December 3, 2018, 7:04 pm
If there was ever an opponent that could help the Portland Trail Blazers cure their woefully ineffective three-point defense, it should have been the San Antonio Spurs. Gregg Popovich’s team entered Sunday’s game ranking 29th in percentage of field goals attempted from beyond the arc, steadfastly zigging as the rest of the league zags, content playing to the throwback strengths of DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge rather than shoehorning them into more modern shot profiles championed by analytics. It’s an approach that Popovich, despite fully understanding the pitfalls of trading threes for twos, seems likely to have relished implementing.
“I hate it, but I always have,” he told Chicago Bulls beat writer Sam Smith last week of the game’s increasing emphasis on three-point shooting. “I’ve hated the three for 20 years… There’s no basketball anymore, there’s no beauty in it. It’s pretty boring. But it is what it is and you need to work with it.”
Given the widespread backlash to Popovich’s comments and the fact his team racked up a season-high 131.0 offensive rating in Sunday’s 131-118 win over the Blazers, it’s easy to assume the Spurs came out firing from deep. Wrong. San Antonio took 15 three-pointers against Portland, not just a team low through the first six weeks of 2018-19, but the league’s second fewest single-game amount to date this season. An even more ominous sign for the ever defense-averse Blazers? According to data compiled at basketball reference, the Spurs became only the fourth team since 2015-16 to make at least 10 threes while converting more than 70 percent of their attempts.
Of course, San Antonio got pretty much whatever else it wanted offensively, too. The Spurs shot an incredible 21-of-37 from mid-range, and nearly set new season highs by doling out 29 assists and scoring 17 fast-break points. Against Portland, 55.4 percent of San Antonio’s shots came absent a defender within four feet – about nine points higher than its rate of uncontested attempts coming into Sunday’s game.
The Blazers weren’t doomed by three-point shooting alone. But in exploring the issues facing them during an ugly 2-8 stretch marked by league-worst defense defense more than anything else, a clear pattern emerges. In nine of the last 10 games, Portland’s opponent has made more threes than its season-long per-game average. The Blazers have also allowed 43.3 shooting from long-range far and away the worst number in the NBA over that timeframe.
And no recent foe blew past its three-point shooting norms with more comfortable ease than the Spurs. Below is an examination of how the Blazers helped them do it, with an emphasis on the big-picture problems currently plaguing Portland’s defense.
EFFORT AND ENGAGEMENT
“I didn’t say I wasn’t that upset [with the defense],” Stotts insisted after the game. “I was just saying I thought we competed. We gave up too many transition shots, we didn’t communicate on the backside on double-teams as well as we could have. But, I did say that I thought DeRozan and LaMarcus worked for their points.”
He’s not wrong. San Antonio’s All-Stars went a combined 11-of-22 on contested shots, per NBA.com/stats, and 14 of their 24 baskets came from mid-range, the spot on the floor the Blazers willfully surrender makable looks. Far more debilitating for Portland was their effort and engagement closing out to the arc. The Blazers didn’t communicate on would-be switches during many possessions of Sunday’s game, whether in the open floor or half court. C.J. McCollum was especially lackadaisical in that regard against the Spurs, continuing a frustrating recent trend of him falling asleep away from the ball.
Not matching up after offensive rebounds or in semi-transition is obviously a problem, but one easily explained by a lack of synergy between teammates. A defender turning his back to both his man and the ball, though? That’s a far less defensible transgression, and yet another that dogged McCollum in San Antonio.
The second triple is the only one featured in the video above on which McCollum shoulders all of the blame. On the other two, he’s toggling between assignments with Damian Lillard, whose defensive effort of late has also much left to be desired.
The most important question facing this franchise today is the same one it’s been avoiding for several years running: Can Portland be good enough defensively to win big in the playoffs with a pair of undersized, offense-first guards accounting for more than half the salary cap? Those who say yes readily admit it will take unceasing intensity and commitment from Lillard and McCollum to overcome their innate defensive shortcomings, and neither star has been giving enough of it recently.
EXECUTION, PLAYING THE SCOUTING REPORT
Jakob Poeltl shot 5-of-14 from the post last season for the Toronto Raptors, and has yet to garner enough back-to-the-basket opportunities with the Spurs to register on NBA.com’s tracking data. The third-year center is far more of a play finisher than a play starter; he’s been assisted on at least 89.3 percent of his scores in every season of his career thus far. Why, then, would Zach Collins deem it necessary to ever double-team Poeltl in the post, even when he has a size mismatch against Nik Stauskas?
Similarly, a whopping 65.5 percent of Davis Bertans‘ field goals attempts this season have come from beyond the arc. He averages less than half a dribble per touch, and has taken just eight total shots off drives, per NBA.com/stats. Yet Collins, for reasons completely unknown, closes out to the San Antonio marksman as if he’s concerned about getting beaten off the dribble, yielding him ample time and room to get off a clean look from deep.
Post-ups are inefficient by nature, and kick-out three-pointers are among the most highly-valued shots in basketball. Portland knows that, but made many vexing decisions of commission and omission concerning both play types on Sunday. Doubling Aldridge on the right block or closing out soft to a non-shooting big man makes sense; offering the same defensive approach to Poeltl and Bertans, respectively, is a mistake the Blazers would have known to avoid making well before tipoff.
The Blazers’ conservative defensive scheme calls for big men dropping on ball screens, protecting the paint at all costs while the man guarding the ball fights hard over the top of the pick to contest a potential pull-up jumper from rear-view. When that coverage works, it both goads opposing guards into inefficient shots from mid-range and limits the need for help defense from the other three defenders on the floor. When it doesn’t, elite pull-up shooters, mid-range mavens and aggressive attackers can have their way with Portland.
Patty Mills is a capable, if streaky, off-dribble shooter. DeRozan, meanwhile, is one of the game’s most gifted high-usage shot creators within 22 feet, and the Blazers treated him accordingly, routinely cheating to the nail one pass away as he turned the corner around ball screens.
Frankly, there’s not much the Blazers can do on the possessions above other than hope the odds play in their favor. Mills is at just 32.4 percent on pull-up triples this season, and the choice between DeRozan sizing up Nurkic with a live dribble and Bryn Forbes taking a well-contested three from the slot is one Portland can live with either way. Meyers Leonard and Moe Harkless each do well to affect shot attempts, too, the former abandoning his normal responsibility and leaving the paint to close space on Mills, the latter digging all the way down to force a pass from DeRozan then recovering in time to get a hand in Forbes’ face.
Sometimes, the ball just goes in.
A MIXED BAG OF BAD
Other times, and more often lately, all of the attributes that contribute to the Blazers giving up points from three-point land coalesce into truly awful displays of effort, execution, and scheme. Case in point, this wide-open three from Mills that pushed the Spurs’ burgeoning lead to 16 points with just over four minutes left to play.
Lillard, likely embellishing contact, crashes to the floor while going over the top of a screen. Nurkic, staying true to the Blazers’ scheme and correctly pre-diagnosing San Antonio’s set, stays well below the foul line. McCollum and Al-Farouq Aminu, also concerned with a forthcoming action, never react to Lillard falling behind the play, leaving Harkless all alone to defend Mills and Rudy Gay on the perimeter.
Point being: There isn’t a single factor leading to Portland’s porous three-point defense more than any other. It’s a hodgepodge of errors forced and unforced, circumstance of scheme and shooter, and random chance of many players getting hot at the wrong time. There is no one-step fix to the Blazers’ problems on defense, basically, but it certainly begins with the notion that they simply aren’t doing enough to mitigate them.
“We just have to make sure we sustain that,” Aminu said after the game of his team’s focus and engagement on defense. “I think sometimes we just get happy, and just start thinking that we don’t have to work hard for it, or whatever the case might be. But we just gotta learn how to do it four four quarters, and that’s what we’re gonna need to do in order to win games.”