Most people, unless their paycheques are signed by Paul Allen, did not expect the Portland Trail Blazers to be in the Western Conference's 8th and final playoff spot, coming off an 8-2 run in their last ten games.
This past offseason, four of the Blazers' starters left for other teams, and Portland's biggest acquisition, Al-Farouq Aminu, remains a virtual unknown to casual NBA fans. In October, Vegas had predicted the Blazers would win about 27 games this season, and no expert would have faulted you for taking the under. But here we are at the start of February and they've already won 23 games. The way they're playing right now, they might get to 27 before the all-star break!
So how in the world are the Blazers ripping off these wins?
The short answer: They're playing ugly basketball. They play ugly on offense, their defense makes other teams play ugly, and I imagine Terry Stotts spends his free time painting ugly portraits of ugly trolls.
HOW TO WIN WITH UGLY OFFENSE
1. TRY TO DO SOMETHING GOOD.
In the same way that you can't be cool by trying to be cool, you can't win ugly by trying to play ugly. You have to be aspiring to greatness, and just falling on your butt more than you'd like. Here is a great example of a play that starts out great, but never really materializes into anything. Maybe if Leonard attacks a bit more, or if Henderson waits for the pick to come over, this play turns out differently. But the important thing here is that the Blazers are trying to get a good shot. They're well on their way to winning ugly.
If you keep trying to get good shots, eventually something is going to click, as it does on this backdoor play when Rondo overplays Lillard's cut.
...And sometimes, even though you have good intentions, something like this ends up happening:
Not even the best teams in the league can half-ass their way to a victory. If you want to win ugly, you've still got to be working for good shots.
2. IF YOU HAVE AN ADVANTAGE, ATTACK IT.
The Blazers have the second-highest scoring backcourt in the league, after you-know-who in Golden State. Part of what makes McCollum and Lillard so great is that they have killer instincts on the offensive end. As soon as they see any sort of advantage, they go after it. Watch here as CJ McCollum forgoes setting up the offense because he can see his defender isn't paying full attention.
Now watch Lillard make almost the exact same play. In transition, Omri Casspi gets cross-matched on to Lillard, and Damian knows that Casspi's feet are too slow to keep up. He sees the advantage, and he attacks.
But it's not all about taking it to the hole. In fact, for the Blazers, it's rarely about taking the ball to the hole.
The Portland Trail Blazers are 27th in the league in points in the paint, 26th in free throw attempts, 27th in fast break points, and 29th in FG% inside 5 feet. The Blazers are just about the jump shooting-est team ever to jump or shoot.
Portland puts up more shots from 20-24 feet (long 2s and short 3s) than any other team in the league, and shoot 39% on those shots (good for 6th leaguewide). They shoot 28.3 3s per game, which is good for 4th in the league, and get 30% of their points on triples. Remarkably, the Blazers have 6 players shooting over league average 35% on 3s (Lillard, McCollum, Crabbe, Aminu, Leonard, Henderson), while none of them shoot over 39%. The result is an offense that looks fairly bad to the eye, with a 44.6 FG%. However, their offense is actually quite efficient because of the number of threes taken, with an eFG% of 55.6, (10th in the league).
All of that is to say, the Blazers have a bunch of guys who have a green light to bomb 3s when they get a little space. And when I say green light, I mean green light. Here, Cousins sags off his man, and Aminu gets a look at the rim and fires one without hesitation, despite there being lots of time on the shot clock.
It's a good-but-not-great shot for a guy who shoots as well as Aminu. Shots like these are plentiful in the Blazers offense, and you can't blame them for taking them. The Portland bigs aren't really post-up threats, so often the Blazers' biggest advantage is on the perimeter. Lillard and McCollum especially look to take advantage when a bigger player gets cross-matched or switched on to them. Watch here as Lillard takes advantage of Willie Cauley-Stein.
Lillard sees the advantage, and attacks it without hesitation. This ability to recognize opportunities is one of the things that has the Blazers fighting for playoff position.
3. GET MORE UGLY-NESS.
"Quantity has a quality all its own." Perhaps fittingly, this quote is attributed to Stalin, and the Blazers have taken it to heart. They may not shoot the highest percentage or get to the rim, but they still have the 8th-most efficient offense (ORTG 104.1), in part because they know how to crash the offensive boards. If they can't get good shots, then by god they're going to get a lot of them.
The Blazers rank 3rd in the league offensive rebounding, and 3rd in second-chance points. This is because they have a monstrous frontline, who is surprisingly physical. Mason Plumlee, Noah Vonleh, Meyers Leonard, Ed Davis, and Al-Farouq Aminu are all pretty big at their positions. They are also very long, and extremely athletic. This makes them an absolute nightmare for other teams on the offensive glass, especially with the Blazers' propensity for 3s leading to a ton of long rebounds.
Intriguingly, it's not that the Blazers heavily crash the offensive boards. One of the things that sets the Blazers apart from some other teams is that they seem to only go for offensive rebounds when they have a decent shot at getting it. Watch here, as Damian Lillard sees a seam to get inside for the board.
Now watch Vonleh as this play materializes. As soon as he sees the ball hit the opposite side, he can tell a shot is coming soon, so he slides into position for the putback.
Now contrast those two plays above, with the one below. Here, the Kings have got great rebounding position. But rather than Plumlee or Lillard trying to dive to the basket trying to come up with an unlikely board, they simply run back on defense. This is one of the ways that the Blazers stifle the other team's fast break (more on that later).
The Blazers' ability to get more possessions is one of the keys to helping them win. Sometimes all offensive rebounding does is get you a chance at another ugly shot, but sometimes that's enough.
HOW TO MAKE THE OTHER TEAM UGLY
If you're playing ugly offense, your best chance for squeaking out a win is to make the other team play ugly, too. The Blazers are not an elite defensive team; they rank 20th in defensive efficiency. However, there are a few things that they do very well.
1. MAKE THEM SLOW DOWN.
One of the easiest ways for an opposing team to score is on a fastbreak when things get a little helter-skelter. The Blazers are fantastic at taking these plays away. They give up only 10.2 fast break points, which is 2nd in the league. This is especially impressive, because offensive rebounding is often thought to lead to poor transition defense. That doesn't seem to be the case for the Blazers.
The Blazers' transition D mainly comes from their athleticism. Even their bigs can get up and down the court in a flash, and their length can bother shots at the rim or shut down passing lanes. Watch here as Aminu shuts down the initial fast break. Then watch how quickly everybody else gets down the floor to stop the secondary fast break and make the Kings pull it out.
The first two players back are the forwards, and it doesn't take long for Plumlee to enter the fray, either. This kind of hustle (and length!) is enough to stifle any team's hopes of a fastbreak bucket. Even on this play where the Kings score, watch how many Blazers beat the Kings back. Note that all 3 of the Blazers bigs are in the play. Rondo makes a great shot here, but the Blazers are really making life tough for Sacramento.
Transition D isn't a "once in a while" thing for the Blazers. They run hard no matter what, and when they get tired, a fresh group of guys subs in and keeps it going.
2. MAKE LIFE HELL INSIDE.
As discussed, the Blazers have a lot of length, and a lot of athleticism. You might think a guy like Meyers Leonard, with his gelled hair and 3-point shooting ability, would be unwilling to muck it up inside. Nothing could be further from the truth. Leonard, just like Plumdog, Davis, and to a lesser extent Vonleh, all like to mix it up on D.
What is especially helpful, is that while these guys are all big enough to bang, they're also light-footed enough to keep a man in front of them when the opposing big tries to face them up. Watch the defense on the play below. Vonleh helps on the initial drive, then Aminu rotates to block the inside shot. Then when Cousins gets the ball at the elbow, Plumlee does a great job of moving his feet to stay in front of Boogie (a very tall order), and Vonleh helps out again to block another shot. It's truly incredible defense by the Portland bigs, that suffocates teams when they try to take it inside.
Once again, watch Below as Plumlee takes away the drive, and Aminu rotates over to help. Plays like these make opposing teams think twice about attacking the basket.
And it's not just the Kings who have trouble against the Blazers' stifling interior D. Portland allows just 39 points in the paint, which is good for 4th best in the league, and hold opposing teams to 56% at the rim (8th in the league).
3. IF ALL ELSE FAILS, SMASH.
The Blazers' interior D can be very impressive. However, even the very best get beat from time to time. And when the Blazers get beat, they know what to do: Smash. Rather than giving up easy twos, the Blazers have enough big guys that they can foul quite liberally. And boy, do they. The Blazers foul the second most in the league (behind defensive juggernaut, Boston), and give up more free throws than any non-Celtic team as well.
It makes the game choppy, and ugly, and gritty, and just about everything the Blazers want.
This young Blazers team has learned how to win ugly. On offense, they give great effort to try and get good shots, they attack their advantages mercilessly, and they crash the boards with intelligence. On defense they work hard to get back on D, hound opposing teams inside, and foul when they're beat. With a suitably athletic roster, anybody who rolls out this kind of effort on a night-to-night basis has a good shot at making the playoffs.