Aldridge out: Take more scoring on himself, which results in too many shots, too many bad shots and an offense that’s a bit more predictable than usual, or try to do things differently, which means be a pass first kind of guy. Not that Lillard is selfish, but the trend in the NBA is to have point guards thinking more about the 20 points they’re going to get than the 10-15 assists they can pile up. Guess what’s actually better for their teams?
Lillard finished with 23 points and 10 assists in a nice face off with John Wall, who had 24 points and 14 assists, including five 3-pointers. No one said that either of them can defend very well, and even against good defenses these two exciting point guards were going to get their points.
But it came down to the shooting and talent around them. The Wizards shot only 42.2% from the floor, the Blazers were over 50%. There were plenty of open shots, but it came down to execution, and trying to make things happen on the open floor, which the Blazers are simply better at than the Wizards right now.
Portland hit 14 three’s, including 4-of-9 from Wesley Matthews who led the team with 28 points. On the other end, the “mirror” player was Bradley Beal, struggling with 6-of-18 from the field, finishing with 18 points. Going across the board, the Blazers simply had the better player in almost every slot and position. Nicolas Batum had another big rebounding night, making up for those LaMarcus Aldridge is used to grabbing. He finished with 12 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists in another one of those pleasing all-around performances, despite not being in a position expected to do so.
Drew Gooden scored 18 points from the Wizards off the bench, almost outscoring on his own that entire Blazers bench unit, which will be the key, and probably demise of this team in the playoffs. Last season the starting five of Aldridge-Hickson-Batum-Lillard-Matthews was one of the best in the NBA. They’re even better with Robin Lopez as center, and Mo Williams coming off the bench should have made things different.
Sure, the Blazers are going to the playoffs for the first time since 2011 and have looked like one of the best teams in the league when they have their long range game going. However, their ups and downs this season have been because (among other things) their starters don’t get the right kind of backup and rest when they’re off the floor. The differences are too big, which means in the postseason, players like Batum, Lillard and Aldridge are going to be on the floor for 40 minutes every night.
Sure, they’re young and can take it, but even the fittest of players break down with that kind of punishment playing four games in seven days. It’s hard to see them actually fixing it with what they’ve got, unless Dorell Wright will draw some inspiration from his starts now. It just means that unless we see something very special from the Aldridge-Lillard duo along with the others, the Blazers won’t be going very far in the postseason.