April 19, 2019, 10:50 am
The Portland Trail Blazers weren’t swept out of the first round by the New Orleans Pelicans last year for any one reason, but most impactful among the many was the inability of Damian Lillard to free himself from constraints of extra aggressive ball-screen defense. Holiday and Davis weren’t the only Pelicans defenders who stymied Lillard while executing that plan of attack; Nikola Mirotic, in particular, deserves credit for his surprising effectiveness containing the ball on the other side of picks, letting Davis wreak havoc as a help defender around the rim. But it goes without saying that Alvin Gentry’s strategy hinged on the presence of his team’s two best defensive players, a tandem better suited to make life hell on Lillard than any other in the league.
A year later, the Oklahoma City Thunder seemed like a bad matchup for Portland on the surface given an ingrained defensive scheme similar to the one New Orleans employed to such success. Were Lillard and the Blazers prepared for another defense intent on forcing the ball out of his hands, goading role players into testing their limits offensively? Through the first two games of the first-round series between Portland and Oklahoma City, the answer has been an unequivocal affirmative – resulting from both the Thunder’s suboptimal personnel, and improvements and adjustments made by the Blazers.
Adams is lighter on his feet than one might expect given his status as the league’s resident strongman. His keen understanding of angles and space makes him a better rim-protector than the numbers suggest, too. But tasked with pressing a playmaker of Lillard’s caliber high up the floor, corralling him until the primary defender – mostly Westbrook to this point – recovers in time to put two defenders on the ball, has just proven too much for Adams to handle.
The Thunder’s use of an aggressive drop on Lillard instead of a full hedge makes sense. He has functional range to the logo, and needs just a blink of an eye to turn the corner around a hedging defender and let fly from deep before the primary defender gets back in place for a sufficient contest. But Oklahoma City’s effort to find that difficult balance between preventing a pull-up triple and keeping the ball from the paint inevitably leaves Adams on an island, even if just for a moment, and Lillard’s been able to exploit that opportunity time and again – whether the Blazers run a simple pick-and-roll, hit Adams with a down screen before the main one is set, throw an additional screener in the fray, or Lillard rejects the pick altogether.
Lillard has also realized that sometimes his best course of attack is going even before the screen arrives. Paul George is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and Terrence Ferguson is quickly developing into one of the game’s best young perimeter defenders, but there’s nothing they can do when Lillard, with nearly unparalleled burst, splits the sliver of space that briefly appears when the primary defender opens his hips to prepare for an oncoming pick.
Remember, Adams isn’t Davis, and Westbrook isn’t Holiday. If Adams doesn’t have the quickness to contain Lillard in space beyond the arc, he certainly won’t be quick enough to chase him at an unexpected moment’s notice and affect a shot at the rim. That’s not his fault – Lillard has also roasted Nerlens Noel, one of the fastest bigs in basketball, in the same scenario on multiple occasions. Westbrook, never adept at navigating screens, needs to stay closer attached to the ball, and maybe more importantly, Billy Donovan must put Adams and company in a better position to succeed.
What that is, unfortunately, remains to be seen. It would help if Lillard stopped dropping bombs several steps behind the three-point line; over half of his 19 attempts from deep thus far have been from 28 feet or more. Maybe moving Westbrook off Lillard and slotting Ferguson onto him would lead to a bit more resistance at the initial point of attack, though Westbrook’s penchant for getting lost away from the ball and Ferguson’s lack of strength are complicating factors. Donovan seems to like the length of George on C.J. McCollum, who uses far more off-ball picks than his backcourt partner, but it’s not like that matchup has been in the Thunder’s favor thus far. Maybe they muck up the game by switching across five positions, giving more playing time to Noel and sliding Jerami Grant down to center, though doing so would obviously decrease Adams’ minutes.
Portland, with a year to prepare for its postseason opponents adopting a version of New Orleans’ defensive blueprint, won’t make it any easier for Oklahoma City to find workable adjustments, either.
Evan Turner, a non-threat from three who was frequently used as a primary ball handler both throughout the regular season and in last year’s playoffs, has played just 28 total minutes against the Thunder as Stotts prioritizes shooting and floor spacing. Rodney Hood and Seth Curry, who finished third in three-point percentage during the regular season, have been the Blazers’ first subs off the bench, while Zach Collins and Meyers Leonard, with varying degrees of threatening three-point range, have combined to play nearly as many minutes at center as Enes Kanter.
It’s been said for years that Portland becomes a different team when Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless knock down open shots. They’re a combined 1-of-7 from deep in this series, but it’s only mattered to a manageable extent because the Blazers are otherwise dotting the floor with shooters, pushing the pace when chances present themselves, and moving the ball quickly in the rare instances Lillard or McCollum get stuck off the dribble.
“Over the course of the game, shots are gonna fall – I think that’s what we’ve seen on the offensive end,” Lillard said after Game 2. “Everybody’s a part of it. We’re making the right pass, swing-swing, passing ahead. Everything that we’re doing offensively is keeping everybody involved, and it’s also making them pay for giving so much attention to the ball.”
We’ll see if those two-way realities hold true when this series shifts to Oklahoma City on Friday night.