Recently, I took a look at the Portland Trail Blazers' struggles to defend mid-range jumpers. That shortcoming has a secondary consequence that has affected Portland's overall defensive efficiency, as Portland's pick-and-roll defense can be beaten going to the basket as well.
While the Blazers are the fourth-best team at guarding shots inside of five feet, they are allowing the second-most field goal attempts in that same range. The result is that opponents are scoring 46.3 points per game in the painted area, the third-most allowed of any team in the NBA.
The Blazers' main issue is that they are not forcing opponents away from the middle of the floor. San Antonio did a great job of exploiting this hole in the Portland defense recently, and the Blazers mentioned how they got away from their defensive gameplan in their post-game comments.
On this play, Patty Mills and Jeff Ayres are in a pick-and-roll situation on the left side of the court. Mo Williams has angled himself above Mills’ dribbling hand and against the direction of the coming pick. He actually does what he is supposed to do in this situation, but defending the pick is a two-man operation that requires teamwork.
Williams’ position forces Ayres to set a high pick on the arc rather than below it, which affects his position as he slips the screen. Because Ayres isn't a threat to shoot a jumper from that far out, Thomas Robinson is inexplicably standing deep on the left lane line, opening up the middle of the floor to Mills for a run at the basket.
Even with Williams turning his hips to run with Mills, Robinson isn’t high enough to stop the Spurs guard from picking up speed as he turns the corner. With Mills well ahead of Williams, Robinson still has yet to commit to stopping his drive, and he sinks beneath the basket rather than stepping up and stopping penetration. This defense not only allows Mills an open look at a floater, but also an open lane for a jump pass to Ayres had he chosen to go that route.
Blazers defenders simply don’t seem to have their own system perfected. On this play, Damian Lillard is shading Mills to the sideline, but he isn’t actually shading him hard enough. His left foot is almost in line with Mills’ outside foot, leaving him susceptible to a drive to the lane.
Lillard should really be shading about 12 inches to his left. Indeed, Mills sees the opportunity to skip the screen altogether and take it hard to the rack using a triple-threat move to the middle of the floor.
Couple that with ineffective help defense by Matthews and Victor Claver and San Antonio gets another easy bucket.
We can take a look at how to properly defend the paint off the pick with this example from the Indiana Pacers. On this pick above the arc, George Hill is standing square with his head on a swivel. Roy Hibbert is above the free-throw line and has his inside foot in line with the screener's outside foot. This positioning squeezes down the amount of space for Ty Lawson has to snake the pick (the triangle represents his narrow window for a quick crossover).
Notice Hibbert's feet are naturally slightly tilted toward the direction he would like to force the ball-handler, but his hips are still closed, pointing toward the baseline and not angled to the sideline.
As Lawson rounds the corner, Hibbert takes two steps straight backwards with his hips square. The dribbler sees no opportunity for a pass, so he decides to take it himself and the result is a highly-contested miss.
Even when the Portland bigs try to reduce the amount of space between themselves and the pick-setter, they have difficulty staying disciplined. Here, Robinson is set above the free-throw line in an effort to stop Manu Ginobili off the dribble. Nic Batum is sealing off Boris Diaw in an effort to stop the jumper, but has actually screened himself out of recovering on the play to leave poor Robinson alone against one of the craftiest penetrators in the NBA.
That is a big mental lapse. One goal of Portland's ICE pick-and-roll defense is to slow down the ball-handler enough with the post defender to allow the guard to recover. Purposefully putting Robinson onto Ginobili is not within their defensive scheme. Notice the difference in space between Robinson and the screen-setter compared to the example with Roy Hibbert above.
Robinson opens his hips instead of sinking back, which is his crucial mistake. In ICE, Robinson’s goal is to stay in front of Ginobili, so he should stay square at all times.
The Spurs veteran gives a quick crossover to the open space allowed by Batum and it’s too easy. By turning his hips to his left, Robinson has made it hard for himself to pull his right foot behind him and stay in front of Ginobili, who blows right by him for a layup.
Portland’s defensive inability on the wing, coupled with its ICE pick-and-roll defensive strategy, not only allows mid-range jumpers as we’ve seen, but provides for open buckets in the paint at an alarming rate. The Blazers will need to address these issues moving forward if they want to be able to run deep into the playoffs.
Video via MySynergySports.com | Stats as of Feb. 23.
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