On the surface, the Portland Trail Blazers' 106-95 home loss to the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night wasn't a particularly bad defeat. After all, Utah has been the NBA's best team during the month of January, knocking off two other 2009 West playoff teams (Dallas and San Antonio) on the road in that span. However, the way the Jazz controlled the game and revealed that the Blazers, so resilient in the face of injuries throughout this season, are starting to be unable to paper over their weaknesses.
Utah outscored Portland 37-16 in the first quarter, putting 12 points on the board before the Blazers scratched. The early lead was built on easy buckets. The Jazz was able to parlay defensive stops into transition opportunities, and when Portland slowed things down to some extent, Deron Williams broke down the defense and created looks at the rim for his teammates.
For the game, Utah made 23 of its 29 attempts at the rim, according to Hoopdata.com's advanced box scores. While the Jazz represented a particularly bad matchup (Utah ranks second to Memphis in the NBA by averaging 19.0 field goals a game at the rim), the performance is emblematic of what has plagued the Blazers over the last month. With centers Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla out for the season, Portland is undersized in the middle and severely lacking in shot blocking.
The numbers in this regard are striking. Through Dec. 20, the last full game played by Przybilla before he ruptured his right patella tendon, opponents were making 56.9 percent of their attempts at the rim (again, according to data for Hoopdata.com). Since then, that percentage has skyrocketed to 65.3 percent. The contrast is even more dramatic in comparison to the rest of the league. The Blazers would rank fifth in the league over the course of the season based on the way they defended at the rim with Przybilla, while their percentage allowed since his injury is better than only the Washington Wizards (66.9 percent) have defended the rim this year.
As a result of the lack of defense in the paint, Portland has seen its Defensive Rating suffer dramatically. The Blazers were an above-average defense through Przybilla's injury, allowing 105.8 points per 100 possessions. Since then, opponents have scored at a rate of 113.6 points per 100 possessions. Eight times in the last 15 games, teams have posted an Offensive Rating against the Blazers at least 10 points per 100 possessions better than their season average.
Juwan Howard, who has stepped into the starting lineup at center, has done an admirable job considering he is 36, a power forward by trade and was expected to be Portland's sixth big man. But the 6'9" Howard, who has blocked just seven shots all year, is simply inadequate as a help defender. Rookie Jeff Pendergraph, splitting minutes in the middle with Howard, has proven an adept finisher in the paint (he's making 68.4 percent of his shot attempts thus far) and a solid rebounder. However, his defensive instincts are lacking and the Blazers have been especially torched with Pendergraph on the floor, allowing 10.1 more points per 100 possessions according to BasketballValue.com.
The drop-off on defense has failed to sink Portland because the team has been so good on offense over the last month, improving its Offensive Rating from 110.4 points per 100 possessions to 115.6. Only the Phoenix Suns have scored so well over the full season. With Brandon Roy playing at an MVP caliber, Martell Webster catching fire from beyond the arc and Andre Miller and Jerryd Bayless contributing, the Blazers' offense has harkened back to last season, when the team led the league in per-possession scoring much of the year before being passed by Phoenix and finishing second.
Roy's absence due to a strained right hamstring has undermined that formula for propping up the defense. Portland was able to win two of the first three games Roy missed this season, as well as the Philadelphia game last Wednesday where he re-aggravated the injury and had to leave during the first half. Since then, the Blazers have lost three of four. Their offense hasn't been bad per se. Last Friday in Boston, when Portland posted a 100.1 Offensive Rating--2.6 points per 100 possessions lower than the Celtics typically give up--was the team's worst offensive outing in that period. It's just that the offense hasn't been good enough to carry the Blazers the way it was with Roy.
The fourth quarter against Utah was indicative of the tightrope Portland is trying to walk due to injuries. The Blazers dug out of the early hole to get as close as five points, and scored on six straight possessions midway through the period. However, the Jazz got enough scores to keep Portland at bay, and when the Blazers offense subsequently went cold Utah put the game away.
In the wake of consecutive home losses, trouble looms for Portland in the form of a daunting schedule between now and the All-Star break. The Blazers' eight opponents in that span all boast .500 records or better. Roy definitely will not play during Portland's upcoming two-game road swing at Houston and Dallas, and he could miss the entire stretch. The Blazers have little margin for error because of the depth of the Western Conference; just two games separate them from being tied for 10th place in the West.
Roy will be back at some point, and Portland may be able to add some size in the paint by the trade deadline (Washington's Brendan Haywood, despite "anchoring" the only rim defense worse than the Blazers', would be an ideal fit should he become available). Between now and then, Portland's task is to try to avoid losing too much ground due to all the injuries. Based on last night, that's looking like a lot to ask.
Join Kevin to chat about whatever NBA topics are on your mind Friday at 1:00 p.m. Eastern/10:00 a.m. Pacific at Baseball Prospectus. If you can't make it, leave your question now to be answered then.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.