April 24, 2018, 2:44 pm
Damian Lillard, unsurprisingly, hasn’t stopped believing in the Portland Trail Blazers. Less than a day after his team was eliminated from the playoffs by the underdog New Orleans Pelicans in a shocking four-game sweep, Lillard, at the exit-interview podium, was asked what the Blazers are missing.
“I’m not sure,” he said, “because you look around and you say, ‘Okay Golden State won the championship in 2015. They had Steph, they had Klay, Draymond had a great season, and then they just had really complementary pieces. They just had guys that came in and did a little bit of this, little bit of that, and it was really done by committee.’ I honestly believe our team is capable of something like that.”
No one will fault Lillard’s confidence. It’s what turned him from a low-major recruit into an NBA All-Star over the short span of six years, and serves as the foundation for the crunch-time heroics that have so frequently stolen or saved victories for Portland since his rookie season. Openly questioning Neil Olshey’s ability to construct the right roster around him would have strayed far from Lillard’s ingrained identity as a leader, too. He’s one-for-all rather than all-for-one, acutely aware that the whole of a team should be bigger than the sum of its parts.
That purest tenet of basketball idealism didn’t come to fruition for the Blazers in the first round. The Pelicans made sure that Lillard, and to a lesser extent C.J. McCollum, wouldn’t beat them, playing aggressive pick-and-roll coverage, abandoning normal help responsibilities and throwing semi-frequent double-teams at Portland’s star guards to force the ball from their hands. It wasn’t a surprising strategy. Opponents presented a similar defensive outline to the Blazers more and more as the season came to a close, after Lillard vaulted into MVP contention by setting nets ablaze during Portland’s 13-game winning streak. New Orleans was just more effective executing it than anyone else.
It would be remiss to gloss over the importance of the Pelicans’ personnel while assessing that reality. Anthony Davis might as well be two defenders all by himself, and Jrue Holiday, finally fully healthy, gets into opposing ball handlers like few other players in the league. Both should garner All-Defense honors this season. Lillard was checked by Holiday on 150 possessions against New Orleans, over twice as many as any other defender, shooting just of 8-of-31 and managing a paltry nine-to-eight assist-to-turnover ratio, per NBA.com/stats. Lillard was noticeably intimidated when in the remote vicinity of Davis, on multiple occasions even willingly deciding against attacking him after a switch on the perimeter.
Struggles to create efficient offense against Holiday and Davis aren’t necessarily an indictment of Lillard’s continued ascent up the league’s individual hierarchy. Holiday is a magnet and Davis is a monster; they’ll continue posing headaches for top-tier players throughout the postseason. The bigger problem for Lillard is that his teammates were unable to take consistent advantage of the hyper attention the Pelicans paid him.
New Orleans routinely broke longstanding rules of NBA defense to neutralize Lillard and McCollum. While that development was most often manifested when either player was handling the ball, it also extended to instances in which Terry Stotts, hoping to find his overworked playmakers some room to breathe, moved them off of it. Gentry toggled the matchups after Game 1 of this series, putting Nikola Mirotic on Jusuf Nurkic and Davis on Al-Farouq Aminu. The reasons for that switch were layered, but had more to do with Davis’ looming threat as a help defender than anything else, a trump card in the truest sense of the term that maximized his defense influence.
This possession, from the second quarter of Game 4, begins with Lillard and Nurkic setting staggered ball screens for Evan Turner coming middle. Lillard continues to the weak corner after setting his pick, hoping to space the floor for the two-man game immediately to follow – especially with McCollum stationed in the strong corner. With Aminu, the definition of a streaky shooter, waiting on the right wing, it’s Davis who sinks to the middle of the floor to account for Nurkic’s roll. That help responsibility would normally fall to Rajon Rondo, but the Pelicans would much rather let Aminu fly from above-the-break than give Lillard air space – even if the resulting shot attempt falls.
Aminu, Turner, Maurice Harkless, Pat Connaughton and more weren’t going to shoot New Orleans out of this series. Lillard and McCollum certainly could have, though, and the Blazers were defended accordingly.
In Game 4, the Pelicans were even more aggressive trapping the ball and sending an extra defender toward Lillard and McCollum than they were during the first three games of the series. More often than not, especially in the first three quarters, the Blazers’ supporting cast again failed to win that numbers game. Of course, winning it is a task far easier said than done when a world-wrecker like Davis is the last line of defense at the rim.
Stotts has taken a lot of flak for his team getting swept. The New York Times’ Marc Stein reported minutes after the series was over that there were “murmurs” in coaching circles regarding his job security, and a vocal set of Portland fans want to see a change on the sideline. But the players are firmly behind Stotts, and Olshey mostly praised the veteran coach during his own exit interview on Sunday.
None of that absolves Stotts of blame for Portland’s collapse. The Blazers were at the Pelicans’ mercy in terms of pace all series long. They didn’t exploit Nurkic’s mismatch in the post on Mirotic or shift Aminu onto Holiday until the final quarter of Game 4, and Portland, despite its best efforts, never solved the riddle of New Orleans committing two defenders to the ball.
The Blazers tried. Other than letting Turner handle and running Lillard and McCollum off screens, less than a full-time fix, Portland made a concerted attempt to use New Orleans’ aggressiveness against it after the first two games by “shorting” pick-and-rolls – passing to the offensive player on the strong-side wing immediately after going over the screen, using him as a conduit to find the roll man.
Even that gambit has its limits. Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr routinely stress to their players the value of passing up the first open shot to create a better one – going from “good to great.” The Blazers’ problem is that there are few spots on the floor where those “great” attempts materialize when Lillard and McCollum aren’t taking them. Look how hard Turner and Aminu work here, after Portland “shorts” a McCollum-Nurkic ball screen, to produce a look that the latter had already decided wasn’t good enough.
Aminu shot a scorching 52 percent from the right corner during the regular season, per NBA.com/stats. Portland would be hard-pressed to produce a more efficient shot than that, but it’s also not one that can be manufactured with the frequency needed to mitigate the impact of the Pelicans selling out to stop Lillard and McCollum. Worse? New Orleans would be perfectly happy living and dying on a diet of open 3-point attempts by Aminu anyway.
Earlier in his exit interview Lillard was asked if it was hard for him to shoulder the burden of the Blazers’ abject postseason failure.
“Just understanding that position, you gotta be able to handle the negative side, too,” he said. “When things don’t go well, and maybe it’s not your fault, or maybe people aren’t watching it and dealing in reality of what’s actually happening. Like in this series, they say ‘Dame didn’t do this and Dame didn’t do that,’ and the reality of it is their gameplan was to take me out. I come across halfcourt and there’s two guys guarding me, and the third guy waiting to help.”
Lillard wasn’t done.
“I just understand that you gotta take the good with the bad, and just like I can accept the credit when I do great things, I accept the criticism and all the, I guess bad, things people might have to say about me when it doesn’t go well because that’s part of my responsibility as the franchise player, and being an All-Star, and all the things that I call myself. I accept it. It won’t break me down, it won’t shake me mentally, it won’t change who I am, it won’t change how I feel about myself. I accept it.”
But can the Blazers accept that they just aren’t good enough? Acknowledging that reality is one thing. Making significantly beneficial changes to a roster that’s already capped-out for the next three seasons, unfortunately, is something else entirely.