The Portland Trail Blazers have struggled in the month of January -- relatively speaking -- and many have pointed to their defense as the primary reason why. While the Blazers certainly need to make adjustments on defense, Portland’s offense has encountered new struggles in the New Year.
In particular, teams have game-planned for the Blazers' offensive sets by attacking the three-point arc with defenders and selling out against the three-point shot. In the first three months of the season, the Trail Blazers shot a combined 40 percent from deep. In the month of January, they combined to shoot 35 percent from deep. That five percent drop in shooting from beyond the arc has severely affected the team with the 8th-highest three-point rate in the NBA. For perspective: the San Antonio Spurs are shooting a league-leading 40 percent on threes, while 35 percent shooting is below the league's current average of 35.9 percent.
Opponents have been doing two things to stop the Blazers attack from three. First, they are selling out on contesting at the arc. The Blazers have been quick to pull the trigger for most of the year, and their shooters have a green light. However, defenders have been rushing toward Portland shooters without much regard for a secondary offensive move, like a step back or a pump fake, and it’s led to a lot of contested misses.
Take this example (above) against the Denver Nuggets. JJ Hickson is playing ICE pick-and-roll defense against Damian Lillard and Robin Lopez. As Lillard comes off the screen, Hickson’s toes are on the edge of the three-point line. Normally, when teams play ICE, their big men are back at the free throw line — much the way Portland plays themselves. But teams are riding Blazers guards off the line and it’s leading to more contested shots.
Portland shooters also have yet to recognize that teams are really selling out when it comes to possessions where shooters still have their dribble. In this example against the Mavericks, Wesley Matthews gets the ball fairly open on the wing on a kick. Gal Mekel closes and Matthews fires the shot up on the quick release.
Had Matthews pump faked and let Mekel go sailing into the stands, he would have had acres of space to get up a much better shot attempt.
Of course, the biggest issue concerning the Blazers right now is teams over-playing their wing shooters and gunking up the passing lanes. Portland has a few ways to counter these over-active defenses. Playing over the top on plays naturally allows counters to the corners and the baseline, which are areas of opportunity for the Blazers.
One of the best plays the Blazers run is this slip screen wing play, where the shooter moves from the top of the key toward the ball-handler as if he is going to set a screen, but slips it as the defense jumps the pick. The result is that both defenders suck to the ball-handler in anticipation of a switch, and then both stay with the dribbler when the pick is never set. That results in an open jumper in the corner for the (non) pick-setter.
In another set, the two guard comes to the top of the key to receive a pass as the right wing comes up off a down pick. The ball moves to the right side of the floor, and a flare pick is set on the shooting guard’s man. That allows the right wing to skip a crosscourt pass to the left corner for a three pointer.
Finally, Portland can penetrate to create issues for defenders on the backside of plays. In this instance against the Warriors, the wing defender is playing over the top of his man and shielding against Robin Lopez. As Lopez moves to set the pick on the ball-handler, the defender turns his eyes toward the ball and away from his man. This allows for a flare screen to be set by LaMarcus Aldridge and for a pass to the corner on the kick.
The Blazers will have to find a way to open up the arc as teams continue to look to lock them down as we head towards the All-Star break. Penetration, flare screens and backdoor plays should help do that as they look to find their touch again from long range.
Video via MySynergySports.com
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