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Double Or Nothing: How The Clippers Contained Damian Lillard

On Thursday night, we were treated to another thriller: an overtime game between a pair of elite teams in the West. On one side, there were the Clippers – a team lead by the league’s best point guard in Chris Paul, as well as one of the best power forwards in Blake Griffin. On the other side, there were the Blazers – the most surprising team thus far in the NBA season, lead by someone who many believe has been better than Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, as well as Damian Lillard, a potential all-star in just his second year in the league.

Unfortunately for the Clippers, they had to play this game on a back-to-back after losing at the Oracle Arena less than 24 hours earlier to, in the words of Blake Griffin, a “cowardly” Warriors team. While they put up more than a good fight, they ended up losing by a final score of 116-112.

Obviously it wasn’t all doom and gloom for the Clippers. Thanks in large part to a pair of monster nights from Paul and Griffin, they put themselves in a position to win the game a couple of times, but came up short. One of the main reasons they were so successful on the night, however, was their defense on Damian Lillard. While watching the game, it was clear that the Clippers were focused not on containing LaMarcus Aldridge, who is averaging 23.4 points per game, but their quarterback, who has been spectacular in his own right through their first 29 games.

So in saying that, let’s take a look at what Doc Rivers got his squad doing.

Double…

Nearly 50 percent of Lillard’s offense this season has come on pick-and-rolls. As a team, the Trail Blazers run pick-and-rolls 16.1 percent of the time – their second most used set – and have shot 39.4 percent in those situations, which has been good enough for 11th best in the league.

Since Lillard is the Blazers’ primary ball-handler, the Clippers’ game plan was to make his life living hell, which proved to be very effective. The way they did it was by getting Chris Paul to go over every screen, forcing Lillard into a trap with one of the Clippers’ big men. While Lillard has only shot 37.3 percent in pick and rolls this season, he’s been a monster from deep, connecting on 41 percent of his threes. But Paul chasing him over screens prevented him from jacking them up and forced the likes of Matthews, Batum and Aldridge to pick up his slack. On top of that, having someone as quick, agile, athletic and long as DeAndre Jordan sure does help in those trapping situation.

In the first quarter, the Blazers scored 19 points on 33 percent shooting and in the second, they started to pick it up, scoring 28 points on 55 percent shooting. Nevertheless, the Clippers made a run themselves before halftime and built up a four point cushion heading into the third quarter. As for Damian Lillard, well, he had a rough first half, scoring just five points on 2-for-6 shooting and committing three turnovers. There is no denying that Rivers’ game plan of trapping him on every pick-and-roll played a huge role in their first half success as it disrupted their normal flow of offense.

…or nothing

But perhaps the most telling sign that the Clippers were doing everything they could to take the ball out of Lillard’s hands came at the end of the second quarter.

On an out of bounds play with Paul guarding him, Lillard made a cut towards the ball, only to get doubled by Jared Dudley. When the Blazers were able to inbound the ball to Joel Freeland, Dudley rotated back to his man (Nicolas Batum), leaving Paul to guard Lillard all by himself. But instead of allowing him to catch the ball, Paul stuck to him like glue, denying him the ball 40 feet from the basket.

The result: a heave from Wesley Matthews with the shot-clock expiring. In other words, a shot the Clippers will live with.

The Solution

However, doubling Lillard on every pick and roll only worked for so long. While Lillard didn’t have his best night as a pro, he made adjustments in the second half and as you’ll see from the still below, when he was able to pass over the trap, the Trail Blazers were essentially playing four-on-three with a ton of space to work with. On this specific play, the ball made its way over to Aldridge, who ended up missing a wide open mid-range jumper, but Lopez was able to tip the ball back in.

The Clippers also tried something else in the opening minutes of the third quarter by going under the screen for three straight possessions and, well, let’s just say it didn’t go so well – the Blazers got three open threes and scored six points in 50 seconds.

Where to go from here

The Clippers’ plan of attack was somewhat successful: Lillard scored 14 points on 4-for-12 shooting, and he turned the ball over four times; LaMarcus Aldridge may have scored 32 points, but it took him 31 shots to get to that mark, which, again, the Clippers will live with. But despite a down performance from the Blazers’ 1-2 punch, they were still able to pull out another victory. While taking Lillard out the game was one way of going about it, doubling him on every screen and roll left the likes of Wesley Matthews – a 43.6 percent shooter from three – and Nicolas Batum – a 39 percent three point shooter – open on the perimeter. The same proved to be true for Aldridge, who found himself taking several uncontested mid-range jumpers on the night. However, kind of uncharacteristically, he missed quite a lot of them.

Shotchart_1388237727245

Photo: NBA.com/LaMarcus Aldridge’s shot-chart

Despite having a somewhat favorable schedule, it’s clear that this Blazers team is really good. They’ve got so many options and when a team like the Clippers keys in on one of their stars, it opens up the court for everyone else to take over and more often than not this season, they’ve stepped up to the plate, which is one of the reasons why they have the most efficient offense in the NBA at 110.4 points per 100 possessions.On Friday, Batum, Aldridge, Lopez, Matthews and Williams all played a big role when Lillard struggled, scoring 93 of the Blazers’ 116 points. And to be honest, had Paul and Griffin not combined for 69 points, who knows what position the Clippers would’ve been in.

If you’re Doc Rivers, maybe you live with that. Maybe you take your chances by doubling Lillard and test that, “live by the three, die by the three” theory and hope that whatever night you’re playing them, they haven’t got the hot hand. Or maybe you worry about facing these guys in a best of seven game series in several months time because they haven’t shown any signs of falling off yet.

Statistical support courtesy of MySynergySports.com and PopcornMachine.net.

Scott Rafferty