Before the Portland Trail Blazers fell into a rut in the month of March in wake of their leading-scorer, LaMarcus Aldridge, sustaining a back injury that kept him sidelined for two weeks, they were fighting for home-court advantage in the rocky road that is the Western Conference. While they are only 1.5 games behind the fourth seed, their backs are up against the wall with only six games remaining on their schedule. But no matter how disappointing their losses to the Orlando Magic and L.A. Lakers last month were, it’s hard to overlook just how much they’ve exceeded everyone’s expectations this season. For a team that was projected to be on the outside looking in on the Playoff race, they had the best record in the NBA for a large portion of 2013 and appeared to be gearing up for a long post-season run. But more importantly, they have proven their place as one of the best up-and-coming teams.
While they have cooled off considerably since their blazing hot start, their style of play makes them a threat no matter what seed they end up with because of how they can light up the scoreboard. In a similar fashion to how the Golden State Warriors made some noise in the Playoffs last year, the Blazers thrive on taking and making a lot of threes, so when they get hot, they’re a pain to slow down. On the season, they’ve attempted 1,933 shots from behind the arc – by far the most in the Association – and have been making them at a 37.3 percent clip. Most of those long-range bombs have come from their dynamic backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews, who have gone toe-to-toe with the Splash Brothers all season long, trailing them by just 39 made threes as of April 2nd.
A lot of their success from beyond the arc comes from an uncanny ability to make tough shots. Lillard routinely launches threes much further out than we are used to seeing from three-point shooters and Matthews has made a killing off of step-backs and pull-ups in transition. However, when they’re not doing that, head coach Terry Stotts has them running off of multiple screens to help shake off their defenders, which usually leads to good results.
One of their favorite plays for Wesley Matthews is a flare screen to free him up on the perimeter. It’s no surprise that the Blazers keep running it because, on the season, Matthews is shooting 39.7 percent from three on off-screen plays, ranking him 20th in the NBA.
Step One: The Formation
Damian Lillard brings the ball up the court and goes to whichever side Wesley Matthews is on. Matthews sets up on the baseline, and LaMarcus Aldridge, who starts at the free throw line extended, moves down to set a brush screen. It’s not meant to free Matthews up for a look at the basket; it’s supposed to give him the space to pop out to the top of the key. Robin Lopez and Nicolas Batum set up in the exact same format on the other side – wing on the baseline, big man at the elbow. However, Lopez doesn’t set a screen right away.
Step Two – The Set-Up
Matthews curls off of Aldridge’s screen and catches the ball at the top of the key, looking for Batum on the delayed pick. Likewise, it isn’t designed to set Batum up for a three – although if that were to occur, it’s not a shot they’d turn down. All he’s expected to do is get open to receive Matthews’ pass. After Matthews gives up the ball, Lillard begins to clear out to free up space for the next part of the play. Aldridge moves back up to the elbow.
Step Three – The Trickery
With the ball in Batum’s hands, Matthews makes a v-cut and fades to the opposite corner. Aldridge uses his giant-like frame to set a screen on Matthews’ defender, who has no idea what is going on and as a result, finds himself a step slow on the play. Lillard cuts to the basket to draw Tony Parker away.
Step Four – Cash, Money, Millionaire
Batum makes a pin-point lob pass over the defense and Matthews finds himself all alone from one of his favorite spots on the floor. Leonard gets caught up on the screen and has no chance of contesting the shot, and Tim Duncan can’t afford to switch because that would cause a disastrous mismatch. The Spurs have to pick their poison and in this case, it’s a wide-open three for Wesley Matthews.
Here’s a compilation of the Blazers running that play this season.
One of the biggest knocks on the Warriors over the last few months has been their lack of creativity in half-court sets. With two outstanding shooters, you’d expect them to run both off of more screens rather than heavily relying on their ability to create their own shots. The Blazers, on the other hand, have been so deadly from three because of their focus on running plays that routinely get their premier shooters open for good looks. While most of their plays aren’t complicated, forcing defenders to chase through screens for 48 minutes is destined to cause slip-ups. Damian Lillard thrives in pick-and-roll situations, where he can attack the basket if defenders go over screens or pull-up for threes if they go under. Nicolas Batum doesn’t shoot with the same volume as his backcourt teammates, yet still gets his number called in the form of off-ball screens with Robin Lopez. For Wesley Matthews, the bulk of his scoring comes in transition and spot-up opportunities, but this play is a big reason why he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA coming off of screens.
Statistical support provided by ESPN.com.