The NBA Playoffs are just four games away for the red-hot Portland Trail Blazers. Since the start of an extended six-game road trip at the end of last month, coach Terry Stotts’ squad has amassed a superb 7-1 record, gained control of the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Lakers and climbed above the play-in fray.
The Blazers’ turnaround should not come as a surprise. Deadline addition Norman Powell has bolstered Portland’s starting lineup with competent two-way play, CJ McCollum’s return has added another offensive threat and Jusuf Nurkic has returned to his defensive stalwart form. The result: the Blazers own the sixth-best defensive rating and the top offensive rating since April 27.
Those contributions from the revamped starting lineup are without a doubt impressive, but there is also something brewing in the backup rotation. For the majority of the season, the Blazers’ bench unit has slogged through a series of less-than-ideal defensive performances. Enes Kanter and Carmelo Anthony possess a plethora of skills, but foot speed is not among them. Since arriving on his initial 10-day contract, forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has bolstered Portland’s second unit with an athletic, defense-first presence.
Hollis-Jefferson’s presence on the defensive end has percolated just below the surface in recent weeks, but it has stepped to just outside center stage in the Blazers’ recent homestand. Against the Lakers, Hollis-Jefferson was thrust into a “defensive closer” role as Anthony Davis nearly pushed his squad level in the final moments of that contest. With Carmelo Anthony out of the lineup against the Spurs, Hollis-Jefferson logged 14 minutes—the third-most minutes among Portland’s bench contributors.
With Hollis-Jefferson on the floor, the Blazers’ second unit is better equipped to stifle transition offense. In half-court sets, the former Nets forward possesses the athleticism to rotate quickly to the perimeter in order to run opponents off the three-point line. Those observations not only pass the eye test, but the numbers also reflect those changes.
When looking at the entire season, the Blazers’ defense has allowed opponents to shoot 44.1 percent on corner three-pointers, 38.1 percent on all three-point attempts and 64.8 percent on shots at the rim.
While the sample size is small, RHJ-infused second units have performed noticeably better. Lineups featuring Anfernee Simons, McCollum, Powell, Kanter and Hollis-Jefferson have not let up a single corner three-pointer and kept opponents to just a 20 percent conversion rate on all attempts from distance. Inside the arc, that group has held opponents to a 55.6 percent shooting clip at the rim (stats via Cleaning the Glass).
Again, the sample size is small. But the two-way potential for that group should pique Stotts’ interest as the postseason picture comes into focus. Beyond this season, Hollis-Jefferson has laid the early foundation to return to a role with the Blazers that can maximize his defensive acumen.