I went a little overboard after last night’s Blazers vs. Clippers match up, writing some stuff that’s way too long for a Last Call contribution— a time-honored post game tradition we have over at Clipperblog. You can find a short version of this post, and the rest of last night’s contributions, brought to you by Andrew Han, Jovan Buha, Fred Katz and myself here. The long (not that long) version:
It’s time for the Portland Blazers to take a long, hard look at the kind of team they want to be. It looks like they’ve been gifted the luxury of skipping the steps between lottery and contention, but now that the well has dried up and opponents have caught up, it’s decision time: Adapt or fall behind.
Over the past 13 games, Portland’s defense has completely fallen apart, giving up 108.4 points per 100 possessions. The Blazers stand squarely in opposition to the NBA’s movement toward stopping ball handlers at all costs. They won’t trap point guards and you won’t see their big men hedging out to the three point line. The strategy bore some fruit before defenses realized attacking Damian Lillard would get them almost any shot they wanted. It was supposed to be a low-risk, low-reward system to suit their personnel— LaMarcus Aldridge is an average defender, he’s not suited for perimeter defense and scrambling back to the paint. But even at their best, in early January, the Blazers were giving up 104.8 points per 100 possessions, which ranked them a shoddy 20th in the league.
The goal, guarding the pick and roll with the same amount of defenders as offenders, is sound. The Pacers’ conservative system has woven together the best defense in the league, but the model isn’t exactly foolproof. The Pacers can afford to drop back. No team knows better than Indiana how to maintain the tricky balance between funnelling defenders into a waiting Roy Hibbert or hedging pick and rolls to stymie them at their starting point. Indiana also has a starting lineup that features two of the best defenders in the league, Paul George and Hibbert, as well as stalwarts Lance Stephenson and George Hill.
Robin Lopez is the Blazers’ defensive foundation, a solid backdrop on which they’ve built this philosophy. But Roy Hibbert he is not. It’s even harder to mimic Indiana’s conservative style when your starting point guard hasn’t met a screen that hasn’t smushed him. The Blazers tried to hide Damian Lillard on an assortment of non-attackers, too. Problem is, Wes Matthews and Nic Batum are neither strategic nor diligent when it comes to positioning themselves around screens. Essentially, bad perimeter defense on pick and rolls is the only achilles heel of a dropped back attack. Minnesota plays similar defense. The difference: Ricky Rubio can get around a screen, so even a forgettable defender like Kevin Love has time to hedge his bets.
Portland has been eaten alive by perimeter talent lately. Kevin Durant did some Kevin Durant things, as Kevin Durant is wont to do, so I guess we can leave that off the board. But Stephen Curry rocked the Blazers to the tune of 38 points and eight assists. George Hill registered a career-high 37 points, eight assists and nine rebounds against them. This is just the past ten games. Sure, Damian Lillard is burning these guys right back but that doesn’t take away from the larger problem.
Portland’s defensive strategy isn’t going to do them any favours in the playoffs. If this team truly has championship aspirations, they can’t settle for an outcome that, in the best of times, will achieve normalcy— especially considering how right now, they’re far below average. It’s time for the Blazers to readjust their defensive expectations. The Blazers are getting burnt anyway, so why not try flying in the face of the sun?