Execution Breakdowns

If you happened to DVR or Tivo Sunday night's game against the Cavaliers I recommend going back and giving the fourth quarter tape another look.  After battling back from a double-digit second half deficit the Blazers tied the game at 89 with about six minutes to go.  The Rose Garden crowd was back into it, the momentum was building, Brandon Roy was heating up and a game that hadn't seemed winnable for the Blazers all of a sudden was there for the taking.

Over the next four minutes, the Cleveland Cavaliers put on an execution clinic on both ends of the court, going on an 11-0 run to put the game away.  It was particularly interesting to watch play out for the following reasons...

  • The Blazers and Cavaliers have similar offensive characteristics: they are, respectively, the 1st and 3rd slowest teams while also being the 7th and 5th most efficient, according to John Hollinger's rankings.  
  • The two teams have similar late-game offensive strategies that often draw criticism.  Both coaches simplify things by putting the ball in the hands of their best player off of isolations or pick and rolls and trusting that player -- LeBron James or Brandon Roy -- to make the necessary reads.
  • In this particular fourth quarter, both teams had similar defensive strategies too.  Both teams were looking to make life more difficult for their opposing team's star by sending a double team at him and taking their chances off the ball.
  • The Blazers fielded a bigger lineup than they have in many games this season going with Andre Miller, Brandon Roy, Martell Webster, Juwan Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge.

At practice this morning, Nate McMillan told reporters...

It was a good hard practice for 2 hours, we worked on some things that we need to get better at after watching the Cleveland tape over, defensively as well as offensively.

I asked him if there was anything in particular that broke down offensively in the end.  McMillan's response...

We had some shots. They're a good defensive team. I think the big thing was that we didn't stop them so we had to play against a set defense. They are really good when their defense is set.

Indeed, any time you give up an 11-0 fourth quarter run and Brandon Roy is on your team, there's plenty going wrong and plenty to improve.  So following McMillan's lead, let's look at some of the Blazers' defensive possessions before we turn our attention to the Blazers's offensive possessions.

Defensive Breakdowns

If you've been frustrated by the Blazers' simplistic offense, get a load of the plays Mike Brown called during this four minute stretch: LeBron Iso Left, LeBron Iso Left, LeBron Iso Left, LeBron Iso Left, LeBron Iso Left, LeBron Iso Left, LeBron Iso Left, LeBron Iso Right. It's hard to fault Brown's strategy given how effective the look was; during this stretch, the Blazers never defended or rebounded well enough for the Cavs to feel like they needed to try something different.  

The key to this set for the Cavaliers was establishing LeBron in a position on the court where he is a classic triple threat: pass, shoot or drive.  Although Martell Webster certainly gave it his all, he wasn't able to consistently get James off of his spot during this stretch.  Take a look at this picture to get an idea of where James was setting up.  Webster finished the game with just 3 personal fouls. If the Blazers could do the game over I wouldn't be surprised if they asked Webster to be even more physical on James, risking a foul to deny him his spot or the catch.  

Once James got the ball, the Blazers' general strategy was to run a double-team at him from various spots hoping to 1) get the ball out of his hand 2) keep him off-balance in locating the open man 3) force one of Cleveland's tertiary players to beat them.  Here the Blazers saw mixed results.  

In the picture shown above you can see Andre Miller double-teaming from the basket side and Portland's three other defenders spaced well, covering the basket and forcing a difficult crosscourt pass.  Because he's LeBron, he simply elevates over the defense and rifles a perfect pass over the top of the defense. This causes the Blazers defense to rotate and, eventually, foul Shaquille O'Neal to prevent a lay-up after Delonte West quickly feeds the post. The Cavs' ball movement was excellent and yet the result was perfectly acceptable for the Blazers: Shaq on the free throw line (where he went 1 of 2).

In this picture, however, you can see a similar situation with much different results.  Juwan Howard attempts to double LeBron but doesn't get there in time, leaving his three teammates to guard four Cavs.  The Blazers weakside defense is spaced reasonably well but simply can't cover everyone. James carves up the defense with another spot-on crosscourt pass, this time to Jawad Williams. Williams was directly in his line of sight so, despite the high degree of difficulty, this is a pass to an open man that James is totally comfortable making.  Williams, the Cavs' 5th best offensive option on the court, steps up and hits the shot. The Blazers are likely comfortable with the result of the play (a Jawad Williams 3 point attempt) but not necessarily the defensive execution breakdown (Juwan Howard's ineffective double-team) that led to that result.

In this picture we can see yet another LeBron left iso situation.  This time, Webster has done a pretty good job of pressing James out towards the 3 point line.  With his back to the basket at this distance, it's less likely that James will rise to shoot a turnaround jumper. He also has further to go if he wants to drive to the basket, allowing the weakside post defense more time to rotate.  For those reasons, the double team doesn't necessarily need to come as quickly.  On this play, the Cavs aren't even really fully set up on offense (look how far Shaq is from the basket) yet Andre Miller decides to offer a quick double team.  Miller comes directly from James' line-of-sight and, as soon as it's clear Miller is coming, James passes the ball quickly, trapping Miller in no-man's-land between James and Mo Williams.  Given his team's offensive spacing, Williams need not worry about a third defender rotating to guard him and nonchalantly sticks a quick, open 3 pointer.  

This was simply too easy all around.  It was the easiest pass possible for James and a relatively easy face-up look for Williams.  Additionally, had Williams chosen to put the ball on the floor instead of take the jumper, he would have had a relatively clear path right down the middle of the lane.  A pull-up jumper, a kick out to Delonte West, or a lob to one of his bigs were all possible high-probability outcomes.  That type of individual defensive breakdown makes life really difficult.

The end result of the 7 straight LeBron left isolation possessions: Varejao made layup, O'Neal offensive rebound, O'Neal fouled, M. Williams made 3 pointer, LeBron jumper missed, Varejao jumper which led to a Cavs offensive rebound, J. Williams made 3 pointer.  The Blazers only managed one stop where they forced a miss (a contested James jumper) and got the defensive rebound.  

Offensive Breakdowns

On the other end, things were similarly ugly for the Blazers.  The sum total of the Blazers' offensive possessions during the same four minute stretch that saw the Cavs score 11 points: 3 turnovers and 2 missed 3 pointers.  That's it.

Let's start by putting aside two ugly turnovers by Brandon Roy out top.  The first he simply threw into the stands after misreading Juwan Howard's movement on a pick and fade.  The second he lost control of the ball while being pestered by Anderson Varejao. Those are uncharacteristic plays for Roy and, while not pretty to look at, aren't really indicative of systematic breakdowns.  Roy's ability to limit his turnovers despite an increase in his handling of the ball in the wake of his team's injuries has been a major driver of the Blazers late-game success.  So we'll leave those two plays at that.

During this stretch Roy initiated every possession with the ball in his hands with one exception.  LeBron James defended Roy and the Blazers looked to use high pick and rolls to free up Roy and start the bulk of these possessions.  Just like the Cavs, the Blazers were going with their offensive bread-and-butter.

Let's start with this picture which does a nice job of showing the Cavs' general approach to defending Roy in the fourth quarter.  As you can see, James is Roy's primary defender and is meeting him well outside the 3 point line.  When a high pick comes to help free Roy (this time set by Webster) the Cavs simply ignore Webster for the time being and hard double Roy. This forces Roy to decide whether to attempt to beat two men off the dribble (do you see any easy dribbling paths?) or swing the ball to Webster who will pop open to one side or another.  Because of James' outstanding quickness and defensive intelligence, the Cavs are able to man up on the rest of the Blazers and not worry too much about cheating into the lane.  This limits Roy's passing options considerably.  Making matters worse, Andre Miller (not a 3 point shooter) and LaMarcus Aldridge (barely on the court) are not viable options at all. This possession ended with Webster coming off the screen to the right and forcing an off-balance, contested 3 pointer, a look the Cavs are happy to give up 100 times in a row late in a game (especially when sitting on a lead).

Here's a picture of a similar high pick and roll situation. This time the pick is set by one of Portland's big men, Jeff Pendergraph.  Again the Cavs double, with Shaquille O'Neal not worrying at all about the rookie so that he can harass Roy enough to prevent a short pull-up jumper as LeBron gets through the pick.  In this case you can see Mo Williams cheating extremely hard into the middle of the key to 1) discourage a pass to Pendergraph and 2) to foul Pendergraph if he should wind up with the ball uncontested towards the hoop.  Roy winds up deciding he has no better option than stepping back and putting up a contested three pointer. Another shot the Cavs are totally comfortable giving up considering the circumstances. Once again, it's important to note here that Andre Miller and LaMarcus Aldridge are offensive non-factors on this play.  Miller is ostensibly spacing the court but presents no real threat to the defense and barely merits a glance from Roy.  Aldridge is again out of the play altogether although he worked hard on this possession to gather an offensive rebound off of Roy's missed 3.  Shades of Greg Oden at the very beginning of the season: the only way he touches the ball is if one of his teammates misses a shot and he winds up gathering the carom.

This last picture shows what happened when the Blazers did decide to move Brandon Roy off the ball, running him off a curl. Miller worked the ball to Roy who had trouble receiving the pass and gave up his dribble in a tough part of the court.  Despite the fact that James was covering Roy without problem, the Cavs still decided to run Shaq at Roy to ensure that he would pass the ball. Look at the offensive spacing for the Blazers.  LaMarcus Aldridge is once again totally out of the play on the weakside. There's no way Roy can even see him let alone pass him the ball.  (Contrast this with LeBron's positioning and his team's spacing which allowed him to see and make crosscourt passes that was discussed earlier.)  Webster is calling for the ball but he is well-covered.  Pendergraph, who has some range but not that much, is left totally unguarded near the 3 point line.  Miller is again spotting up at the three point line but Delonte West cheats off of him as much as he can, knowing that Miller is no threat to catch-and-shoot it from deep.  

This is when you start to get really frustrated if you're Brandon Roy.  Eventually Roy found Miller who unsuccessfully tried to feed Aldridge at the high post, resulting in a turnover.  Brutal.

Conclusions 

While Sunday night's game isn't necessarily a fair representation of how the Blazers have executed down the stretch this season, it is a pretty good example of how they've failed when they have broken down against premier scorers and quality, intelligent team defenses.  

A list of defensive adjustments from this tape might include...

  • More aggressively prevent the opposing offense from initiating isolations so close to the hoop. Consider using a foul or two to push the catch further to the three point line.
  • Mix up the double teams so that the second defender doesn't come from directly in the offensive player's line of sight. Double from the weakside whenever possible and avoid getting caught in no-man's-land on the strong side. 
  • When the defense is forced to rotate and a shot goes up, all 5 guys must find a body to rebound the basketball.  

A list of offensive adjustments from this tape might include...

  • Use LaMarcus Aldridge as the designated pick-setter so that he becomes a legit offensive weapon or, alternatively, run a play for him every, I don't know, six possessions or so.
  • Work to establish the high pick and roll closer to the hoop to improve Roy's options.  A high pick and roll five feet above the three point line isn't particularly difficult to defend. 
  • If Roy is hard-doubled, off-ball movement is essential. Two quick passes should be able to find a quality look somewhere, but only if all five players are actively part of the play and well-spaced. 

With Steve Blake coming back healthy and Rudy Fernandez potentially playing tomorrow and then working his way back to full game shape, Nate McMillan will have some interesting decisions to make when it comes to his closing lineup.  Recently he's enjoyed good success on both ends using a three guard lineup that included both Blake and Jerryd Bayless. In the past, Rudy has also closed games, however Webster has stepped up his game enough, especially on defense, to warrant continued consideration.

At practice this morning, when asked about how he planned to adjust minutes going forward, McMillan was noncommittal...

We've got to get them back [healthy] first. As soon as we get guys back, Blake coming back the other day, he only played a few minutes, it was nice to have him available. As soon as we get Rudy back then we will figure out how to get these guys back into rotations and look at the units that they're playing with. 

With Milwaukee and Orlando -- both top 10 defenses -- this week, the Blazers will have two solid opportunities to work out their late-game execution kinks.  
 
-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter
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