Second Half Domination: 2 Major Keys for the Portland Trail Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers have won six of their last 10 games heading into All-Star Weekend and with a tight Western Conference Playoffs race, things won't seemingly be any easier—for Portland, it's just heating up.

The Trail Blazers have historically played some damn good basketball post-All-Star weekend under Head Coach Terry Stotts. Stotts' most recent teams seem to have always found a "second wind" heading down the stretch. A season ago, Damian Lillard and company were able to post a (17-6) record over the final two months of the season with an impressive league-best (13-3) showing during the month of March. The season before, Portland was able to go (25-12) down the stretch with both runs seeing the Trail Blazers achieve 40 wins or better. The Trail Blazers play their best basketball going into the playoffs and in 2018 they need that now more than ever.

The Western Conference race is currently anybody's for the taking when you look at the No. 3 spot down to No. 10. A resilient, athletic, young, and talented roster resides in Utah and they have put the remaining teams in the West on notice. The Los Angeles Clippers remain in the hunt after trading Blake Griffin (can't count out the Doc) and with a healthy Lonzo Ball, even the Lakers can make some noise, not likely, but still not out of the realm of possibility.

Despite all of the fluctuation and parity from the bottom seven to eight teams in the West, Damian Lillard is having one of the best seasons of his career posting highs in field goal percentage (44.7), free throw (92.4) and offensive rating at (110.4). Doing all of this during the second-lowest usage percentage of his career (25.0) shows you why sometimes, "less is more." With less of the burden to carry, for the time being, Lillard has benefited and the stats back this up. Looking ahead at Lillard and his counterparts, let's examine two major keys for the Trail Blazers to achieve the domination that Lillard is longing for post All-Star break. 

Offense outside of Dame

Damian Lillard is one of few players in the NBA that can post the splits that he has on most nights, 26.1 points per game (6th), 4.5 rebounds per game (105th) and 6.6 assists (9th) while still answering the call anytime Stotts and the Trail Blazers look his way. While this is what a leader/superstar is expected to do, Dame needs help and his teammates must do more to aid in the meantime, this is where that "less is more" comes into play. The Trail Blazers currently have an offensive rating of 105.4 (15th) that is best middle-of-the-pack which is coupled with an effective field goal percentage of 51.3 (20th) and a true shooting percentage of 55.1 (16th). If it's not CJ McCollum who provides the spark, there's not much offense that is being generated from anyone else.

The Trail Blazers' most experienced starting rotation of Jusuf Nurkic, Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu, McCollum and Lillard post a considerable league-worst offensive rating of 108.7 through 26 games and 334 minutes played together. Struggling to produce output, the Trail Blazers have resorted to a small-ball lineup that is guard-heavy that they have seen success from. When replacing the offensive-strapped Evan Turner with point guard Shabazz Napier, through 12 games and just 58 minutes together, their offensive rating jumps to 117.2 with an effective field goal percentage of 54.7 and a true shooting percentage of 59.6 and a Player Impact Estimate (PIE) jump from 55.2—60.0.

Evan Turner hinders this offense in so many ways and anyone who has followed the Trail Blazers for the last two seasons can tell you it is becoming more risk than reward compared to the defense he gives you versus the offense he has never given you consistently. Turner is not the only problem, but he remains a glaring eyesore at times. Aminu, along with Nurkic will be forced to distract teams from solely focusing on McCollum and Lillard down the stretch if Portland plans to make noise in April. 

Keep up the D

Aside from having one of the greatest backcourts in the NBA with Lillard and McCollum, the Trail Blazers have been known for their offensive prowess and nothing more under Stotts. The last two seasons the Trail Blazers posted a 105.6 (20th) and 107.8 (21st) defensive rating, but that is not the case this season, in the new NBA and the three-point heavy laden nature of the game (especially in the West), the Trail Blazers sit in the Top 15 of the league with a DefRtg of 105.0 (11th).

McCollum and Lillard, more times than not, have been the butt of plenty of jokes at NBA fans' expense for their struggling defense or lack thereof. The Trail Blazers average 86 defended field goals attempted per game and presently place themselves in the Top five of the league in defended field goal percentage (44.7). Active defensive pressure with one of the toughest schedules remaining in the league is going to be pivotal for the April push to the playoffs in hopes of separating from the rest of the pack.

An area of improvement on defense Portland will need to keep in perspective is their steals output. Jumping passing lanes proves to be an issue as the Trail Blazers average just 6.9 steals per game (27th). When teams are beating the Trail Blazers, it's when they become passive and take possessions off. The length of guys like Nurkic, Turner, and Aminu must provide more of an impact comparable to what the Trail Blazers are doing protecting the rim averaging 5.1 blocks per game (9th) and managing to stay from foul trouble averaging only 19.6 (12th).

A complete opposite of most teams under Stotts, the defense has been the x-factor for success and the Trail Blazers have prospered from good defense generating better offense.

It will be interesting to see if they keep the intensity for the remainder of the season.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com

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