In last week's look at how the Portland Trail Blazers survived the Blake Griffin Show against the Los Angeles Clippers, Blazers guard Wesley Matthews made a great point. (Sidenote: Matthews makes a lot of great points. This is just one of them.) Matthews said, "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."
To boil it down: When you turn the page from a B or a B+ offensive player into an A- or an A offensive player, your entire world changes in the NBA. When you become the most efficient and/or most voluminous scoring option on your team, teams will pick at you, trying to magnify your weaknesses and make your life that extra touch more difficult to push you towards an off night, which they hope will turn the balance of the game in their favor.
Quick review: With Griffin, the Blazers looked to speed the game up, force him to make decisions, scramble their double-teams to confuse him, provide lots of congestion in the middle of the court, maintain contact whenever possible and keep a positive attitude when he inevitably goes HAM.
The defensive game plan for Aldridge is similar to Griffin's, but it's not identical, and it's evolved a bit over the course of this season as he has solidified himself as Portland's No. 1 option on offense.
Aldridge's biggest weakness right now isn't personal, it's situational: he plays ridiculous minutes every single night on a very depleted frontline that doesn't do much to make his life easier. Effectively keying on that fact can be enough to swing a game, either through foul trouble or fatigue or both. The plan, then: Make Aldridge work on both ends of the floor, body him before catches to tire him out, use multiple defenders to make him keep thinking and adjusting, show new wrinkles late in games when he's most likely to be fatigued and let Portland's guards try to beat you from deep in hopes they forget about him.
The main storyline that developed out of Monday's game was that Sacramento Kings center Samuel Dalembert took Aldridge out of his game, holding him to just nine points on 14 shots. As I was less than completely coherent on Monday night after a one-on-one death match with a porcelain throne, I decided to take a look at all of Aldridge's possessions this morning to see exactly what caused his tough offensive night. During that process, Dalembert certainly shines, especially down the stretch, but there are a bunch of other factors at work here too.
Here's a look at a rough cut of just about every important offensive touch/shot that Aldridge took on Monday night. Full breakdown commences below.
First things first: The Kings, while not a very good team, do have three separate, athletic, solid options for defending Aldridge in Jason Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins and Dalembert. Thompson is solidly built and fairly quick. Cousins is wide-bodied, strong and long. Dalembert is agile and super-long. Each provides a different nuance and, when locked in, are adequate or better as Aldridge-stoppers. Given that so much of Aldridge's game these days comes over-the-top and near-the-rim, all three are vastly preferable to the kinds of players Aldridge has torched recently, Darko Milicic and Kevin Love for example, guys with fewer raw skills and physical tools that simply can't keep up in a gunfight. Together, it's a trio that has the ability to wear Aldridge down.
When you roll the clip above, you first see two early touches, with Aldridge working on Thompson on the left block. In the first, the ball comes out for a high pick-and-pop that sees Aldridge miss a jumper; the second winds up with an Aldridge made basket going to the hoop. These are the early pawn moves of a chess game, both teams feeling each other out a little bit. What Aldridge and the Blazers see on the first play is that he is not immediately doubled and that's why they go back into him the second time around to cash in on that one-on-one situation.
On the made basket, Kings guard Beno Udrih tries to flash down on Aldridge twice to provide some congestion, but his execution is a bit silly and Aldridge doesn't pay him much mind. The noise doesn't prevent him from gathering cleanly or getting a clean look so it's overall ineffective team defense because Thompson is the one of Sacramento's three options not long enough to seriously contest Aldridge inside.
It's not often a guy goes 4-14 and you leave thinking he should have taken more shots, but in this case I think that applies. After the initial bucket at the 9:39 mark of the first quarter, Aldridge doesn't attempt another shot until the 2:15 mark of the second quarter, a 19 minute stretch of game time (which includes the time he sits out to rest). Just as a reminder: NBA games are 48 minutes long. A 19 minute stretch of game time is an eternity for a No. 1 option not to get a shot. Wesley Matthews was doing a reasonable job of keeping the Blazers in the game, but Aldridge will never get meaningful free throw numbers or develop a scoring rhythm with that kind of break in his individual offense.
When Aldridge finally does set up to go to work for his own offense, he's dealing with Dalembert, who expertly pushes his off of his spot out towards the perimeter, without being whistled, and maintains body contact, making life difficult for Aldridge. Aldridge drives to the middle, spins back to the left looking for air and finds Udrih cheating very nicely on the basket side, adding congestion much more effectively this time. Dalembert gets away with a fairly obvious foul by holding Aldridge with his left hand on the shot attempt and the ball goes out of bounds. It's a frustrating and tiring play for multiple reasons: lots of early work, no basket, no foul, nothing to show for it. We talked about how the Blazers played the numbers game against Griffin. This is an excellent example of the Kings doing the same with Aldridge. These add up, if not immediately, then later in the game.
It's worth noting that Aldridge responded to that sequence very well, getting a putback on a missed shot that resulted from the inbounds play (this isn't shown in the video). Shortly thereafter, he takes advantage of a defensive breakdown -- Dalembert follows a cutting Joel Przybilla and no one rotates quickly enough -- to make a clean catch and superb finish off the spin move.
With those two baskets bolstering his confidence and bringing Portland back into the game as halftime approached, Aldridge looked to take over, going right at Dalembert again. Dalembert plays him well, though, shadowing him without fouling, moving his feet, getting his long arms up, and Aldridge throws up a bit of a flailing attempt reminiscent of Griffin's uglier efforts on Monday. He's clearly forcing it, settling for a contested lefty shot that he would admit is a bad look if/when he watched it on tape. He didn't take the extra second to read the defense and find Rudy Fernandez spotting up. There's plenty of time left on the clock, and while it's possible he could be playing 2-for-1 to close the half, that's not the kind of look you want to get from a 2-for-1. I read this as fatigue creep.
The Blazers look to establish Aldridge early in the second half and Thompson is back to defending Aldridge. Udrih hard doubles Aldridge this time around, showing him a different look and preventing him from going to work immediately one-on-one on Thompson as he did earlier. It's disruptive and makes Aldridge work that much harder and longer to get a shot, which comes after he re-posts, establishes position all over again, and then throws up a tough contested fadeaway because nothing else had developed.
The Blazers counter nicely, albeit briefly, by removing Aldridge from the commotion, getting him into a high screen-and-fade situation with Wesley Matthews. Thompson shades on Matthews instead of staying with Aldridge so the resulting pass is a wide open look that Aldridge can knock down. Tyreke Evans contests it, so both coaches are reasonably happy with how this plays out. For Portland, they got Aldridge a pretty clean look and a bucket. For Sacramento, they took him out of his comfort zone, out of rebounding position and contested the shot to play the odds as well as possible. I believe Dave mentioned in his recap that Portland needed to use Aldridge more often on the perimeter. This shot was basically the extent of his outside play and it also represented, by far, his easiest points of the second half.
The next shot shows Sacramento mixing up its defense yet again, running Tyreke Evans from the basline to Aldridge's blind shoulder as he looks inside to take advantage of the undersized Donte Greene. This is a bit of a gamble for Sacramento but it pays off, as Aldridge rushes a pass to a cutting, open Wesley Matthews, which is deflected and stolen. The pace and timing of the play -- particularly after Sacramento hadn't often doubled from that side -- clearly takes Aldridge aback.
Now that we're deep into the game, Aldridge has battled four different defenders on the low block and he's obviously had to play heavy minutes and work on the other end of the floor as well. In this reel's final play from the third quarter, Aldridge misses three separate at-rim attempts as he battles to tip in a Dante Cunningham missed jumper. Aldridge beats Dalembert nicely but can't finish, and Dalembert again contests without fouling and giving away free points. The lid stays on the rim and Aldridge comes up empty. For Sacramento this is shaping up exactly as they had hoped.
To say that this was all about Dalembert would be over-stating it, but only slightly, as he played the critical role down the stretch and certainly deserved a large share of the credit for slowing down Aldridge.
But he wasn't alone. The Kings switched up both their defenders (Cousins did check Aldridge briefly, although not on any of the attempts shown and discussed above) and their double-teams, and did a very nice job of continuing to pound Aldridge and prevent easy looks. That Aldridge missed point blank late in the game isn't as surprising when you see the string of early possessions consecutively. Throw in the hip contusion, and it's even less surprising.
Perhaps most importantly: Aldridge took zero (!) free throws in the first 43+ minutes of game action.
When Marcus Camby went down, I noted that Aldridge's efficiency would likely take a hit. Aldridge's Herculean effort against weak competition last week delayed that a bit, but the types of shots and the overall fatigue he displayed against the Kings are to be expected given Portland's lack of a high-low game and the extra opportunities and easy looks that Camby creates on the offensive boards. Getting to the free-throw line and hoping that Portland's wings hit their three-pointers are really the only ways to mitigate the loss of Camby.
Unfortunately, Sacramento was another reminder about how thin the margin of error is right now for the injury-depleted Blazers. They can get beaten fairly convincingly by the league's second-worst team if Aldridge can't get going. With the Boston Celtics, the No. 2 defense in the league, coming to town tomorrow night, Aldridge is surely preparing to have the kitchen sink thrown at him. Boston's frontcourt is dealing with all sorts of injuries, but unless he is able to get to the free throw line early or unless Portland is able to move him around more effectively to find clean looks and/or easy buckets, it could be another long night.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter