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.