The Series From a "Line-up Imbalance" Perspective

So this started out as a comment to this sentence from one of Dave's pieces:

In the parts of the game that looked most normal, Houston gained and preserved more of an advantage than the Blazers did. - Dave

Essentially my comment went something like this and can serve as a kind of thesis for this post.

On a simple level that's true based on the simple fact the Blazers were down 10 when they started Hack-a-Howard (a decidedly not average situation).

However, I think the implication - if there's an average game, the Rockets are likely to win - misses some subtle aspects of last nights games. Particularly, how burned we got when we matched up small against small. I saw game 1 as a story of match-ups between line-ups where the Blazers had a number of advantages and room to improve when they had disadvantages.

The implication of that characterization is that given an "average" game, the extent of each line-up match up will determine the game and leaves the next game and the series much more evenly matched.

I didn't post it because I wanted to see if what I thought I saw showed up in the numbers. Here's what I found.

Breaking the Game up by "Line-up Imbalances"

So first I went through and recorded each substitution in a spreadsheet and how each match-up fared in terms of plus-minus. This turned out to have a lot of noise but a pattern emerged which a simplification really highlighted.

Instead of writing out each line-up, I characterized each backcourt and frontcourt as either Small or Big and then recorded the match-up between the team. For the backcourt, a small backcourt is when two points-guards shared the floor. For the frontcourt, a small frontcourt is when a SF or Dorell Wright was playing the PF position. All other times each is considered Big.

This smoothed out the data because many substitutions didn't constitute a "line-up imbalance". For example, if TRob comes in for Lopez and Lin comes in for Beverly, that doesn't constitute a "line-up imbalance" because both teams kept their backcourts and frontcourts "big".

In the spreadsheet, the Blazers are first (naturally) so "SvB" in the "Backcourt" column means the Blazers had Mo and Damian in while the Rockets only had one PG.

I then re-watched the game and took notes on what I saw during each section. Below are my thoughts after this exercise.

Discussion

Backcourt Didn't Matter

This surprised me. The backcourts played straight up most of the game but even when they didn't, neither team really took advantage.

The Blazers only had a 2:33 segment with Lin guarding Batum. Batum created an easy bucket out of the PnR the one time he attacked Lin. Might be something the Blazers could exploit better if it happens again. Wesley posted up Lin once but that was on a cross-match, not a lineup imbalance.

The Rockets had a considerable amount of time with a size advantage in the backcourt. Usually, Lillard was guarding Parsons. They had success with Parsons in the PnR but didn't go to it much and they missed some open looks. I would be worried about the Rockets exploiting this more.

I think these mismatches could play a bigger role in the coming games.

Blazers Lost Small v Small

We got absolutely burned matching up small against small in the front court, specifically when it was Wright and Lopez. In 7:01 that front court was a -17. In short, that lineup was primarily responsible for the two biggest deficits of the night for the Blazers. This also corresponds to when Aldridge wasn't on the floor and you can see this in their plus-minuses (Alridge +17, Lopez -15, Wright -10).

It's tempting to simply attribute it to not having our best player on the floor, but watching those minutes a few patterns emerged. First, Lopez got beat down the floor a lot, especially when checking Jones. Unfortunately, Lopez couldn't post up Jones or get o-rebounds over him so it was just a big, fat negative. I would really consider playing TRob and Wright at the same time if they go Parsons-Jones.

Second, the Blazers rebounding really suffered anytime HOU went small (even during the few minutes the Blazers stayed big). HOU sent more perimeter players to offensive rebound during those minutes. Our perimeter players whiffed on a lot of their box-outs and with a big pulled away from the basket there was lots of space to corral the rebounds.

Third, Howard was a force. He never had to leave the paint on defense and there was tons of space on offense. If I'm Stotts, I'm trying to stagger the minutes so Aldridge is always on the floor when Howard is.

Fourth, the Rockets went to guard-guard screens more often when they were small. These were hugely effective with layups or wide open jumpers basically every time. The Blazers need to have the guard defending the screener hedge next game in these situations.

Blazers Won Big v Big

In about 27 minutes before Hack-a-Howard, the Blazers were +6 when matched up Big versus Big in the frontcourt. I would also argue this line-up played uncharacteristically bad to start the third (weird TOs, lots of long jumpers) so this is a larger advantage. The regular season data backs me up on this as I posted earlier here: The Blazers starters are a +22.5 against the Rockets.

Conclusion and Things to Watch For

To circle back to my original comment, I think the data and eye test back me up. It's not so much that during the "average" parts of last night that HOU won, but more so that each team has very real advantages and disadvantages with different line-ups. The extent of each of these advantages will determine the series. However, I would argue the Blazers have just as many cards to play as the Rockets do when looking at the game from a line-up perspective. Thus, the expectation moving forward should be an even series.

Essentially, the Rockets will be making adjustments to take away the BvB advantage and the Blazers should make adjustments to take away the SvS advantage.

For the Rockets it's pretty simple. Put Howard and Asik on Aldridge more often. Consider putting Harden on Batum. Attack with the PnR on offense more. Each of these adjustments has pros and cons for the Rockets and it will be interesting to see how this plays out.

For the Blazers, match up Wright/TRob against their Parsons/Jones and try to go big when they go with Parsons/Howard. Aldridge did surprisingly well checking Parsons in those minutes in game 1 and Howard was much less effective. TRob was mixed against Parsons. Again, it's unclear how this plays out.

Last but not least, see if either team can generate new problems with the Backcourt match-ups. Also look for more guard-guard PnRs from both sides.

Best case scenario: Blazers maintain their BvB advantage by putting Howard in PnRs and scrambling the defense. Stotts is able to re-gigger his line-ups so the Blazers aren't simply atrocious against their small ball. Blazers win.

*Note: I wrote this pretty fast so I could post it before Game 2. Forgive me any typos or poor phrasing. Sorry I wasn't able to finish this in time for discussion. Guess we'll see if any of this is worthwhile real quick.

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