The Portland Trail Blazers' sub-par defense has been the subject of discussion lately as their conservative scheme to force mid-range jumpers and limit three-pointers has begun to falter. The Blazers are forcing the sixth-most mid-range jumpers by opponents but allowing an incredibly high percentage, giving up the 27th-worst field opponent goal percentage according to NBA.com.
The Indiana Pacers have a similar defensive strategy with far better execution. Indiana allows the most mid-range jumpers in the NBA while forcing opponents into the fourth-worst shooting percentage. The Pacers do two things incredibly well. First, their big men are mobile and active in contesting shots. Indiana doesn't run ICE defense (forcing the ball to the sideline) on every pick like the Blazers and their big man help defenders aren’t anchored to the paint in the same way as Portland's.
On this below-the-arc pick-and-roll against the Denver Nuggets, Roy Hibbert is playing ICE but is within an arm's reach of the screen setter. This allows Hibbert to contest the shot without much difficulty. Additionally, playing farther up helps the Pacers' big man stop a speedy ball-handler from turning the corner on the pick. If given enough space, NBA guards can gather up the speed to simply blow by slow-moving post defenders.
In a similar play for Portland, Robin Lopez is two full steps away from the screener, which allows for an open jumper at the elbow because Nicolas Batum has trouble fighting over the screen. With Lopez so low in the paint, J.R. Smith could have just as easily utilized that space to get a running start at the rim for a blow-by.
Perhaps more importantly, the Pacers' wing defenders are adept at fighting through screens while the Blazers' are not. This has a lot to do with how each team’s players play on-ball defense.
Indiana guards typically play fairly square to the ball-handlers, and have excellent anticipation when it comes to screens being set on either side.
For the Blazers, they tend to shade hard in order to force players out of position. Here, Damian Lillard is trying to push Mike Conley to the sideline for Robin Lopez. However, his hips are turned so far that when Marc Gasol flips to set a pick on his left shoulder, he’s out of the play entirely:
The result is that the Blazers are allowing -- rather than forcing -- mid-range jumpers for their opponents. This might not be fatal if this was Portland's only defensive weakness but the problem is compounded by other shortcomings. Portland allows the second-most field goal attempts at the rim in the league and also has middling results in defending the arc. The Blazers do rank in the top three teams in the NBA as far as opponent three-point attempts allowed, but rank 12th in percentage allowed on the corner threes and 25th on three-pointers above the break.
After their hot start and up-and-down January, critics have popped up all over to point out the Blazers' defense might not be ready to compete at a championship level this season. Indeed, it may be a good idea for Terry Stotts to mix up his vanilla pick-and-roll defense to better contest shots from mid-range.
Video via MySynergySports.com | Stats as of Feb. 12.
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