Improving defense has been key to Blazers' run

Though streak over, Portland's strength gets noticed

By Erik Gundersen, Columbian Trail Blazers writer

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During the Portland Trail Blazers recent stretch of play, they've become the toast of the NBA.

Sure, Indiana and San Antonio have been just as good over the last month but nobody expected the Blazers to be this good.

Head coach Terry Stotts' flow offense and all of the contributions from players up and down the roster have suddenly become appreciated around the NBA blogosphere.

But it hasn't just been the offense.

During their 11-game winning streak, they had the sixth best defensive efficiency, measured in points allowed per 100 possessions, in the NBA. After their loss in Phoenix where they gave up 120 points, they are 20th in the league for the season.

As Stotts has been lauded for his offensive genius and the brilliance of LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Damian Lillard has been a hot topic, Portland's defensive improvement has gone under the radar for the most part.

Robin Lopez has been a huge factor in their improvement but Lopez only tells part of the story. Lopez and Aldridge have been downright dominant together on the defensive end as line-ups featuring those two players have defended at a top-10 efficiency rate according to NBA.com.

It's easy to see that Portland is moving in the right direction defensively.

"I think there's no question we are moving in the right direction in a lot of areas," Stotts said. "It's not an easy task. I'm certainly pleased with the way things are going. But it's night to night."

A big part of the Blazers improvement has been a simple thing that every coach in America always wants to see out of his defense: better communication.

"I think our communication is really good right now," said guard Damian Lillard. "I think that was where we made a lot of mistakes in preseason, even last year. This season we've been on top of it. We've been communicating and the coaches haven't been having to talk for us."

"I think LA and Robin and Joel have done a very good job with that," Stotts said when asked about who on the team has helped the communication. "I think the guards are communicating much better. It's a team thing, everybody's got to be doing it."

The whole team is on the same page and they all have an understanding of the team's defensive goals, which adds to the communication.

"Sometimes players aren't communicating because they aren't sure what to say," Stotts said. "There is a greater understanding of what we're trying to accomplish and how we are trying to accomplish it and that's leading to better communication."

The Blazers, who had five rookies on the roster last year and added 36 years of NBA experience in Earl Watson, Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Lopez, also have a greater collective understanding of their opponents tendencies and what they are trying to do so they can do a better job at taking those away.

This Blazers team doesn't have an assistant designated as the "defensive coordinator."

While Stotts' fourth ranked offense has gotten a lot of the headlines, it's his team's improving defense that has them putting up numbers under the 'W' column in the standings.

Players and coaches have cautioned that they haven't done anything yet and there is a lot of work to do and giving up 120 points and eight more 3s than they give up on average in Phoenix is an easy example of the work still left to do.

"The biggest thing is not to have slippage and continuing to work on the little things," Stotts said. "Situations will arise throughout the season that we will have to tweak and improve on."

Those "little things" are technical. Guards need to fight over picks in pick and rolls, players need to step to open shooters or people driving in the lane and communicate in transition.

As Stotts will be the first to tell you, the Blazers have still yet to accomplish anything of real value yet. They have been winning, they've been playing great.

Yes, it is November and the Blazers still have lots of basketball to play and Wednesday's loss is a good reminder that there will be setbacks in this process.

Nevertheless, it's the continuing improvement of their defense that will determine how high this team's ceiling is. It could be the difference between simply making the playoffs and hosting a first round series.