TUALATIN, Ore. — When the Portland Trail Blazers returned to work on Wednesday, after finding some inspiration on their three-game road trip — a loss in Oklahoma City but a split in the Texas two-step through Houston and Dallas — they labeled areas in need of improvement.
Transition defense, pick-and-roll defense and maximizing the 5-on-4 moments when rookie point guard Damian Lillard faces double teams.
Curiously missing from that list of deficiencies is the Blazers’ bench, a second unit that ranks last in the league in scoring (12.8).
Only the Lakers, confounded in learning principles of the Princeton offense, are the only other reserves scoring less than 20 points per game.
And, wouldn’t you know it? Up next for the Blazers (2-2) are the Los Angeles Clippers and their highly effective bench that features players who score as if they were still starters (41.8 points a game).
When the respective substitutes walk to the Rose Garden scorer’s table on Thursday night, the disparity between the two units will be evident. Yet on Wednesday, Blazers coach Terry Stotts took a defensive stand — probably the same he would like to see from his team to stop transition points — for his reserves.
“You know what? We didn’t get a lot of scoring off the bench against the Lakers. We scored 116,” Stotts said, referencing the season-opening win. “When you score 116 against the Lakers, nobody was talking about the bench scoring.
“We beat Houston in overtime, we didn’t get a lot of points off the bench and we won. So, when we win, I don’t care how many points we score off the bench.”
Through four games, Stotts has administered his substitutes like aspirin — in small doses. One comes in, surrounded by four starters. Then another, still flanked by scorers like Nicolas Batum or LaMarcus Aldridge. And the next substitution could very well be a starter returning in for a reserve player.
There might be a better shot at spotting a spade-toothed beaked whale than seeing the rarity of five Blazer bench players on the floor at once.
“Scoring the ball there is room for improvement, but I think the way we rotate in — we don’t just come in five in, five out,” backup point guard Ronnie Price said. “We rotate one or two guys at a time and with that being said, there’s still one or two scorers on the floor. I don’t think it’s ‘Oh, the bench isn’t scoring!’ or we can’t score the ball — but I think that with our offense, we got to get guys shots that need the shots while on the floor.”
On Monday in Dallas, Stotts gave significant time to Price, Sasha Pavlovic and Meyers Leonard, with Jared Jeffries and Joel Freeland also playing at least seven minutes. That five-man unit scored 17 points, a season high for the Blazers bench.
Stotts points out that in spite of the second-unit scoring, Portland fell to the Mavericks, 114-91 — but that loss had more to do with the Blazers allowing 31 fourth-quarter points and running behind the fast break to surrender 24 in transition.
“We got more points off the bench against Dallas … and it was our worst loss,” Stotts said. “I think it’s important that we stick to who we are and work with that.”
The core of the Blazers bench — veterans Jeffries, Pavlovic and Price along with the rookie Leonard — was all brought in this summer. And only one — Pavlovic, who once started in the NBA Finals — came in with an NBA career scoring mark better than 5 points a game.
It should be no surprise that this collective Blazer unit hardly gets buckets. So, to quote the raging wisdom of Dennis Green — the Blazers bench are who we thought they were.
“I said all along, our bench, the players are complementary players,” Stotts said. “It’s my job to make sure there are scorers out there but there’s not a guy on our bench (who) I expect to come in and score 20. That’s not who they are. But what they are, very good NBA players who can complement the scorers that are in the game with them.”
As the bench rotates in for supplementary purposes, this also makes for long nights for the starting five.
After Monday’s loss, Batum ranks second in the NBA in total minutes played (158) while Wesley Matthews comes in ninth overall with Aldridge (11th) and Lillard (12th) also among the league leaders.
Big minutes for the starters but give the bench some time, Matthews said. The reserves will improve as the season goes on.
“They’re playing hard. The second unit isn’t very experienced, so it’s what to expect,” Matthews said. “They’re playing hard, they’re learning. That’s all you can ask for. They’ll continually grow, continue to get better (and) as the bench does, we will and it’ll be a good look for us.”