April 17, 2018, 12:10 pm
Defense didn’t doom the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday. Anthony Davis got whatever he wanted whenever he wanted it, Nikola Mirotic rained multiple triples early in the shot clock and the game came easy at times for both Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo. Still, the New Orleans Pelicans’ offensive rating was only 98.6 in Game 1, well below the Phoenix Suns’ last-ranked mark. The fourth quarter, when the Blazers nearly came all the way back from a 14-point deficit, didn’t have as big an impact on that number as the eye test made it seem, either. The Pelicans’ offensive rating through the first 36 minutes of Saturday’s game was a well-below average 102.5, per NBA.com/stats.
Portland will make adjustments defensively before tipoff of Game 2, obviously, but its focus will be on the other end of the floor. The strategic nuance New Orleans applies defensively that proved such a problem for the Blazers was hardly surprising. More and more teams began forcing the ball out of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum’s hands as the season wore on, content to leaving Al-Farouq Aminu, Evan Turner and other role players alone beyond the arc. There isn’t a knockdown shooter in Portland’s supporting cast. Defenses can even feel confident that Pat Connaughton, the Blazers’ closest thing to a marksman behind Lillard and McCollum, won’t consistently make them really pay from deep. The return of Maurice Harkless, hopefully for Game 3, won’t change that equation much, either.
The perils of playing multiple non-shooters next to Jusuf Nurkic reared their ugly head throughout Game 1, especially in ball-screen action – Portland’s most frequent means of offense by a country mile. With Davis, Mirotic and Cheick Diallo meeting the ball handler at the level of the pick while Holiday and the rest trailed from behind in aggressive pursuit, there was most often nowhere for Lillard and McCollum to go. Even on the rare occasions they slipped through crevices at the point of attack, Davis was in the vicinity to challenge a shot at the rim or erase it entirely.
That’s inevitable, and so is the extra space the Pelicans will give awaiting shooters when Lillard and McCollum pick up their dribble. Almost no matter how many threes Aminu rainbows through or Turner wills in from his waist, Alvin Gentry will instruct his players to continue letting them launch. The alternative of allowing the Blazers’ stars to get loose in pick-and-roll play or Nurkic feast on dives to the rim is far more dangerous for New Orleans.
That doesn’t mean Portland is out of options when setting screens on the ball. Terry Stotts’ team found success the few times it truly anticipated the Pelicans’ aggressive coverage before it came. The Blazers opened the second half by bringing Lillard up the left side of the floor on a zipper cut, right into a pick-and-roll with Nurkic – set just below the halfcourt logo. Instead of taking an extra dribble to drag two defenders even farther away from the rim, Lillard opts to “short” the pick-and-roll, firing a quick pass to Turner, who has a swath of open floor in front of him on the catch. Rather than try an open triple, he takes one dribble toward draw Rondo, his primary defender now tasked with tagging the roller, before finding Nurkic all alone at the rim with a lob over the top.
Davis gets back in time to affect a shot attempt, but only because Nurkic initially fumbled the ball. He would have had a dunk otherwise, and not just due to his man, Davis, being forced to corral Lillard near halfcourt before recovering all the way to the rim. Check out who the offensive player is on the weak side of the floor. McCollum moves from the weak corner to the wing as the ball screen takes place, called a “shake” in NBA terms, taking E’Twaun Moore with him and leaving Rondo between the rock and the hard place of Turner and Nurkic. If Turner or Aminu had been stationed on that side of the floor, their defender would have stayed closer to the paint, preventing that high-arcing pass to Nurkic.
Sometimes, basketball boils down to geometry. Just as crucial as the threat of McCollum forcing Moore to abandon normal help responsibilities was Portland overloading the right side of the floor, with both wing and corner filled. Side pick-and-rolls have the same effect, even when the ball is forced away from the middle. Both Lillard and McCollum can cook Mirotic in that scenario as their primary defender pursues from the rear. Middle ball screens set higher up the floor, perhaps even in the backcourt, could provide them the runway needed to attack a defensive monster like Davis, too. Not even he has the length and quickness to keep Lillard and McCollum in check when they have a head of steam with the ball.
Pace isn’t only manifested in transition. Among the many factors the Blazers miss without Harkless are his decisive cuts off the ball, activity that leads to extra defensive rotations if not layups and dunks of his own. Turner, Aminu and others can try and replicate that ability, and Portland’s coaching staff will surely try and drill it into them, but cutting is a trait more aligned with nature than nurture. The speed with which screens are set isn’t, nor how long those screens are held – or whether or not they are at all. Slipping pick-and-rolls is a wrinkle the Blazers’ bigs should consider, especially if doing so leads directly into another screen or dribble hand-off. Ball and player movement can mitigate the negative influence of a cramped floor, and all too often on Saturday the Blazers were stagnant after the ball first left Lillard and McCollum’s hands.
Some of that’s related to personnel. Turner is a ball-stopper, and Aminu can be prone to over-dribbling when he’s not immediately catching and firing or keeping the offense flowing. Might Stotts consider giving more of Turner’s minutes to Connaughton or Wade Baldwin, who made a planned first-half appearance in Game 1? Both are better shooters than Turner, and neither would be exploited on the other end given New Orleans’ small cadre of perimeter players. Perhaps Stotts could experiment with going small, too, putting Turner at nominal power forward, switching one-through-four and making Mirotic guard in space.
There are some positive takeaways from Portland’s Game 1 offensive performance. Offensive rebounding was an x-factor coming into this series given the Pelicans’ newfound commitment to a more modern rotation up front. The Blazers grabbed 15 of their own misses and scored 21 second-chance points in Game 1, continuing a dominant trend since the All-Star break. Less expected was their proficiency in the open floor. Portland, the league’ slowest team during the regular season, had a whopping 29 fast-break points on Saturday. That’s an anomaly, but reminds of a development that helped the Blazers come close to stealing a victory: fatigue. New Orleans plays at a faster pace than any team in the NBA, and is asking a lot of Mirotic and Davis on both ends of the floor. They were clearly tired in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game. Portland should do all it can to ensure that will remain the case going forward, and that means tempo – in the half court and transition.
The Pelicans’ blend of talent and scheme defensively presents some problems for the Blazers, but none of them are unsolvable. If Portland had knocked down just one more open 3-pointer, it would have taken Game 1, and the need for offensive improvement would have been much less apparent. The process still matters in the playoffs, though, and the Blazers’ just wasn’t good enough on Saturday; they can only hope some subtle offensive tweaks in Game 2 lead to a different result.
April 24, 2019, 2:18 amDamian Lillard - G - Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard put up an instant classic performance featuring a game-winning deep three, 10 total triples and a 50-spot in Tuesday's 118-115 closeout win over the Thunder in Portland.
Lillard started off Game 5 with 34 first-half points while playing all 24 minutes. He finished with seven boards, six dimes, three steals and a block while shooting 17-for-33 from the field and 6-for-8 from the line. Despite a big second-half Thunder run, Lillard kept it going all the way until the buzzer as his shot from near the logo fell, giving him an even 50 and a series win as he waived goodbye to the Thunder.
April 24, 2019, 2:08 amCJ McCollum - G - Trail Blazers
CJ McCollum put up 17 points (8-of-19 FGs), two rebounds, two assists, one triple and two blocks in 32 minutes in Tuesday's closeout win over the Thunder.
McCollum sat a little more than usual in the first half after getting his third foul early, though he also ended with three fouls in another example of why coaches should just leave players in until they get their fourth or fifth. McCollum had been on fire in this series, averaging over 26 points per game coming into tonight's game. He and the Blazers now wait to see if they'll get the Nuggets or the Spurs in the next round.
April 24, 2019, 1:55 amEnes Kanter - C - Trail Blazers
Enes Kanter toughed out a 13-point, 13-rebound double-double over 32 minutes in Tuesday's Game 5 victory over the Thunder.
Kanter also had four assists and a block while shooting 6-for-9 from the floor tonight. He got pretty banged up in the first half, injuring his shoulder which was heavily wrapped after the game. Kanter averaged over 13 points and 10 rebounds in under 30 minutes for the series and he looks like one of the best mid-season signings in the league at this point.
April 24, 2019, 1:48 amMaurice Harkless - F - Trail Blazers
Maurice Harkless had 17 points on just nine shots with seven rebounds, an assist and a steal in 33 minutes on Tuesday vs. the Thunder.
It's not wise to rely on Harkless, but he can be the wildcard the Blazers need every few games. After closing out the Thunder tonight, they'll await the winner of the Spurs and Nuggets series.
April 24, 2019, 1:37 amPaul George - F - Oklahoma City Thunder
Paul George had a huge game with 36 points (14-of-20 FGs, 5-of-8 FTs), nine rebounds, three assists and three 3-pointers in Tuesday's 118-115 road loss to the Blazers.
George was feeling it early, making his first five shots. He battled through first-half foul trouble and likely some lingering pain from his injury. But it wasn't quite enough as Damian Lillard out-played him in this one to end the series in Portland.
April 24, 2019, 1:30 amRussell Westbrook - G - Oklahoma City Thunder
Russell Westbrook put up one final triple-double with 29 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists as the Thunder were eliminated from the playoffs by the Blazers on Tuesday.
Aside from making all three of his free throws, it was a microcosm of Westbrook's season. He shot just 11-of-31 (4-of-11 from three) and had four steals, two blocks and five turnovers in 45 minutes. There's no better value if you're looking to punt three categories next season.
April 24, 2019, 1:24 amDennis Schroder - G - Oklahoma City Thunder
Dennis Schroder went for 17 points on 7-of-10 from the field in addition to two rebounds, three assists, two treys and just one turnover in 33 minutes in Tuesday's Game 5 loss.
That makes it three straight games of 17 points and two threes for Schroder. It'll be interesting to see if he can carve out a slightly bigger role as he returns to OKC next season with the Thunder possibly looking to make some changes.
April 24, 2019, 1:19 amJerami Grant - F - Oklahoma City Thunder
Jerami Grant had an incredibly efficient 16 points (7-for-8 FGs) to go with eight boards, one assist, three blocks and two threes in 44 minutes in Tuesday's close loss to the Blazers.
It was quite the fantasy line for Grant, though it will be his final one until October. The Thunder had a great shot at a win tonight, but the Blazers closed the game and series out in miracle fashion.
April 24, 2019, 1:03 amJamal Murray - G - Denver Nuggets
Jamal Murray knocked down plenty of shots again on his way to a game-high 23 points (9-of-16 FGs) in 28 minutes in Tuesday night's 108-90 home win over the Spurs.
Consistently inconsistent, the streaky Murray put together a second straight great game tonight. In addition to the shooting, which included 4-for-9 from deep, he added four boards, seven dimes, two steals and a block. The Nuggets often go as he goes, so they'll look for him to keep it up in Game 6 in San Antonio.
April 24, 2019, 12:53 amNikola Jokic - C - Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic had another double-double on Tuesday vs. the Spurs, going for 16 points (5-for-11 FGs, 4-for-4 FTs), 11 rebounds, eight assists, two steals, one block and two threes in 33 minutes.
The Joker wasn’t needed down the stretch as the Nuggets put this game out of reach early. It’s been a great series for him with averages of 19.6 points, 11.6 rebounds and 9.0 assists. He'll try to help secure a series win this Thursday night in San Antonio.