It's hard to take anything away from a seven-game losing streak. It's natural to feel helpless rather than analytical. When your team is getting taken behind the woodshed and flogged every other night, the last thing you want to do is study the situation closely and scour for learning experiences. More likely, you just find yourself longing to curl up into a ball and absorb the beatings until someday, mercifully, they end.
With this current Blazers skid, though, there are some interesting things happening. This young team is searching for an identity - and while every game over the last two weeks has ended in a loss, they've been through a couple of tough challenges that have helped them test their resolve and figure some things out. Trial by fire, you could say.
The best example, I'd say, comes from the closest of the seven losses - the one-point heartbreaker that the Blazers let slip away in Memphis last Friday night. While the game ended in a 101-100 loss, it was not without some teachable moments that showed us a lot about the way this team is going to perform under pressure. More specifically, I'd say that the most important play of the Blazers' season to date was this one here:
It's hard to name a higher-leverage situation in a November basketball game - it's the first night of the first prolonged road trip for a young team, a pivotal moment if ever there was one, and the Blazers are starting off against a playoff team in hostile territory with mere seconds on the clock and a chance to steal a huge win. Down two and in need of a big bucket, they run their offense and execute just well enough to get a clean look for... Al-Farouq Aminu. Not Damian Lillard, mind you, the team's leading scorer and clutch performer. Not C.J. McCollum, either. With all the chips on the table and the Blazers facing their most crucial possession of the young season, the Blazers go to Aminu and not one of their two lead guys. This is meaningful. This tells you something.
Then again, maybe it shouldn't be surprising that the Blazers went to Aminu in this situation because, well, consider this:
Yup, that explains it. The Grizzlies were daring Aminu to shoot. Look at that screengrab, taken approximately two seconds before Aminu releases the ball - there's no one within eight feet of the guy. If you go back and watch the clip again, it's pretty clear what happens. Marc Gasol might be the nearest defender here, but he's not thinking about Aminu at all. He was guarding Mason Plumlee, and his response to a McCollum-Plumlee pick-and-roll was to trap McCollum hard at the top of the key. He's recovering back to the paint, but Aminu has nothing to do with it. As for Zach Randolph, he's supposedly "guarding" Aminu, but not really. He's cheated over toward the left block, positioning himself to prevent McCollum from driving to the rim or snag a rebound should McCollum shoot and miss. Aminu is standing there in the corner, wide open. So McCollum goes to him, and he doesn't disappoint.
It's interesting stuff. You can absolutely understand why Dave Joerger and the Grizzlies are fine with letting Aminu fire away from 3 - historically, he's been terrible at it. Aminu's success rates from long distance over the last four seasons have been 27.7, 21.1, 27.1 and 27.4 percent. That last number came last season in Dallas, where he was playing for Rick Carlisle, a coach who's known for creating spacing and enabling guys to fire 3-pointers. It didn't work. Aminu managed 124 attempts and only made 34 of them. So yeah, Aminu is not a 3-point marksman, and it totally makes sense to leave him open and focus more on containing the Blazers' top two guys.
On the other hand, there's a long-standing school of thought in NBA circles that, to put it quite simply, "The best shooter in the game is the open man." You could certainly make the argument that Aminu, if he's left wide open, is a more dangerous shooter than McCollum or even Lillard. The data supports this notion - according to SportVU data made available by the NBA, Aminu's shooting percentages last season were 36.9, 52.9, 48.8 and 60.9 percent when the closest defender is within 2, 4, 6 and over 6 feet, respectively. Generally speaking, an open Aminu is a considerably better than a guarded... anyone.
So this is the dilemma that teams are going to face when they go up against the Blazers in crunch time - or at any other time, really. You're looking at an extremely top-heavy team. Lillard and McCollum are the two greatest offensive threats on the roster by far. So if you're Memphis, you've got to ask yourself - do you let someone like Aminu fire away with a chance to be an unexpected hero, or do you use a more balanced defensive approach that limits the entire team's open looks?
We knew this would be an issue for the Blazers this season. In fact, ominously enough, Trail Blazers digital reporter Casey Holdahl predicted this very phenomenon in the most recent Rip City Report podcast, which coincidentally taped the morning before last Friday's tilt with the Grizzlies. Here's Casey:
"With a guy like Meyers [Leonard] being out, at least for a few more games, it does change the way that the Blazers are going to play. It gives them one less guy who's going to be able to stretch the floor, which in theory, is also going to make it more difficult on guys like Damian and C.J. because teams are going to be able to key in more on them. Which I feel like they're kind of already doing anyway. I feel like in the fourth quarter now, teams are definitely going with the idea of, 'Let's make sure we cover Damian and to a lesser extent C.J. well, and then let's see if anyone else is going to be able to beat us.' So far, that has not been the case."
He's absolutely right - we've seen this very dynamic play out several times since, and repeatedly, Aminu's been the guy the Blazers turn to as they look to punish imbalanced defensive schemes.
The result hasn't always been positive, either. We've seen mixed outcomes. In another instance this past week, a very similar situation went down, with an opposing defense keying on the Blazers' guards in a clutch situation, and Aminu wasn't so fortunate. Here's the same play on Wednesday against Houston:
Above is a pivotal possession from the end of regulation against the Rockets, and they begin with James Harden guarding Aminu. This is basically the Rockets hiding Harden - he put out an exhaustive amount of energy on the offensive end to carry that team, so putting him on the Blazers' weakest offensive player is a way of giving him a rest. You'll notice that on this possession, Harden barely goes near Aminu. What ends up happening is Dwight Howard leaves his post under the basket, bolting to the top of the key to help trap Lillard, and Harden hangs back at the rim to help him out. Aminu lingers in the corner, a good 15ish feet away, and he's still open when a sequence of passes from Lillard to Allen Crabbe to Aminu finds him, with just seven seconds on the shot clock. He fires and misses.
You take the bad with the good, I suppose. It's not realistic to expect Aminu to make these clutch shots every time, obviously, but with a young team that's still figuring things out, it's probably OK to experiment with things and see if anything about your roster surprises you.
And actually, Aminu's 3-point shooting has been one of the team's most pleasant surprises so far this season. After years as basically a laughingstock of a distance shooter, he's been pretty good so far in Portland - he's been launching 5.0 attempts per 36 minutes under Terry Stotts, a career-high by far, and he's made 35.6 percent of them, also a new best. After taking only 124 total treys all of last season, he's on pace to pass that number this year by Christmas. Of course, 3-point shooting is a volatile thing, and he's going to have his good stretches and bad ones. Even the best shooters do. But the fact that he's showing improvement this year is encouraging.
Blazers GM Neil Olshey has said on the record that while Aminu's new $30 million contract in Portland is admittedly fairly rich, all he needs to do is improve one skill over the next four years to prove himself well worth that money and then some. It's not unreasonable to think Aminu can grow over the coming years - he's still only 25 years old, he's got a lottery pick pedigree (No. 8 overall in 2010) and he's still never played for a coach who's trusted him enough to make him even a quasi-featured player. He could be poised for a breakout in Portland, but he needs to get the in-game experience for that to happen. For now, that experience will have some good outcomes and some less good ones.
Since we're here, we might as well look at a couple of other examples of Aminu getting the green light to fire away in clutch situations. There are two more plays from last week's Memphis game, and they're great for illustrating some dos and don'ts for the Blazers' late-game execution.
First, the good. From one minute earlier in the aforementioned Memphis fourth quarter:
The way the Blazers move on this possession - both move the ball and move themselves - is just beautiful. Plumlee's dribble handoff to McCollum at the top of the key enables him to screen away Tony Allen for a split-second, but once Allen goes over the screen, McCollum makes a nice move to drive and kick for Allen Crabbe. Crabbe's got a decent look at a corner 3, but instead he shows remarkable patience as he recognizes Jeff Green closing out on him. He's got a decent shot, but he's willing to look for a better one, and that's what he gets from a wide-open Aminu. Bravo.
Then again, not every Aminu clutch shot is as wonderfully executed. Here's yet another snippet from late in that Memphis game:
This is what happens when all that movement fizzles out and the Blazers get stagnant. The play begins nicely enough, with Lillard penetrating the lane a little bit and kicking out to Aminu. But then for just a moment, he gets indecisive. He pump-fakes to pull Z-Bo out to the 3-point line, then takes a couple of dribbles toward the paint and kicks out to Crabbe; then Crabbe gets indecisive too. What ends up happening is Aminu gets the ball at the top of the key, with the shot clock winding down and two layers of Grizzlies defense - Z-Bo and Marc - between him and the rim. No one's open, so he's forced to jack one. A guaranteed miss.
The moral here is that outside of Lillard, the Blazers don't have anyone on the roster capable of getting their own shot in a one-on-one scenario. That's doubly true in close-and-late situations, when opposing teams dial in and start playing harder defensively. To have a shot at scoring in these spots, whether via an Aminu jump shot or anything else, it's absolutely essential that the Blazers continue moving and keep defenses on their toes.
These are lessons you learn with experience. It's still early, obviously. We can still count on one hand the number of times this Portland team has found itself in a clutch situation in a live NBA game. In the old days, the Blazers had myriad options - they could run Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews around screens to get open looks, or when that failed, simply throw the ball in to LaMarcus Aldridge and have him go to work. Those aren't options anymore, and the Blazers are starting over from scratch on finding new options.
Is "Al-Farouq Aminu, long-distance threat" one of those options? It would have sounded preposterous a month ago, and maybe it still is. But the last few games have been interesting insofar as Stotts and the Blazers have been willing to experiment. With this team, at this juncture, that's probably what you want them doing.