The Portland Trail Blazers noticed their slippage on the defensive end through the month of December following their 11-game winning streak and big wins to start the month.
The Blazers were winning, they were scoring and mostly a blind eye was turned to their defensive struggles.
After back-to-back losses to the LeBron-less Miami Heat and the New Orleans Pelicans, things finally came to a tipping point.
Blazers coach Terry Stotts and his players say that the turning point was after the first half against the Pelicans on Dec. 30.
“We just realized we had to have a sense of urgency,” said big man Joel Freeland on what changed after the first half in New Orleans. “We’d been slipping in the wrong direction for a few games and we had to get that sense of urgency back.”
They know they can’t let their offense do all the talking.
“We know we can score. We’ve proved it the last 30 games but now we really have to step up our game on defense,” Nicolas Batum said.
For Stotts, the win in Oklahoma City when the Blazers shot 8-for-33 on 3-pointers and held the Thunder to 16 points in the final period reinforces what they can do with their defense.
It wasn’t a reasonable expectation for the Blazers to suddenly become a top-five defense after being 26th last season. Moving from bad to average was realistic and Portland has shown signs they can be that on defense.
In Portland’s 26 wins this season, they’ve allowed 102.1 points per 100 possessions, which is slightly better than the league average of 102.5.
In losses, the defense allowed 115.4 points per 100 possessions, which would be by far the worst mark in the league.
“We need to find consistency at the moment,” Freeland said. “As soon as we find that consistent line that we’re just staying at a certain level we’ll be fine and we’ll be a very hard team to beat.”
When they get stops, it allows them to play in “flow” and they require fewer set plays to get good shots.
The Blazers know it’s a long season and it starts with fundamentals to be consistent. Things like key words to communicate coverages or concepts of the defense that the Blazers focused on earlier in the season.
They have time to build on it, especially with five games coming up against sub-.500 competition. But as Batum said, they don’t have too much time, either.
“When you think about it, the playoffs are in three months. It’s going to come fast,” he said. “We have to work on our game right now if we’re going to be ready.”