The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Los Angeles Clippers, 108-93, and outside of the first six minutes it was a coach's dream for Portland.
When we talk about "fundamental basketball" we usually think first to the offensive side of the ball: making the extra pass, keeping the floor spaced, taking high percentage shots, limiting turnovers. When we do talk about defensive fundamentals, it's usually individual things like moving your feet, not playing defense with your hands on the perimeter, avoiding foul trouble, drawing charges, closing out on jump shooters and boxing out your man until your team has secured the rebound.
We don't often talk in detail about fundamental team defense for a number of reasons: it's more complicated, it's often more subtle and it can get pretty confusing pretty quickly. What we saw from Portland tonight, though, was excellent fundamental team defense, the kind of performance, particularly in the second half, that can be instructive for coaches and fans at every level.
Coming into Thursday night's much-anticipated nationally-televised game, the defensive game plan for Portland was pretty simple. The Clippers have two offensive weapons: Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon, and occasionally Baron Davis decides to really show up and making things interesting. Gordon is incredibly consistent as a scorer but will rarely beat you single-handedly. Griffin, on the other hand, even though he's in just his fourth month as a pro, can pulverize and demoralize, wear you down and put you on SportsCenter.
As such, and given Portland's available defensive personnel, the game plan starts and ends with not letting Griffin beat you. The old adage "You can't stop him, you can only hope to contain him" applies here. In Griffin, you have either the first or second most physically gifted player in the NBA. His overall offensive game is developing but it's not as refined as it will be in two years. His range has improved but it's still not excellent. He can score over you, blow by you and power through you, and he can get to the free throw line.
To counter that skillset, you want to do a number of things: understand his tendencies and take away his comfort moves, throw multiple looks at him to keep him thinking rather than simply acting, foul him when necessary, pick him up early and maintain contact throughout the defensive possession to limit his ability to play over the top, and maintain your mental composure in the face of the inevitable highlights he will reign down.
The simple boxscore tells you Griffin finished with 20 points, 18 rebounds and four assists. A monster night. But the final score tells you Portland won, and won easily. They accomplished that feat by achieving just about every objective listed in the previous paragraph. Let's break it down.
One of Griffin's tendencies is to dribble the ball in the post to feel out a defense, see if a double is coming and gain some rhythm from which he can explode with the spin move or come across the lane. Portland did an excellent job of doubling hard on his dribble when he was in the low block, forcing him to pick up his dribble and then pass over a double team rather than either maintaining his dribble and moving freely or being able to pass through an open window. The doubles came from both sides, the baseline and the middle, and Griffin reacted multiple times like he didn't expect them, not outright panicking, but not exactly maintaining total composure either.
When Griffin surveyed from outside the paint, Portland showed Griffin a wall of defenders, discouraging his entry into the middle for a shot attempt and also discouraging crosscourt passes, hoping that he would settle for a kickout that is easier to rotate to defensively. This is strictly a numbers game. Griffin is going to get a ton of touches over the course of a game. If you show him that wall religiously, he will eventually try out all of his alternatives searching for one that works. "We weren't spread out, spaced out," Wesley Matthews told me after the game. "We wanted him to see a whole bunch of bodies, a whole bunch of white jerseys, have help coming from either direction. That's our biggest thing, if we can keep a tight paint, I think we can confuse teams."
The Blazers also fouled Griffin, a below-average free throw shooter, a fair bit and they were whistled for what some people like to call superstar calls. That goes with the territory when playing against Griffin or any elite big man, and you're totally fine with that as long as no one gets in foul trouble and compromises your rotation. Remarkably, Griffin shot 13 free throws and the only Blazer to finish with more than three fouls was LaMarcus Aldridge (he had four). Those stoppages of play and missed free throws disrupt rhythm, give your defense a chance to catch its breath against Griffin's relentless onslaught, and, hopefully, get Griffin thinking about his failures at the charity stripe and how silly Free Throw Guy looks.
Griffin got multiple dunks. Multiple really, really nice dunks. In the first half, Portland lost containment in transition, giving up a number of layups to various Clippers and one spectacular dunk to Griffin on a pass-ahead in transition. The pace slowed down, and Portland's attention to defensive detail, improved markedly in the second half. Griffin still got loose through his sheer willpower, but it wasn't game-changing. Aldridge, Dante Cunningham, Nicolas Batum and others all took turns at various times nudging Griffin off his spot or bodying him when he got a catch, making him move more quickly or think for an extra half second, enough time to allow the rest of the defense to get back and get set.
Lastly, when Griffin did get his dunks, Portland barely reacted. A team that gets up so emotionally for three-pointers and engages in all sorts of silliness on the bench is prone to getting down when the momentum swings on a fierce dunk by the opposition. That didn't happen tonight, especially after Portland pulled itself together from a very flat start. The Blazers generally remained composed and got back into their offense quickly. It surely helped that Wesley Matthews (10-18 overall for 28 points) and Rudy Fernandez (7-10 from the field for 17 points, including the first successful floater of his career) were hot from the field. That made maintaining confidence and exchanging blow-for-blow with Griffin much easier.
With all of that said, let's take a look at what that type of team defensive effort produces. Here's Griffin's shot chart.
All but one of his baskets came from inside the paint and a vast majority of those were dunks. There are a lot of in-paint misses, the product of congestion. Everything else from outside was missed. That's the understanding of tendencies and scouting reports discussed above.
Griffin's body language by the end of the game didn't give off frustration so much as confusion and surprise. Defenders were places he didn't expect them to be, doing things he didn't expect them to do, doing those things faster than he was ready to process. Indeed, Griffin finished with five turnovers, including a critical one in the game's closing minutes that ended in a Rudy Fernandez runout and (eventually) a layup. Here's the video courtesy of @Jose3030.
This play was discussed with quite a bit of pride afterwards.
"Scrappy plays, Keystone Kops plays," Matthews said with a smirk. "Me and Rudy [Fernandez] ran into each other, lost the ball, he laid it up, that's making your own luck."
"That steal, that dig on Griffin," McMillan said, his face glowing. "We have Nicolas [Batum] trying to get him off the block, which he did a good job. The read was for our guys to collapse, [Griffin] loves to spin, Rudy [Fernandez] and Andre [Miller] were right there to come up with the steal. Then we go down and bump into each other but you see LA dive for the loose ball on the floor. Coming off an overtime win last night then seeing that scrappy play, the last seconds of the game, it's what you've got to do to give yourself a chance to win."
That play will likely live on in our collective memory for awhile, given its zaniness and the excellent outcome, but remember that it was all part of a greater numbers game. It was one play out of dozens of Clippers' possessions that centered around putting the ball in Griffin's hands. All told, Griffin finished just 6-17 from the field. That play was just one of his five turnovers. Think about all of the possible points lost in those possessions -- missed shots and turnovers -- alone. And then look at the final score: Portland 108-93. That's how they won this game.
"When you get good," Matthews told me, "you gotta get better real quick, because [defenses] are going to try to stop you. That's what LA is doing now [on offense] and that's what we're trying to do to everybody else."
Random Game Notes
- Aldridge on Griffin: "He's good. I definitely respect his game, he plays hard the whole game, from start to finish, I have much respect for him. He's a great talent, athletic, physical."
- Aldridge on whether he and/or Griffin will make the All-Star Game: "He's going to make it. If I get in, that's the question." Although not really mentioned above, Aldridge had a great night offensively too: 28 points, eight rebounds and three assists against just one turnover.
- Luke Babbitt watch: still on the roster.
- DeAndre Jordan's technical with 10 minutes to play was just asinine. The Clippers coaching staff didn't look all that miffed either. Such a losing play.
- Andre Miller, asked by Matt Calkins of The Columbian whether he tried to make nice with Blake Griffin after an incident earlier this season when Miller body-checked Griffin to the ground. "It's NBA basketball, I think he understands that. He gets a lot of respect from guys around the league but when you deliver shots you have to be able to accept them. And I think he understood that. No hard feelings. Just move on. We just dapped each other up and kept going."
- Be sure to read McMillan's explanation of the lobs to Andre Miller below. Very insightful and humorous.
- The Sean Marks highlight of the night. There could only be one. Marks put Griffin on a layup poster! Got him!
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
I thought we scrapped. We got off to a tough start, a slow start. They were pretty much running and getting what they wanted. Griffin is a tough match-up, Gordon, when he is shooting that three ball, it's tough to guard him because he's such a great penetrator. I thought our defense tightened up the second half, only 42 or 43 points allowed in the second half. Offensively we started to get something inside. I thought LaMarcus was patient and made good decisions in the post tonight.
LaMarcus in perspective for the last month
I've been waiting for this. I really have. I said this to LaMarcus when he was drafted. Just his ability to run, a big guy like that who can run, who jump, who's long, who's athletic, his ability to shoot the ball. Defensively can guard, really, five spots, most players coming into the league, they play one or the other. Whether they are a good defender or scorer. This guy is special because he can do both. He can score, he can defend, now he's playing in the paint. You don't want to take his perimeter game away, but he has committed to playing in the paint and he's done a great job. He's making good decisions, he's starting to get patient down there. He's taking the contact that teams are putting big guys on him. Last night it was Dalembert, the night before that it was Darko, tonight Jordan starts on him. So he's accepting that play down there.
When teams are trying to take away the post, you've got to be able to shoot the ball from the perimeter. LaMarcus is creating those opportunities for our perimeter guys. We haven't shot the ball well this year. Spurts. We've been streaky, we've been knocking down shots. Wesley gets his rhythm tonight. It's always good to see Rudy knock down his shots. We went to a spread offense, a smaller lineup with Nic, Rudy and Wesley and wanted to play from the inside out.
Team defense on Griffin
It starts with LA and all of our guys, I thought DC and Joel came in, Sean, it was a total team effort tonight. Guys played small minutes, some guys played big minutes, that play, that crazy play at the end, you've got to make things like that happen. That's what it's all about. We've been making plays down the stretch, making stops, scoring the ball, winning games. Early in the season, that was missing.
Buzz in the building
When you play like that, you live with the outcome. I think more often than not, you're going to win games. We've given ourselves a chance to win games but we haven't made plays down the stretch to win those games. You've got to make those plays. That steal, that dig on Griffin, we have Nicolas trying to get him off the block, which he did a good job. The read was for our guys to collapse, he loves to spin, Rudy and Andre were right there to come up with the steal. Then we go down and bump into each other but you see LA dive for the loose ball on the floor. Coming off an overtime win last night then seeing that scrappy play, the last seconds of the game, it's what you've got to do to give yourself a chance to win.
Game of runs
They got off to a good start, they got off to that fast start. We seemed like we were trying to get our second wind. We looked like we were still asleep. Then we finally got something going. It was a battle. They're a good team. They were the hottest team in the league here. With some of their wins, I think they won 11 out of their last 14 games. So it's a team that was playing well, playing with a lot of confidence, a tough match-up, Griffin, Jordan, those guys are big, Davis is playing good basketball and Gordon is playing great basketball for them. We knew it was going to be a tough game, we battled, and we finally got some breaks and we were able to gain control.
14-7 without Brandon, 4-1 without Marcus
Things happen. You can't explain it. You've got to go out and play. It's a big challenge playing without those guys. But what can you do? Next guy has to be ready and step in and play. We've got to play even harder if possible, have to be even sharper in our execution, our hustle game, we've got to win those games, our guys have done that.
Lobs to Andre
That play has been there. We've just... that's part of execution. We've run it... since I've been here. Six years. But Rudy is looking for Andre and Andre is using the screen. It's open. That's what we talk about in that situation is executing every option. That is a play that is really for... the end of that play is to drop the ball to LaMarcus. For so many times we were running that play to drop the ball to LaMarcus, there are about four or five options off of that play before you even get the ball to LaMarcus. A lot of times it's a flex cut where you see Camby hit Nic, that's one of the options. The first option is Dre going to the basket. Look for that, if you don't get that then it's a flex cut for Nic or Wesley coming off of a flex cut, if you don't get that, then it's a curl on the weakside with Andre and LaMarcus. And then the last option, even though that's where we want to go, is to drop it to LaMarcus. It's the same play that Utah runs, they call it a UCLA cut. Rudy will throw it and Andre knows it, so he's using the screen.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter