Sprung: Freedom, chemistry behind Trail Blazers’ early success

Damian LillardLillard, the reigning Rookie of the Year, has similar confidence. He scored 19 points, dished out nine assists and was particularly strong on the pick-and-roll with Aldridge. Without Deron Williams and Brook Lopez in Brooklyn’s lineup, Aldridge exploited the Nets for 27 points on 9-for-16 shooting.

“He’s always been a confident player,” Stotts said of Lillard. “There’s even more of a confidence level and an understanding of the league [this year] and what he’s capable of doing. His control on the court is better.”

Lillard’s 3-point shooting is up to 40 percent and he is getting to the line more than he did as a rookie. But as Stotts noted, “He knows as well as everyone else, for us to do what we need to do this year, he needs to get better defensively.”

Portland is in the middle of the pack in scoring defense (14th) and field goal defense (15th). Stotts emphasized better defensive rebounding and limiting easy baskets, but one thing the team does incredibly well is defend the arc.

On Monday, Brooklyn scored 40 points in the first quarter on 74 percent shooting. But Portland regrouped and allowed just 22 percent from the field over the final 36 minutes. Kevin Garnett hit his first six shots but went 2-for-13 thereafter.

Portland turned the tide in the third quarter, when it held Brooklyn to 3-for-18 shooting.

In the game, the Nets shot just 3-of-13 from three, improving Portland’s league-leading 3-point defense to an incredible 28.6 percent. With that kind of percentage, it almost doesn’t pay for teams to attempt 3-pointers.

Stotts said that defending the three was an offseason priority.

“We’ve changed our defensive concepts, particularly our pick-and-rolls, to not extend as much,” Stotts said. “Our idea is to protect the paint – we haven’t done that as well as we’d like to – but also stay on 3-point shooters and not give them as clean of looks.

“We’ve been fortunate. Some good shooters have missed shots. Over the course of the season, I think those numbers average themselves out. But, one of our priorities was to protect the three and protect the rim. We’re doing one of those two right now.”

Portland’s improvements goes beyond the young, developing starting lineup and the defense, extending to the new veteran bench and the chemistry the Blazers now have.

Mo Williams leads the second unit as the team’s much-needed third guard and backcourt complement to Lillard. The team also added sharpshooter Dorell Wright, former top-five pick Thomas Robinson and Watson, fortifying what had been the NBA’s worst bench last season.

“I’m still playing the starters a lot of minutes, as everybody points out, but in reality I think the bench has been very effective,” Stotts said.

Center Robin Lopez is the only new addition to the starting lineup, arriving in an offseason trade with New Orleans.

“I’m surprised how quickly I’ve developed a rapport with the guys here,” he told Sheridan Hoops. “It’s just been really easy. Good people. I wasn’t here last year but just what I can gather from this season, I think everyone’s very locked in and we’re only going to grow more comfortable.”

“Last year everyone was trying to find their place on the team and that was tough,” second-year backup center Joel Freeland said. “This year, we’ve got a team that knows what we have to do and people know their roles.”

With a young starting five playing extremely well together, a very capable veteran bench and strong chemistry, the surprising Blazers may be taking up permanent residence among the league’s top teams.

Shlomo Sprung is a national columnist for Sheridan Hoops who loves advanced statistics and the way they explain what happens on the court. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. His website is SprungOnSports.com. You should follow him on Twitter.