TUALATIN, Ore. — Through much of the first half of the season, Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts has emphasized the finer points of transition defense.
The message — often appearing at the top of the team's dry-erase board before games and manifesting later in comments that help explain why the Blazers either won or lost — will be repeated tonight in Denver.
While the Blazers (20-17) fight for breath in the thin air of the Rocky Mountains, they will also need to slow down the uptempo Nuggets.
"Try to control Andre Miller and try to keep them off the boards," LaMarcus Aldridge said. "Try to keep them out of transition. Andre Miller's a really good passer. I think those are the keys. If we do those things then we should win. But up there, it's definitely different playing in the altitude. We got to bring it."
Aldridge did not dress for the Dec. 20 game in Portland when the Blazers defeated their Northwest division foe, 101-93. However even as the Nuggets infamously missed 22 attempts behind the 3-point line, setting a single-game NBA record, they stayed within shouting distance by depending on their strength.
That night, Denver (23-16) scored every first-half point in the paint and finished with 74 to set an NBA season-high total.
The glaring statistic, coupled with a Blazer victory, prompted Stotts to quip after the game: "Anybody who talks about points in the paint (defense), put this one in the books."
However, even after the bizarre game the Blazers continue to struggle in defending the interior.
Portland ranks last in the league in points-in-the-paint defense — allowing more than 44 points a game. And the culprit behind this wobbly rim protection can be spotted in the Blazers' disorientation in the open court. They're just a tad bit behind hustling on the break, and their transition defense.
It just so happens that Denver punishes opponents with its transition game, ranking among the elite in fast break scoring (18.1 points a game) and points in the paint (55.9) — second and first in the league, respectively.
"They score a lot in the paint because of transition, because of penetration," Stotts said. "Paint points can be taken in a lot of different ways. You don't have to have a lot of big bodies to score in the paint. But their bigs do a good job of going to the offensive boards. Obviously, (Kenneth) Faried goes often. So, when the paint is open for penetration to the rim and offensive rebounds, that's the way they score in the paint."
In the last three games against quality opponents — the Miami Heat, Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder — Portland has revved up the defense. The evidence can be seen in the fourth quarters, and though the Blazers finished with one win and two losses, they held each opponent to less than 100 points.
Also, transition defense has improved as the Blazers did not allow more than 12 fast-break points in a game during the stretch.
"We've been in every game so I think it shows we're capable of beating all these types of teams. We've had chances to win every game and as long as (we're) solid and learn from all these mistakes, I think we'll be OK," Aldridge said. "(We must) start the game with finding our rhythm early and not waiting until the fourth quarter."
Aldridge on right-hand conservatism — In an interview published on NBA.com on Monday, Aldridge spoke with Turner Sports television reporter David Aldridge — no relation — about developing his left hand.
LaMarcus Aldridge described it as a three-year process and though he declared: "I'm just better with it," he also admitted some hesitance in leaning left during games.
The comments came before Sunday's matchup against the Thunder, when Aldridge had the chance to tie the score with 8.5 seconds remaining but did not trust his left hand enough to drive past Kendrick Perkins. Instead, Aldridge bounced two left-handed dribbles then faded for the 19-foot jump shot that sailed long. Portland lost 87-83.
On Monday, Aldridge revisited the play, and explained his dependence on his right hand.
"I made a good left-handed move, but I'm not going to go left to win the game," Aldridge said. "It's like, I'm definitely better (now) at going left and I do go left more but when it's winning time, I'm not going left."
And why does an NBA veteran of seven years and former All-Star rely so much on his strong hand?
"I didn't have to go left," Aldridge said of his youth basketball days. "High school was so easy. When you're on a certain level — not to be arrogant — but I think if guys don't really stop your first move then you don't have to (depend on the left)."
"I think my first couple years, I went right, right, right and then finally the whole league was, like, 'He goes right all the time.' But still now, I still go right all the time. So, it still works though. I'll just keep better (going left) every year."
Go long, Blazers — During the 2010 New York Knicks training camp, NBATV cameras rolled as Greg Brittenham, then the team's director of team conditioning, put the players through a unique drill. The Knicks jogged around the perimeter of a pair of basketball courts while tossing around two footballs.
After Monday's practice, several Blazers were also spotted chucking spirals in a game of catch across the hardwood. However, this was not an innovative exercise dreamt up by Portland's strength and conditioning team.
Guys just wanted to play football.
"Jared (Jeffries) got it out," Stotts said, explaining the presence of the pigskin. "They're just killing time until it's their turn to shoot."