The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Sacramento Kings, 104-91, at the Moda Center on Friday night, improving their record to 3-2.
As it turns out, there is more to coaching transition defense than yelling "GET BACK!" and stomping your feet.
The best way to play transition defense is to never miss a shot on offense. The next best way to play transition defense is to never turn the ball over. The third best way to play transition defense is to avoid daydreaming, that mental scourge that tends to spread around the three-point arc. The fourth best way to play transition defense is to avoid laziness, an easy, crippling culprit if any of the first three things on this list didn't go according to plan.
From that list, you can understand why this isn't the easiest topic for a team to drill on: every team misses shots, every team has turnovers, total focus is an impossibility, and fatigue is an ever-present reality. The most obvious variables are work ethic and mental awareness, attributes that will pop up and cause problems is many different parts of the game, and it's just not that easy to teach someone to be less lazy and more intelligent. That's why Dr. Phil hosts an eponymous network television show rather than working as a mustache dye salesman at Macy's and why every third online advertisement these days is pitching an elixir that will drop six inches off your waist in 30 days (if the product doesn't work, you get your money back, but your credit card information will still be passed on to identity thieves).
"You can't coach transition defense," Thomas Robinson told Blazersedge following Friday's win. "There's nothing to say. ... It's all effort. We've got guys who are willing to put up the effort, that's pretty much the coaching right there."
It was amusing to hear Robinson reiterate what is surely a lifetime's worth of built-up conventional wisdom just minutes after Blazers coach Terry Stotts told reporters that transition defense was one of his points of emphasis at practice this week. You can't coach transition defense? Then what did we just spend all week working on?
Portland's transition defense has already had a serious high (only two points conceded to the San Antonio Spurs) and a low (31 points conceded to the Phoenix Suns). After giving up 19 fast break points to the Houston Rockets on Tuesday, it's no surprise that Stotts would offer some pointed reminders on the subject. The Kings are no offensive juggernaut and they're not particularly deep or disciplined. Controlling tempo is key against such an opponent.
So what did Stotts do? How did Stotts try to get through to a team full of players -- like any other team in the league-- that's heard every possible motivational tactic to get them to pay attention and hustle when it's time to dig in on early defense?
"We made much more of a priority of getting back," Stotts said.
Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews described a fairly simple drill that, it seems, was crafted to address both the focus and the effort issues. During live ball scrimmages, Stotts would whistle at seemingly random moments, forcing the offense to give up possession of the ball -- regardless of the location of the ball or the attacking player -- and immediately turn and run back to defend its own basket. Along the way, as in any fast break opportunity, players needed to find their assignments, and at times the difficulty level was increased by giving the attacking transition team a 5-on-4 man-advantage.
"We would be playing live and then he would just blow the whistle," Lillard told Blazersedge. "Even if we had the ball, playing offense, we would have to drop the ball and give it to the other team, in the middle of us playing and we would have to get back and guard them. Usually we would see a shot getting up and be able to get back, but I guess it was just, he'd blow the whistle, I'd have to drop the ball and take off because he's giving it to the other team, going the other way."
Play-to-play discipline is of vital importance here because so many of Portland's players are perimeter shooters. In addition to five legitimate three-point threats in the 9-man rotation, LaMarcus Aldridge takes a good chunk of his attempts from the perimeter. Even though Portland's turnover struggles from the preseason have been drastically decreased during the regular season -- the Blazers actually entered Friday night's play ranked No. 1 in turnover rate in the league -- the Blazers' free-flowing offense and reliance on perimeter shooting is going to make for lots of break opportunities for their opponents. There's no way around that.
"A whole lot of running," Matthews told Blazersedge, when asked about this week's focus. "I felt like we were back in training camp. Which was good, we needed that. We needed to drill ourselves. There are still times I know I caught myself watching a little bit. For the most part we did a pretty good job. That's the big thing, if we can make teams play against our halfcourt defense."
Another issue at play: Portland's guards -- particularly Lillard and Mo Williams -- aren't particularly imposing in fast break scenarios. If an opposing team succeeds in pushing the ball to the free-throw line in a 2-on-1 scenario, Portland's undersized safety valves find themselves in a helpless and hopeless position. The last line of defense is often a wave rather than a wall; coordinated attention from all three perimeter players is required to prevent such occurrences.
"It's just discipline," Matthews told Blazersedge. "When the shot goes up, me and Nico, rather than hanging around and seeing what happens, Dame included, locating our man and just doing it rather than being lax about it."
Stotts liked the results on Friday, of course. The Kings had zero fast break points through three quarters, and only five for the game.
"There were possessions where we had three guys back as the shot was going up," Stotts said. "It was apparent to everybody that we had to get better in that area. It was much more of a concern for everybody and we made it a focal point."
The Blazers' offense definitely helped their defensive cause. Portland shot 48.8 percent on the night and a sizzling 53.7 percent shooting in the first half. The ball moved and the scoring balance -- six players in double-figures -- was there as a result. Portland enjoyed a double-digit lead through much of this one, with Damian Lillard tallying a team-high 22 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists, while LaMarcus Aldridge added 20 points (on 10-for-20 shooting) and 7 rebounds.
This just wasn't a very stressful night for the Blazers, who left Kings coach Michael Malone with some harsh words for his team's defense. Sacramento watched a 35-point, 9-rebound night from DeMarcus Cousins go for nothing, and the Kings' center never had sufficient help to keep this game tight.
"It's a broken record," Malone said. "Until we buy in and try to defend for 48 minutes, DeMarcus can score 50 points, we'll still lose."
Portland hit 10 threes on the night, including seven in the first half. Lillard, Matthews and Batum all got in on the act, and they made the most of a number of wide-open looks.
"We play well for a while defensively and then we collapse," Malone said. "Sometimes they were getting threes off of us just trying to make it up, not executing the game plan defensively and making stuff up on the fly. When you do that, you get hurt."
Aldridge had 10 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter to put the game away, and Sacramento's attack was over-reliant on Cousins, who in turn was over-reliant on his jump shot. Cousins shot 13-for-25 on the night: he was 5-for-12 outside the paint and 8-for-13 inside the paint. The Blazers' defenders looked happy to give Cousins the space to shoot to his heart's content.
"It's fine," Joel Freeland, told Blazersedge, when told that some observers might glance at the box score and conclude that Cousins went off. " At the end of the day, who won the game? We won the game. We played smart."
The plan worked to let Cousins shoot his jumpers, which were a major focus of his pre-game routine, worked exactly as he hoped.
"I tried to back off a little bit," Freeland, who finished with 4 points, 4 rebounds and 2 blocks in a nice performance, told Blazersedge. "I know my strengths and he obviously knows his strengths. I'd prefer him to take a jump shot rather than back me down and make a bucket. Try to make him receive the ball as far off the post as possible and force him to shoot a jump shot. ... He got his, he's always going to get his, because he's a good player."
Tendency-based strategies like that only have the chance to work if you take care of the basics. Regularly slowing the opponent in transition -- by remembering assignments and going the extra mile to get back -- is one of the easiest ways for a terrible defense to become an average defense.
Portland was a bottom-five team in fast-break points conceded last year and they were below league-average entering Friday's game. No one was ready to declare this battle won, thankfully, considering Portland's overall defensive efficiency numbers aren't off to a hot start despite more than a month's worth of talk about improving on that end.
"Our defensive numbers are kind of skewed because we weren't doing well defensive rebounding and transition, but our halfcourt is great," Matthews told Blazersedge, before rightly thinking twice. "I wouldn't say great, but pretty damn good."
Portland just so happens to be entering a fairly soft part of its schedule: among its next seven opponents, only Brooklyn inspires any sort of real fear. Consistent execution on defense over the next two weeks has the potential to put Portland in a pretty nice place standings-wise, but the unhatched eggs aren't being counted quite yet.
"We've improved with our fast break [defense], but the thing in this league, you have to avoid slippage," Stotts said. "It's a long season and it's easy to fall into a comfortable state, you have to avoid that comfortable state. It's a challenge to do it every night."
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced at 17,627. Lots and lots of empty seats. Maybe it's time to make that dynamic pricing algorithm a little more dynamic.
- Portland again topped 100 points and the Moda Center crowd again rejected the "Mick-ee-dees" instructions. Not only that, but the "Cha-lu-pa" chant was its loudest and most forceful yet. The revolution is spreading!
- Here are the game highlights via YouTube user NBAShowtimeHD5...
- Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com reports that the Blazers will have a new two-tone court design for the 2014-15 season.
- Just like during the preseason, Thomas Robinson had a productive night against his former team: 10 points and 4 rebounds in 12 minutes. Asked to sum up his pairing with Freeland off the bench, Robinson said: "We're together in practice, we're together on the court, after awhile, that connection starts to come. ... We have to be annoying to playing against, scrappy, fast, we have to be the headache, a definite headache."
- Freeland unintentionally had the one-liner of the night when he was asked to describe his shot-blocking technique: "I'm going straight up and they're throwing the ball into my hands." It's just that easy!
- Damian Lillard offered some praise for Freeland's rim protection and general play: "He's a perfectionist with the verticality, he goes straight up. We always tell him one day he's going to get dunked on, he's blocking shots every game, getting offensive rebounds, chasing loose balls, we need that from him. It's great to see a guy embrace his role and his time on the floor the way he does."
- Freeland said that he will play against the Kings on Saturday even though his hip is "stiffening up" and still bothering him with "pinching" pain. He said he doesn't really notice it when he's playing, at least not to the point where it's distracting.
- Wesley Matthews moved into the No. 5 spot on Portland's all-time three-pointers list. He quipped to Casey Holdahl of Blazers.com: "That's something great for my mom and grandma, they'll enjoy that."
- Ryan Johnson and Pa Modou Kah of the Portland Timbers were both in the crowd.
- Thank you to everyone who sent in birthday wishes.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
The encouraging thing tonight was that the things we've emphasized the last couple of days, our transition defense, our defensive rebounding, points in the paint, I thought we were all very aware of that, we did a good job with that for most of the game. I think that was the most important part coming out of this game, it's a good win. They're dangerous at home, we'll play another one tomorrow.
Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge combination
They're both good players, we rely on them to do a lot at both ends of the floor. Damian makes plays, L.A. makes plays, we rode L.A. on the block in the fourth quarter. Damian's picking his spots, but I thought we had a good performance by a lot of players. I thought Wes was aggressive in the first half, Joel Freeland came in and did a lot of good things, felt his presence when he was out there. Obviously Damian and L.A. are kind of our go-to guys, they came through tonight.
You know he's really found his niche, he's finding his way, he's making plays that people appreciate, certainly his teammates and fans. He makes defensive plays, hustle plays, kicks it out for three-pointers, all of the little things that you need on good teams. You need guys who are willing to do all that work and make sacrifices and he just continues to improve in that role.
We made much more of a priority of getting back. There were possessions where we had three guys back as the shot was going up. It was apparent to everybody that we had to get better in that area. It was much more of a concern for everybody and we made it a focal points.
Keep momentum building for transition defense
Just do it. We want to be good in all facets, we want to be good in our halfcourt, good in our pick-and-rolls. We've improved with our fast break [defense], but the thing in this league, you have to avoid slippage. It's a long season and it's easy to fall into a comfortable state, you have to avoid that comfortable state. It's a challenge to do it every night.
Defense on DeMarcus Cousins
We ran the first play for Robin but other than that, Robin was an active player, the ball finds him, I want to play a style [where] if the guy is open he gets the ball. Other than the first play that wasn't a priority.
He made his jump shots early, I was very pleased -- we kind of dared him to shoot some shots, we needed to be a little closer and we made that adjustment. But when he finishes around the basket he's a strong guy who can convert through fouls. He's just a talented guy, I think the whole league knows that.
Did you just walk in the room? [He did] Alright, thank you. [Laughter]
Preparation for Saturday night
We'll watch the video. I think the biggest thing to shore up is not to have a mental letdown. It's hard to win on the road. They play very well there. They've been in the games they've played there. That's the biggest thing. Realize this wasn't an easy win. It took a lot of mental and physical effort to get this win. Going there tomorrow night is going to be even more difficult.
Message -- look forward to tomorrow or focus on win?
Tomorrow when we have our meeting, we'll go over the video with them. Show areas, show things that we did well, reinforce the things we did well, and areas of concern.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter