Blazers fine tune offense as playoff pictures comes into focus

It has become so natural that it is almost taken for granted.

Fact: The Portland Trail Blazers’ offense runs through three-time All-Star guard Brandon Roy.

Fact: The Blazers run a methodical half-court offense that prizes shot selection and possessions over points.

Fact: Portland’s defense wins games, while the Blazers’ offense merely fills in the gaps.

But as an unpredictable, surreal 2009-10 season has unfolded, some of the main truths in Blazerland have begun to bend. Yes, everything in Rip City still runs through Roy. But a slew of uncanny injuries did not just change Portland’s once-predictable path — it altered how the Blazers play with the ball in their hands. And as the team makes a late-season push toward what appears to be a certain spot in the Western Conference playoffs, Portland’s offense has finally begun to change.

Mainly because it had to, Blazers coach Nate McMillan said.

When McMillan dreamed up Portland’s offense this season, it was expected that a much improved Greg Oden would give the Blazers a wide variety of offensive options and an extra punch. But that all changed when Oden was lost for the season, after fracturing his left patella Dec. 5 against Houston. And as more injuries followed, so did more change.

To McMillan, Portland’s offense became boxed in. Opponents centered on Roy, alternating tight double teams with a box-and-one. And even when Roy was temporarily not the focus, the lack of a legitimate inside scoring threat left McMillan with the realization that the Blazers were becoming cramped — guarded tight and playing tighter.

“If you look at our team, you can squeeze,” McMillan said. “And that’s just where we are. And there ain’t (nothing) you can do about it.”

Key decoy

At least not completely.

The Blazers do not have the personnel to become a dangerous perimeter-based offensive team overnight, while the fact that Roy excels in a half-court system will always limit Portland’s ability to push the tempo and create space.

But Roy said small changes have arisen. And to the Blazers’ star guard, every little bit of positive offensive movement puts Portland one step closer not just to making the playoffs, but to dramatically improving the team’s chances of moving past the first round for the first time in a decade.

“At the end of the day, everybody’s going to be here for the end of the year. The team we have now is going to be the 20(10) playoff team,” Roy said. “Nobody can be traded. This is the team we have, so let’s try to make the most of the team we have right now.”

To do so, Roy has begun to offer himself up as a decoy.

Since returning to the lineup Feb. 16 after missing 14 out of 15 games due to a strained right hamstring, The Natural has been as much of a facilitator as he has been scorer.

Roy’s points still come. He has recorded at least 20 points in six out of the Blazers’ last seven games. But an interesting twist has been tied around Roy’s return. Portland is scoring more, but Roy is scoring less. Despite ranking 21st out of 30 NBA teams in average scoring (97.9), the Blazers have posted at least 100 points in six consecutive games — the first time since 1998 Portland has accomplished the feat.

Granted, the Blazers’ offense still runs through Roy. But the former Washington standout said one of the keys to his team’s rejuvenated offense is the fact that he is now setting screens for his teammates, rather than just waiting for the ball to come to him. The slight change has paid major dividends. Roy feels more involved in the offense. And he does not have to touch or control the ball to facilitate action.

“I think coach has done a good job of changing it when I came back,” Roy said. “He’s gotten me more involved in the offense. And it doesn’t mean I have to shoot.”

Early offense

Another alteration, Blazers lead assistant coach Dean Demopoulos said, has been the speed at which Portland moves the ball up the court and sets up it’s half-court offense. That change points directly toward starting point guard Andre Miller.

Since taking over for ex-Blazer Steve Blake, Miller has finally begun to find a comfort zone in the offense. And now that Roy has returned, while new assets such as Nicolas Batum and Marcus Camby have appeared, Miller is no longer being asked to score first and pass later. Now, the 11-year veteran’s main task is simply to set up Portland’s offense as quickly as possible.

“It starts with Dre pushing the ball,” Roy said. “We get a good push, we’re tough to defend. Because once we get in the half-court set, I feel like I can get us a good shot; LaMarcus (Aldridge) feels he can get us a good shot. And Nicolas is playing really good basketball right now.”

Miller stated the Blazers have attempted all season to push the ball and lock in. But the team has only recently found consistency in the effort. A new collection of starters — Miller, Roy, Batum, Aldridge, Camby — possessing high basketball intelligences and lacking egos has aided the process.

“We’re still really trying to figure out how we’re going to play,” Miller said. “It’s really just being a little more assertive and aggressive to make plays. When you do that, it opens it up for everybody.”

Demopoulos said that high-percentage possessions in which the ball is quickly passed to a player who holds an advantage over his opponent ignite everything that works in Portland’s offense. Normally, plays in which the ball runs inside-out and is then passed around the perimeter top the list of the team’s offensive sets. But the Blazers are also comfortable with quick jump shots taken early in the shot clock — as long as the percentage of success is high.

“You always reflect the head coach,” Demopoulos said. “He’s a balanced person, and he’s got a balanced approach to the game that’s stood the test of time. I think he just tries to plug in the players to find that sense of balance and approach in attacking an NBA defense and how to run a game.”

But nearly equal in significance is a willingness to change, Demopoulos said. The Blazers’ roster has evolved from one stacked with youth and potential into a mixed unit that balances young talent with veteran wisdom. At the core: A like-minded group of players who all share one goal — improving the status quo.

Late push

Meanwhile, McMillan continues to fine tune his team’s offense as Portland prepares for the stretch run. The only constants are Roy and Aldridge, and even they are learning that just because they are on the floor, it does not mean the offense is made for them.

Batum’s ascension has suddenly spread the wealth. The second-year forward is averaging 9.8 points while shooting 55.1 percent from the field and a team-high 44.8 percent behind the 3-point line since returning to the lineup.

In addition, McMillan has shown in recent games that he is quick to put in and pull out reserves on a moment’s notice. If a secondary Blazer is playing within the offense and displays a hot hand — Jerryd Bayless — they will be rewarded with minutes. But if a bench player appears lost and out of sorts — Martell Webster — their brief time will instantly be limited.

“It’s just how guys are playing,” McMillan said. “If guys are knocking down shots, you’ve got to put your main guys out there. … You can’t get caught up in rotating every night. Then it becomes a crapshoot.”

Aldridge stated that a revamped Portland offense that takes nothing for granted — but still views efficient, structured possessions as its main goal — should give the Blazers a new edge during the stretch run. Moreover, if things continue to improve and the team’s offense is refined into a major asset, Aldridge believes the playoffs could be different for Portland this time around, if his team makes the cut.

“This year should be better for us,” Aldridge said. “Right now, we’re finding our rhythm and we’re starting to get rolling, and that’s been big for us.”

Blazers’ offense
Points: 97.9 (21st out of 30 teams)
FG: 46.2 percent (13)
3-point: 35.4 percent (13)
FT: 79 percent (3)
Pace: 87.7 (30)

Key Blazers down the stretch
Pts. FG FT
Brandon Roy
22.1 47.6 78.3
LaMarcus Aldridge
17.5 50.3 74.3
Andre Miller
13.5 44.6 81.5
Nicolas Batum
9.8 55.1 91.3
Jerryd Bayless
9.2 42.2 82.4
Rudy Fernandez
8.8 39.4 88.2
Martell Webster
10.2 40.2 80.0

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