Gametape Breakdown: Late Game Defense vs. Thunder

Any time a star like Brandon Roy makes a major announcement like the one he did last night, a shock factor hangs over the entire evening.  Being at ground zero, it's easy to lose sight of a whole lot that occurs in the immediate aftermath.  Marcus Camby just made that feeling stronger, obfuscating things with those 17 foot long arms and well-timed tip ins and his thousands of loud and proud worshippers.  

So, this afternoon, I decided to turn to the tape to take a deeper look at the night's affairs.  I came away firmly convinced of the following:  The Blazers executed better on both sides of the ball than I have ever seen when they have been foced to play without Brandon Roy.  

Tense games against playoff teams never go perfectly.  There are good plays and bad plays on both sides.  But the vast majority of the game-changing plays -- the obvious ones and the less obvious ones -- were made by the Blazers down the stretch.  In pulling clips for this post and an accompanying one, I settled on my favorite 10 possessions of the last 6 minutes.  It took some serious effort to narrow it down to 10.  That should tell you a lot.

During this critical stretch, the Blazers trotted out a 5 man lineup combination that's barely been seen this season: Andre Miller, Martell Webster, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marcus Camby.  This morning, I asked Nate McMillan for his thoughts on the lineup.  "It's not bad," McMillan said with a poker face. "It gave us some size. We were big with Martell and Nic being on the floor with Camby and LaMarcus. We could still run our same sets, our power sets. The fact that those guys were shooting the ball and able to rebound the ball, it wasn't bad. We're adjusting because we haven't played that lineup a lot this year."

The extra length obviously comes from downshifting Martell Webster to the 2 guard spot in Roy's absence and McMillan was careful to note that he used Webster and Batum interchangeably on defense.  "Last night we left [Martell] on Durant because Nic had 4 fouls," McMillan explained. "We could get pretty much the same type of defense, a big guy who is physical and can switch.  Can rebound. It wasn't a bad lineup."

In this case I believe "it wasn't a bad lineup" is Nate-speak for, "I really really really don't want to jinx it because if this 5 man unit plays like it did last night we might have a serious shot at winning a playoff series." 

Let's take a look at how the extra length on defense turned into success on the defensive end for the Blazers.  Later, we'll look at this unit's new and improved late-game offense.

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

We'll take a look at five defensive possessions here, all of which occur during the final six minutes of last night's game.

Play 1: Harden Misses a 3

It's no secret that Oklahoma City is looking to get the ball in Kevin Durant's hands late in games.  On this play, he receives the ball in isolation on the weakside with enough time to operate one on one.  Martell Webster is guarding him.  Roll tape.

First, note how far from the hoop Webster is tracking Durant.  That is going to become an obvious theme throughout this endgame analysis.  Webster made Durant think on every catch and work on every dribble.  With a scorer of Durant's caliber, that's easier said than done.  On this play, Webster does a fine job defensively and LaMarcus Aldridge is well-positioned to help against Durant's drive. KD kicks to Jeff Green who decides to pass on the jumper when Aldridge uses his length to close out and contest quickly.  This results in a rotation to Oklahoma City rookie James Harden who is a good scorer and shooter, but is no better than the Thunder's fourth best option in crunch time.  

Nicolas Batum, who had shaded down to help on Green in the corner, dares Harden to bomb away from deep and then gets his hand up to contest.  The shot goes up with roughly 6 seconds on the clock, pretty much ideal for the Blazers in a slow down game.  Harden misses and the Blazers have 4 players in rebounding position while the Thunder only have 1.  Not surprisingly, they secure the defensive rebound.

What you see on this play is one result of the length and versatility that McMillan describes above.  With Webster, Aldridge and Batum on the same side of the court together, the three players can effectively guard against the drive, the corner 3 and the angle 3 simultaneously, assuming they are mentally committed.  Here there is no doubt about their intensity level.

Play 2: Down Screen for Durant

On the next play we'll look at, Oklahoma City again tries to isolate Kevin Durant, this time near the free throw line using a down screen set by guard Russell Westbrook. 

If the screen is set firmly and successfully, there's a good chance the Blazers would have switched, leaving Durant guarded by Andre Miller, a player he can shoot over or perhaps back down from the top of the key.  Westbrook kind of slides into his screen and Webster does an excellent job of fighting through without getting himself out of position.  By the time Durant catches and turns, Webster is guarding him as if no screen was set at all, exactly what you like to see from a strong individual defender.  Durant takes two dribbles and uses his extraordinary length to get a shot he is comfortable with but Webster challenges well to increase the attempt's degree of difficulty. The Blazers again outnumber the Thunder on the glass -- this time 3 to 2 -- and again they come away with the defensive rebound.

What you see here is Webster's focus and attention to detail in rising to the challenge of guarding an elite scorer like Durant.  It's a very similar effort to what I charted earlier this year.  Durant is still young enough where his consistency decreases late in games as he wears down, but only if you make him work.  That's what Webster does here.  Even if Durant had made the shot the effort put forth by Webster has the potential to pay dividends on later plays.  That's what coaches mean when they talk about guys "buying in" on defense.

Play 3: Westbrook Misses a 3

Looking for a new way to get Durant the ball, the Thunder have him set a screen for Westbrook on the perimeter in an attempt to create a mismatch.  It works... but only briefly.

This is a nice flexible set for the Thunder and a difficult one to defend for any team.  Westbrook has the quickness potential to blow by to the baseline and you must respect Durant on the screen or he can receive a quick pass and hit a step back three.  On this play, the Blazers handle the pick and roll very well even though it results in a switch.

You can see Andre Miller crowding Westbrook's dribble with Webster lurking, discouraging the drive by Westbrook and encouraging him to turn the ball over to Durant, who is eager to receive it with the smaller Miller on him. As Durant turns and faces, Nicolas Batum times his weakside help absolutely perfectly, squaring his body to Durant as KD spins to his blindside, forcing an instantaneous decision to prevent a turnover.  

We then see another benefit of this defensive group: LaMarcus Aldridge's quickness and perimeter versatility allows him to chase out on Jeff Green to prevent an open 3 and force another pass.  Webster doesn't get lost in the shuffle, making the correct rotation and forcing Thabo Sefalosha to make yet another pass as the shot clock continues to wind down.  He finds Russell Westbrook in the corner.  Westbrook, for all of his upside, is shooting just 22 percent from deep this season.  Think those are odds Nate McMillan can live with? Especially with the shot clock ticking down and Nicolas Batum rushing crosscourt to contest?  Absolutely. Despite all of the movement and rotation on defense, the Blazers again have 4 bodies in the paint compared to just 2 for the Thunder.  Once again they secure the defensive rebound.

What you see here is outstanding team defense from every single Blazer.  Excellent effort from Miller, superb timing from Batum, good communication between Batum and Webster and nice commitment from Aldridge. Oh, and of course, another rebound by Marcus Camby.

Play 4: Durant Misses a 3

So what happens when you have a defensive stand like the last possession and you slowly build a late-game lead? Teams get frustrated and take shots like this...

This is a simple play that speaks for itself.  Yet again, Martell Webster hounds Kevin Durant who gets free, thanks to a very solid pick by Jeff Green, but only for a second.  Webster closes the space quickly and gets a hand up without fouling. Durant has a look but it's not a great one and he's rushed.  This late in the game you're perfectly happy if Oklahoma City rushes into a low percentage contested shot like that.   

Westbrook crashes the offensive glass valiantly but the ball goes out of bounds off of him.  Blazers ball, with the ability run more time off of the clock.

Play 5: Durant Turnover

I started this post by noting that you can miss a lot in the madness of a day like yesterday.  One play I didn't miss last night was the following, which was my favorite play made by Martell Webster in a night full of good ones... 

Watching this play unfold in real time it was clear that Kevin Durant had one idea in mind as he dribbled down the court with his team down 6 points: Pull up and drain a 3 pointer like he has so many times already in his young career.  

And that's what I love so much about Webster's performance here. He smartly picks Durant up at halfcourt and shadows him ready to contest at every moment, every dribble.  Look at his feet move.  In this situation, daring Durant to drive to the hoop for a two is a solid strategy but Webster's defense is fundamentally sound enough (and his teammates hustled back well enough) that Durant decides that both the pull up and the drive are out of the question.  He decides to shovel the ball off to Green, hoping that Webster will relax and he can get a quick return pass for the pull up 3 on the other side.  Does it work?  Almost.  Batum is a 1/4 step late getting out on Durant after Webster contests Green but KD is disoriented enough at this point that he isn't able to capitalize by pulling the trigger.  The terrible turnover that results isn't a huge surprise.

The Blazers probably win this game even if Webster doesn't so thoroughly pick up Durant on this sequence.  But there's no absolutely no way they lose this game after he does.  That's a defensive dagger.

Conclusion

From these five possessions you can see ample reason for Nate McMillan to stick with this lineup to close games during the playoffs.  The length and determination on defense that results with this group, plus the team's ability to interchange parts when defending the perimeter screen and rolls, is extremely compelling.  Through solid effort, the Blazers effectively turned Oklahoma City into a frustrated, jumpshooting and shot-missing team down the stretch.  It feels good to be on the right side of that type of defense once in a while, doesn't it? 

Next I'll look at 5 offensive plays from the same stretch to see how this group did on the other side of the ball.

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

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