Gametape Breakdown: Late Game Offense vs. Thunder

Yesterday afternoon, I broke down the Blazers' late-game defensive successes against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Today, let's turn our attention to the Blazers offense, which was equally successful in its execution.  

There is no way around it: The absence of Brandon Roy radically changes how the Blazers play offensively late in games.  Defensively, the team can plug in Martell Webster and get by (or, possibly, improve).  But on offense you can't simply plug and play Webster into a fourth quarter offense that generally revolves around isolating the ultra-efficient Roy at the top of the key and letting him go to work.  

After Monday's win, Nate McMillan admitted as much, telling reporters he had shifted the focus on his late-game strategy in Roy's absence...

Well, we're going through LaMarcus. We're playing through LaMarcus and trying to post him up. I thought tonight they executed -- C4 is what we call it that play -- we got a lot out of that play in the last minute or two. Andre did a good job of executing, got Nic one time, LaMarcus got single coverage, took his time, scored I think twice off of that. Normally it is Brandon but the pick and roll with LaMarcus playing the two man game.  With Brandon being out we normally try to play through LaMarcus or Miller. 

The strategy makes sense on multiple fronts.  Logically, you turn the ball over to your best remaining offensive players if you're missing your star.  But also from an advanced statistics perspective, LaMarcus Aldridge and Andre Miller are two of the team's most efficient players and they are definitely the two best at creating offense for themselves and drawing attention from help defenders, critical skills late in games. 

Let's take a look at this play "C4" that the Blazers used so often and to such great effect on Monday night.  I've drawn it below. (My apologies for the jankiness of this picture.  I applied to one of those drawing programs that advertises on late night infomercials like 3 months ago but I'm still waiting to hear if I've been accepted.)

C4play_medium

Andre Miller is 1, Martell Webster is 2, Nicolas Batum is 3, LaMarcus Aldridge is 4 and Marcus Camby is 5. This is a very straightforward play by NBA standards.  Andre Miller brings the ball up the court and LaMarcus Aldridge fights for position on the ball side.  Nicolas Batum runs a curl from the weakside corner, using a LaMarcus Aldridge pick to try to gain a half-step on his defender as he flashes across the middle of the paint.  Batum is an option here but not really a primary target.  If he's open, Miller can feed him; But most teams, especially playoff teams, don't let players run free through the paint.  Indeed, one of Batum's purposes here is to draw attention from LaMarcus Aldridge's defender, to create space for Aldridge or to allow him to set up a little bit lower on the block in the confusion caused by Batum's curl.  If the ball doesn't go to Batum he simply escapes back to the weakside and spots up at the angle.  

Miller then has a few options.  The most obvious one is to dump the ball into Aldridge at the post.  If Aldridge hasn't established good position, he can also run a side screen and roll because the entire left side of the court is now cleared.  In this case, he dumps the ball to Aldridge and escapes to the weakside block, which leaves Aldridge in isolation against his defender.  The Blazers are primarily looking for Aldridge to create his own offense here but Martell Webster slides to the top of the key to offer a kick-out option and Batum remains spotted up as another kick out option.  Miller and Marcus Camby, who had been stationed at the top of the key, take up rebounding position on the weakside.  If Aldridge shoots it, they are already ready to grab the board.  If he kicks it out to one of the shooters, they're ready to fight for ideal position on the boards.

Click through to watch and read how this play and its variations worked so well Monday night.

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

Play 1: Webster Drive and Miss

Before we get to C4, let's take a look at a possession at the 7 minute mark of the fourth quarter that wasn't quite as successful.

On this play you can see the floor spacing isn't great.  Aldridge, Webster and Miller all come together in virtually the same spot near the three point line, making themselves extremely easy to defend.  Smart point guard that he is, Miller escapes to the corner with the ball and draws as much attention as possible as he pounds his defender, Kevin Durant, who has switched onto him.  Here, the Thunder scramble a bit but play good defense, and Jeff Green collapses on Miller, who is very much a threat to score or get fouled from the block.  Webster finally drifts into space where he can receive a pass and Miller finds him at the top of the key.  Webster could have pulled the trigger but elects to put the ball on the floor, driving directly into four Thunder defenders and missing an off balance layup.

Yesterday we talked about the Blazers forcing the Thunder into their 4th option.  Here the roles are reversed.  Martell Webster driving off the dribble directly into traffic is no better than the Blazers' 4th best option on offense.  He simply hasn't proven he can score consistently and efficiently making that type of play. You love his aggressiveness but it's a high degree of difficulty shot and he wasn't able to draw a foul. Late in games, you want to play to your strengths as much as possible.  The Blazers didn't do that here.  Thankfully, Marcus Camby cleaned things up beautifully with a tip in so it wasn't a huge problem.  If you're Nate McMillan, though, you're not comfortable finding your offense in that same situation too many times. 

Play 2:  Batum Curls and is Fouled

This isn't exactly the C4 play drawn above but it's similar in that Nicolas Batum comes from the weakside corner and curls off of a LaMarcus Aldridge pick.  Let's take a look...

One of the best aspects of this five man group is that all five can turn and face the basket from the perimeter.  While none of the players is exceptional with his back to the basket, the ability of all five to move, pass and face up can create some easy points if things are clicking.  Here's a good example of things clicking against an over-aggressive defense.  Marcus Camby, the Blazers center, receives a pass from Andre Miller outside the three point line.  In 23 games as a Blazer, Camby has attempted 1 three pointer and made zero.  In a career that dates back to 1996, Camby has made 16 three pointers total.  Nevertheless, Serge Ibaka guards him tightly out on the perimeter.   Camby's height and length allows him to see over Ibaka, though, so it's a best of both worlds situation for the Blazers: Space has opened up behind Ibaka and there's nothing truly preventing Camby from exploiting that space with a pass.

Rookie James Harden is guarding Nicolas Batum and he defends the curl like a rookie.  He trails enough even before the screen is set that Aldridge's defender, Jeff Green, deems it necessary to step out and bump Batum.  The bump isn't great and it actually slows up Harden more than it does Batum while simultaneously leaving LaMarcus Aldridge wide open at the rim for a lob.  That pass would have been a very difficult one for Camby to make and he decides on the easy read, which is to Batum cutting to the hoop.  Harden is stumbling behind as he trails the play and can't avoid fouling Batum. Too easy.

The takeaway from this possession is simple for the Blazers: Make Oklahoma City prove that they can stop this curl.

Play 3: C4

Fast-forward a minute or so and we can see the exact play I drew above.  This is C4 in action.

Unlike Play 2, the ball is in Miller's hands rather than Camby's, which applies even more pressure to the Thunder defense because he is a threat to drive, pass and potentially lob to Aldridge if Green steps out too far to bump Batum.  Here Batum might have been open again but Miller dribbled right as Batum flashed open and therefore wasn't able to hit him.  Kevin Durant is chasing Batum this time and trails by a half step, although he is a threat to block a shot from behind with his long arms. Also, Camby's presence at the high post means there's an extra defender -- Serge Ibaka -- clouding the passing lanes.  For these reasons, Miller simply goes down his checklist and looks for Aldridge.

Aldridge actually doesn't establish ideal position on this play and his catch is at least a full step further out than you would like in this situation.  With the entire side of the court clear, though, he has time and space to take some establishing dribbles to improve his position and gain some rhythm. Aldridge backs himself down to roughly 10 feet from the hoop as Webster smartly rotates to the top of the key to offer the kick-out option.  This movement does just enough to keep Russell Westbrook honest.  Westbrook fakes like he is going to collapse but ultimately decides not to, respecting Webster's shot and making Aldridge prove it.  This allows Aldridge to step into his turnaround hook unmolested, and he nails it.  A huge basket for Aldridge that puts the Blazers up 3.   

This is exactly how C4 is drawn up.  At the very least, this play should produce LaMarcus Aldridge in isolation with good position and two Blazers (including Camby) ready to crash the boards.  At the moment the shot goes up, 4 of the 5 Blazers are playing to their strengths: Aldridge shooting, Webster and Batum spotting, Camby crashing.  Miller is a crafty rebounder too so he's not exactly out of position either.   Also note that at the critical moments of this play the floor is spaced very well too. Miller can make the pass to Aldridge without any real concern, Aldridge can operate in space and the team even has multiple players back to prevent any attempt at transition. 

Play 4: C4 The Sequel

Here's a play you surely remember from Monday night.

Just one minute later, the Blazers go back to the exact same play with the same players, the same spacing, the same everything.  Durant is again chasing Batum and, like last time, he's a little slow.  Yesterday I talked about how Durant wears down in games and settles for bad shots, but only if you make him work for every catch and shot.  Here you see the result on the defensive end. He's dragging a little bit.

Perhaps more importantly, you see the psychological result of Aldridge hitting that jump hook last time.  His defender, Jeff Green, doesn't bump or show at all on Batum's curl because he is concerned with preventing Aldridge from establishing position and scoring on him again.  This is a natural reaction any pick up basketball player can relate to.  If your man scores on you, you can't let him do it twice in a row, right?

This time Miller is completely ready to check for Batum off the curl and wastes no time when Green doesn't step out to bump Batum at all.  Miller hits Batum on the run with a soft thread-the-needle pass that Nick Collison has no time to step over and defend.   Batum catches the pass and gracefully dunks the ball in the hoop.  It looks so easy.  But it's really the result of the solid execution and shot on the previous plays and the team's continued effort on defense.  This is your reward.

Play 5: Miller Takes Westbrook to the Rack

Basketball is a series of adjustments and slight advantages gained by those adjustments.  Our last play is the perfect example of that...

On their very next possession the Blazers set up like they are going to run C4 again.  This time the entire Thunder team is ready to stop it.  They know what's coming! Batum will curl and Aldridge will post!  Durant is ready this time, preventing Batum's curl.  Green is closely checking Aldridge, jostling him for position.  And Russell Westbrook?  Well, he's relaxing ever so slightly, expecting Miller to slowly bring the ball up the court, stand at the top of the key and methodically run the play while milking clock and protecting a lead.  

What Westbrook absolutely doesn't expect (you can tell by his footwork) is Miller driving hard off the dribble.  Westbrook likely assumes he will have help defenders in the key to prevent such a suicide mission.   Unfortunately for Westbrook, those help defenders are preoccupied with thoughts of getting burned previously and Miller walks to the tin, finishes the lay up and the Thunder are forced to call timeout to stop the bleeding.

Same set, three baskets, three different ways to score, all efficient and very high-percentage looks at the basket.

Conclusion

Without Brandon Roy, the Blazers face a much stiffer test going into the playoffs on the offensive side of the floor than the defensive side of the floor.  They're forced to get the most out of incomplete offensive players.  On Monday night, things set up perfectly for the Blazers as the Thunder don't have a particularly imposing frontcourt, were without Nenad Krstic due to injury and lost Serge Ibaka to fouls.  This applied additional pressure to 4 young defenders -- Jeff Green, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook -- and each broke down during the final stretch in a way that cost his team crucial points.

The Blazers forced those breakdowns with a smart, inventive, flexible play -- C4 -- that combined good off-ball movement with the strengths of its best remaining offensive players: Andre Miller (decision-making, passing) and LaMarcus Aldridge (shooting, attracting attention).  

The big question for the Blazers entering the playoffs will be: Will they have enough firepower to keep up with three of the top 10 teams in the NBA when it comes to offensive efficiency?  Can they continue to execute well enough to match Dallas, Utah or Phoenix basket for basket without Brandon Roy?

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

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