Gametape Breakdown: Down the Stretch in Philly

Last week I took a look at some of the late-game execution breakdowns on both ends of the floor that led to Portland's loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.  To summarize briefly: the Blazers struggled to handle an isolated LeBron James, who passed the Blazers to death, and they struggled to free Brandon Roy on offense, as the Cavaliers regularly doubled Roy and rendered him ineffective down the stretch.

On Wednesday, the Blazers were able to defeat the Philadelphia 76ers, out-executing their opponent down the stretch despite playing without an injured Brandon Roy during the second half.  As the Blazers late-game offense is notorious for relying on Roy almost exclusively, it was fascinating to watch the team deal with his absence.  

Much like the Cleveland game, the Blazers entered the last six minutes of Wednesday's game in a dogfight: the score was Blazers 81-79 with 6 minutes to play. Either team could take this game. Nate McMillan had found success with three players: LaMarcus Aldridge (finished with 23 points), Jerryd Bayless (18 points) and Andre Miller (24 points). The Blazer guards had also done a nice job of drawing fouls and hitting their foul shots.  The Philly defense, one of the league's worst, was active and gambling but hadn't looked truly committed all night.

If there was one major complaint from the Cleveland game, it was LaMarcus Aldridge's lack of involvement in the team's offensive sets down the stretch.  Nate McMillan rectified that issue pretty thoroughly on Wednesday, regularly using Aldridge as his pick-setter and even running an isolation play for him.  Let's break down the final six minutes of the Blazers offense to take a look at what worked, what didn't work and what it all means going forward.

Play by Play

First, take a look at this play: a high pick and roll play with Jerryd Bayless as the ballhandler and LaMarcus Aldridge as the pick-setter.  As Philadelphia has the decrepit Allen Iverson matched up with the much younger Bayless, their team defense is forced to respect Bayless's ability to drive to the basket.  Much like in the Cleveland game, you can see Philadelphia cheating hard off of Andre Miller in the corner.  Otherwise, Philly is playing this straight up -- Iguodala is sticking closely to Rudy Fernandez on the weak side, respecting his shot -- and it becomes simple two man basketball.  

Fast-forward a few seconds and here's the result. Bayless uses the pick effectively and crosses over to the right, causing Philly big man Samuel Dalembert to attempt the impossible by tracking Bayless on the perimeter. Dalembert's footwork took himself out of the play, really, as Bayless makes the correct, timely read and hits Aldridge, who fades to the open space.  Philly defender Jrue Holiday, a rookie, is left with the decision of rotating to Aldridge and leaving Miller completely unguarded in the corner or letting Aldridge take an uncontested face-up shot.  He doesn't really make a clear decision and, in this case, his indecision became a decision: Aldridge was left unguarded long enough to stroke an uncontested 18 footer.  

All in all a relatively simple play.  In the course of this game, however, it was an important one because Bayless's correct read and Aldridge's ensuing make helped open up Philly's defense and forced them to consider adjustments.

The very next trip down, the Blazers again went to a high pick and roll with Bayless and Aldridge.  Here's a look. Having just been burned by the pass, Iverson and Dalembert are paying extra attention to the pick side.  Iverson set up his body to fight over the pick and Dalembert is in close contact with Aldridge, ready to show on Bayless if necessary but also looking to keep contact with Aldridge should he fade for another jumper attempt.  Instinctively, Bayless reads the defense and simply ignores the pick, escaping to the space in the lane vacated by Dalembert's presence up top.  

Before you know it, here's the result: an open, made floater by Bayless in the key.  You can see Iverson trailing Bayless and not really impacting this play meaningfully.  Dalembert doesn't really know what just happened.  Iguodala again remains tight on Fernandez. The weakside collapse from Holiday doesn't impact the shot because he has too far to go.  Elton Brand did a sufficient job stepping up on Bayless and forcing the floater.  Had Brand rotated a step sooner he would have likely forced Bayless to pass to an open Juwan Howard on the baseline, who can stick that 8 foot shot.  Brand was a step slower, though, and Bayless made Philly pay.

At this point, Philly realizes that it can no longer afford to allow the Blazers to exploit the perimeter defense liability that is Allen Iverson.  The Blazers have shown they can exploit him in multiple ways on the pick and roll, neither of which was particularly complicated.  An adjustment is necessary.  Philly's decision?  Go to a zone.

Here's a great look at Portland's initial reaction to the zone: total confusion.  Both Juwan Howard and LaMarcus Aldridge set ineffective high picks before realizing that Philly's guards weren't going to fight through them and Dalembert wasn't going to vacate the lane.  You can almost see the wheels turning in Bayless's head as he slowly processes his potential counterattacks.  Option one, in his mind, is to drive (as always) but attacking the zone directly can often lead to trouble.  What Andre Miller soon notices is that Philly's zone relies on Elton Brand (a Power Forward) to guard Miller (a point guard) on the weakside.  Clearly this is a huge mismatch.

It's unclear whether Bayless realizes this fact on his own or because Miller makes sure he realizes it.  Either way, the recognition comes (better late than never), Howard clears out of the way and Bayless finds Miller.  As I mentioned in the Cleveland post, when a team hard doubles or zones on the perimeter two quick passes should lead to an easy shot. This possession is not only the quintessential example of that adage, it was also the game's best highlight.  Take a look.  Miller immediately re-routes Bayless's pass to a cutting Rudy Fernandez, who beautifully recognizes that LaMarcus Aldridge will be wide open on the backside.  Rudy flipped a pass to a cutting Aldridge who was fouled by a rotating-too-late Holiday yet still managed to finish the and-one.  

Philly's zone succeeded in taking the ball out of Bayless's hands but it broke down pretty quickly thanks to some aggressive passing.  Going to zone had been a calculated risk.  Through the first 15 seconds or so of the shot clock it seemed like a smart decision.  Two passes later and Philly's defenders were hanging their heads, looking defeated as they lined up for the free throw.

Soon after, Philly scrapped its zone.  After unsuccessfully going to LaMarcus on an isolation in the post that resulted in a turnover, McMillan reverted again to what had worked before: Bayless/Aldridge pick and roll.  Here's a look.  This time, the pick is set up on the left side, leaving more room for Aldridge to fade into the corner without worrying about a rotating defender.  Bayless doesn't run Iverson off the pick as closely as you might like but Iverson trails hopelessly anyway, forcing Dalembert to show hard again.  Bayless makes the easy read again, finding Aldridge for a wide open spot up jumper, which he missed.

Here's a look at the end of the play. This is where the talk radio callers go crazy.  "Stop shooting jumpers!!! Take it inside!!!! Be a man!!!! Chew tobacco like I do!!!! Have 20 kids out of wedlock to prove your masculinity!!! Drink a rack of Coors and run into a wall, videotaping the antics and uploading them on youtube using the screenname 'YChromosomeBoyyy'!!!!"  Putting aside the fact that Aldridge just hit a similar shot roughly 5 possessions before, a glance at Synergy's numbers (courtesy of the Invisible Ninja) shows that Aldridge shot 48.2% on face-up jumpers through the first 41 games of the season.  That's a legit weapon, even if contested.  In this case, Aldridge was't contested as Elton Brand had too far to rotate to really bother the shot. Perhaps a pump fake, dribble left and shot would have increased his percentages, but that's mostly nit-picking.  

With the personnel the Blazers have on the court at that point, they can do far worse than an uncontested jumper from Aldridge, especially one that isn't taken late in the shot clock.  He missed the shot.  That doesn't mean it was a bad shot or an indication of a particular masculine failing. With Brandon Roy out, the Blazers are willing -- to a point-- to live-and-die on Aldridge jumpers.  They've got other choices but not a lot of them and certainly none that are guaranteed to produce more effectively down the stretch.

To illustrate that point, we need look only at the very next possession.  Here's a photo.  After the missed jumper, McMillan decided to go away from the pick and roll and attack Iverson in a different way: post him up with Andre Miller.  As discussed recently, Miller in the post has been one of the Blazers newest, most effective weapons.  Miller has everything you want in a posting up guard: a big body, a great ability to read defenses, and a full assortment of post moves, many of which succeed in drawing fouls. Get this: over the last 9 games, Miller is averaging a remarkable 1.50 points per possession every single time he enters the post.  The Blazers are scoring at least one point on 74.2% percent of those possessions.  That's as close to automatic as you can reasonably expect in the NBA.  But it doesn't come without some risk.

McMillan's decision to go to the post, particularly against Iverson, was very sound.  As you can see in the picture, the defense is quick to respect Miller's post up ability, doubling down quickly and paying extra attention from the weak side.  Unfortunately, Miller made the wrong read, attempting to force the ball to Rudy Fernandez rather than make the simple kick-out to Jerryd Bayless.  The result was a turnover.  Here you would like to see better spacing from the Blazers so that reading the defense would be easier.  You'd also maybe like to see a kickout to Bayless and then a re-post, if possible, to force Philly's defense (particularly its guards) to work through a full shot clock, something they've shown an unwillingness to do on recent possessions.  While you hate to see turnovers, especially late in a close game, the fact that Miller is operating out of the post with less than 2 minutes is a great sign.  Blazers fans should want to see that as much as possible during Roy's absence.  Keep doing it until teams find a way to consistently stop it.

After the turnover, McMIllan returned once again to a high pick and roll with Bayless and Aldridge.  Are you seeing a pattern developing here?  As long as Bayless is not turning the ball over and remains aggressive attacking the hoop, this is a very potent default offensive look and it is very low-risk. The worst case scenario on Wednesday had proven to be an uncontested jumper from Aldridge.  As discussed, that ain't bad.

Here's a look at the last play that I'll break down today. Dalembert again shows hard on Bayless, actively looking to force the ball out of his hands. This time Holiday makes an adjustment, rotating fully as he respects Aldridge's jumper and, perhaps, hopes to intercept a pass.  

The result?  Here's a look. Bayless makes arguably his best read of the night, throwing a crosscourt skip pass to a wide open Andre Miller. Philly's guards are taken completely out of the play and Elton Brand (power forward) once again finds himself in the unenviable position of checking Miller (point guard) out on the perimeter.  Miller licks his lips, drives baseline easily and draws the foul.  Easy points thanks to the perfect read from Bayless and the instant recognition from Miller.  Philly was out of potential adjustments and that was that.  

Conclusions

As I focused on the breakdowns against Cleveland, I decided to mostly highlight the successes against Philadelphia.  There was plenty to like: Bayless's aggressiveness and reads, Aldridge's pick-setting, active involvement and shooting touch, Miller's recognition of mismatches, quick passing and foul drawing abilities.  Add it all up and the Blazers won the final quarter 27-22.

On the flip side, it's important to remember that the Blazers were having their way with a below-average defense and were exploiting a pretty obvious hole (Allen Iverson).  Much of what the Blazers were doing with the high pick and rolls might have been limited or eliminated by a team that had a better on-ball defender guarding Bayless or a team that maintained its overall defensive structure well enough that it didn't feel the need to chase Bayless with a 7 foot center out at the 3 point line.  Much harder tests -- especially Boston tonight -- are on the horizon.  

If there's a major takeaway from the fourth quarter stretch in Philly it is this: the new-found versatility on offense in Roy's absence adds significant value in and of itself.  As the Blazers tinkered with different looks, Philly was forced to adjust to the Blazers time and again.  These adjustments led to new holes to exploit.  When the Blazers struggled, they were able to return to their bread-and-butter -- the high pick and roll-- and attack a Philly defense that hadn't had enough time to truly figure it out. The end result was a well-balanced, pretty effective attack. With the exception of Rudy's pass to Aldridge it wasn't necessarily pretty. But it was, in the end, a much-needed road win.

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter

PS You can follow the Invisible Ninja (the source of so many awesome stats and tendencies, like the ones mentioned above) on Twitter here.

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