- Jordan Brenner, ESPN The Magazine contributing writer
WIZARDS GUARD JORDAN CRAWFORD jabs right, takes a hard dribble left and launches a 30-foot jump shot. At this point, the Trail Blazers can only stare and hope. The score is tied 95-95 with 1.8 seconds left on the clock, and as the ball arches higher and higher, no one in the Rose Garden is concerned about tonight's missed screens, blown assignments or defensive breakdowns. Not now. Portland fans just want the ball to bound away and force overtime. Alas, the jumper splashes through the net, the horn sounds, the crowd groans and Crawford winds up at the bottom of a DC dog pile.
Despite emerging forward Nicolas Batum's first career triple-double, the Blazers lose their sixth straight game, seemingly done in by a buzzer beater. But Portland coach Terry Stotts knows better. He understands that the best way to defend a last-second shot is to make sure it never happens. With a defensive stop somewhere in the second quarter or a couple of easy buckets in the third, Stotts might have been emptying his bench in the final seconds rather than helplessly tracking the flight of a game-winning jumper. That's how the analytical mind works.
At the season's midpoint, the Blazers have fallen to 20-21 following a mind-numbing run of similar games; each of Portland's last 10 contests has been decided by six points or fewer, an NBA record. So at practice the next morning, an unusually bright Tuesday in Portland in late January, Stotts intends to spell out what his young team should focus on in the second half. He turns to a video screen that says "little things" in red block letters. Then the clips roll. Shooting guard Wesley Matthews is slow to get back on defense, resulting in a Wizards dunk. Center J.J. Hickson doesn't make contact on several screens.
Most NBA teams don't exactly pore over stats. But in ESPN The Magazine's Analytics issue, Jordan Brenner writes that the Portland Trail Blazers have gone all-in with advanced metrics to rebuild their franchise.