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:
The league is wrought with high-risk, high-reward defenses. The Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder aggressively blitz and trap ball-handlers, constantly forcing three men to guard four guys. The Pacers and Bulls are conservative, but no one 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. They also have 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.
The Clippers are a team learning to navigate that balance, opting now to trap less and less with DeAndre Jordan— though occasional flashes are prominent— and simply figuring out how to turn Blake Griffin into a plus defender in general.
Then there’s the Portland Trail Blazers, who stand squarely in opposition to the NBA’s movement toward stopping ball handlers at all costs. They will not trap point guards, you won’t see their big men hedging out to the three point line. The Blazers’ motto: guard the play with as many defenders as offenders. It’s a low-risk, low-reward system which might suit their personnel in some ways— LaMarcus Aldridge is an average defender, he’s not suited for perimeter defense and scrambling back to the paint. The strategy bore some early fruit. Portland was giving up 104.8 points per 100 possessions, which ranked them a shoddy 20th in the league, but it was a marked improvement from last year.
But over the past 13 games, they’ve completely fallen apart, giving up 108.4 points per 100 possessions. You can’t mimic Indiana’s conservative defense when your starting point guard hasn’t met a screen that hasn’t smushed him. Robin Lopez has provided the Blazers with a defensive foundation, a solid backdrop on which they’ve built this philosophy. But Roy Hibbert he is not. The Blazers tried to hide Damian Lillard on an assortment of non-Chris Paul guys, too. Problem is, Wes Matthews and Nic Batum aren’t strategic nor diligent when it comes to positioning themselves around screens either, so they ended up playing a lot of rear-view mirror defense. Against Chris Paul, that’s a certain death wish. Portland plays a low-risk style and does the one thing you can’t do when playing that style, rendering its low variance useless. 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.
It’s been happening constantly. Portland’s coaching stuff won’t shake things up, no matter the personnel. Kevin Durant did some Kevin Durant things, as Kevin Durant is wont to do, so we’ll leave that one 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. 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, achieves normalcy— right now, they’re far below average. It’s time for the Blazers to readjust their defensive expectations. If you’re going to get burnt anyway, why not try flying in the sun’s face?