Lillard, Aldridge are nice, but Portland’s improved defense makes them contender

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LOS ANGELES — When people think of why Portland is a dangerous team in the Western Conference, some obvious reasons leap out at you.

“They’ve got a great point guard, a great power forward, great role players, they are very unselfish, they space the floor and make you work on defense,” Lakers coach Byron Scott said recently.

And he’s right — Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge are one of the better one-two punches in the league. The Blazers have a team of solid NBA veterans who buy into the system and with that they have the eighth-ranked offense in the NBA. On offense the Blazers are a sexy team to watch — especially when Lillard takes over a game late with his explosive drives and long-range threes.

But that’s not the end of the floor that makes them contenders.

Two seasons ago, the Portland Trail Blazers finished the season 26th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Last season the Blazers made strides up the Western Conference ladder in large part because their defense improved, up to 16th in the NBA.

This season they are third in the NBA so far, allowing just 98.7 points per 100 possessions.

The Traill Blazers have become a good defensive team. And that makes them a serious contender in the loaded Western Conference.

“I think it’s been a two-year process,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said of the effort to remake the defense. “I thought what we did last year going from 26 to, whatever it was, 16, it was conservative (philosophy). It wasn’t anything revolutionary.

“Some of it was personnel, obviously, but some of it was we changed our focus, we didn’t extend. My first year we got out and showed on pick-and-rolls, we tried to be athletic. We are much more conservative in our approach to the pick-and-roll. I thought we made good progress last year and this year the focus was on not allowing as many shots at the rim while still taking away the three. Our weak side needed to be better, and I think our defensive rebounding has been better both years.”

Part of it was personnel. The Blazers have Wesley Matthews out on the perimeter as a physical and tough defender, plus they have the length of Nicolas Batum. Most important was the addition last season of the intelligent paint defense of Robin Lopez (who is currently out with broken hand until around the All-Star break). Then it became a culture — Lillard has a bad defensive reputation but he puts in the effort (Lillard’s size can hurt him defensively and he can get rubbed of his man on a screen a little too easily, but he’s game on that end).

The Blazers system isn’t rocket science — they want to take away the most efficient shots on the court, particularly threes, and force teams more into the midrange.

“Their system defensively is to make sure you don’t get threes,” the Lakers’ Scott said. “They do a hell of a job just running you off the threes, they want you to take twos. They’re one of the best in the league at doing that.”

This season teams average 17.5 three point attempts a game against Portland, second fewest in the league, and they shoot just 28.7 percent on those, the lowest percentage in the league. More specifically, teams shoot a league low 30.4 percent on corner threes against the Blazers — that’s the efficient spot that the Spurs and other teams target. Above the break teams are shooting just 28.4 percent from three against the Blazers, also a league low.

That’s a step forward, last season the Blazers were 11th in opponent three point percentage. Two seasons ago when the Blazers used Aldridge’s athleticism to show out on picks they did a good job at the arc but it left the paint exposed and they paid that price. Now, they have Lopez and a new defensive philosophy.

This season Blazers’ opponents are getting shots in close — Portland is allowing 28.6 shots in the restricted area a game on average, top 10 in the league — but they aren’t making them, hitting just 57.9 percent, sixth lowest percentage allowed in the league.

With the size of Aldridge and Lopez in the paint, the Blazers pick-and-roll defense has the big stay back and take away the penetration of the guard coming off the screen. Then, if said ball handler has three-point range, the Blazers’ guard usually tries to fight over the pick and take away the deep ball. Again the goal is simple — force the other team into the midrange for their shot. It’s something they are doing well this season.

“We played back last year too, but I think our weak side has gotten better,” Aldridge said. “I think just having a couple years in this system of guys just learning where to be has been great for us, too.”

Stotts likes what he sees so far, but he also knows it’s January — if the Blazers are playing in late April exactly the way they are playing now it will not be good enough. It’s about the process of improving.

“I send out quotes to our guys every day and the last two or three have been about the process,” Stotts said. “It’s not result oriented. I think that’s one thing we’ve done a good job at is staying in the moment and doing the things that are fundamental to us within the foundation of what we’ve created defensively, and trusting ourselves offensively. I think we all realize that we’re not even halfway through the season and it’s all those things that are going to pay dividends in May and June.”

May and June are when teams that advance to the second round of the playoffs and beyond are still playing. That’s where Portland sees itself — to a man every player on this roster believes they can contend for a title.

With this defense, they are right.