On January 11th, the Blazers beat the Lakers with more swagger than they'd had in a long time. Lillard sealed the game with an emphatic dunk that set the Twitterverse on fire, the Blazers were 30-8, winners of 13 of their last 15 games and right on the heels of the Warriors in the West. Close losses to the Clippers, Spurs, Grizzlies, and Suns (without LaMarcus Aldridge) were all frustrating but not worrisome, more a rough patch in the schedule than an indictment of the team's play.
And then the wheels came off, losing four of the last five against mostly beatable competition.
Without arguably their two best defenders, Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland, it would make sense if the defense was the problem. We could chalk it up to injures and confidently state the Blazers will right the ship when those guys return, perhaps sooner rather than later. Unfortunately (or I guess fortunately), the defense has held up pretty well allowing a solid 100.6 points every 100 possessions. That's a little worse than their season mark but certainly good enough to win some games.
In a strange and unlikely twist, it's been the offense that's failed them and there's no convenient injury excuse to be made. Sure, Batum can't shoot but that's been true more or less the entire year and we're not talking about a slight dip in efficiency here. Over the past five games, the Blazers have scored only 98.3 points per 100 possessions, about in line with the Pacers or Hornets. Ouch.
So the question everyone's been asking lately is what's wrong?
Well, if Mike and Mike can be trustred, the answer is simple.
Mike Barrett: You know, on some of the losses lately, people have talked about "Ok, what's the difference? Portland's really struggling". Well, it's a matter of they're just, they've just...missing some shots, missing those three point shots that so often times bailed them out of tough situations. We saw them when they've been on their runs tonight. What's the key to the run? They're hitting the three point shot. When they start missing it, Milwaukee surges back ahead. I mean, is it that simple?"
Mike Rice: Well, yeah it's that simple with this team.
This is certainly true to some extent as the Blazers are missing threes more often than usual. Over the last five games, Portland is shooting 36.5% on open threes, according to NBAsavant.com. That's down from 38.1% before the skid, a dip that's almost entirely attributable to Damian Lillard who's shooting an abysmal 28% on open three point shots. There's been a similar, slight drop in Portland's shooting percentage on contested threes but these numbers come nowhere near explaining such a precipitous drop in overall efficiency.
A 1.5% drop from the three point line doesn't explain much, but a 10% drop in the paint sure does. Over the last five games, the Blazers are shooting 51% within five feet of the rim compared to almost 60% on the season. Defenses are clogging the lane more and more and Portland can't get anything easy.
Put these two numbers together and you have an ugly picture: defenses are collapsing hard into the paint and the Blazers haven't been able to make them pay for it by hitting outside shots. This was especially obvious against Milwaukee, who's aggressive style and incredible length have helped them craft the second best defense in the league. It might be tempting to think of this as one bad game but the Bucks simply made Portland's struggles more apparent. These issues have been bothering them the past several weeks and, to a much lesser extent, the entire year.
The first question is why is the lane so clogged? Obviously, opponents can simply choose to take an extra step into the lane but the Blazers are helping them do so. Timing and spacing, two of the principle strengths of Stotts' flow offense, have both been a little off lately and it's allowed extra defenders to get in the way and force turnovers.
Lillard drives way too early before Wesley Matthews has a chance to clear. When Lillard gets doubled by Jared Dudley he's thinking "LA must be open since his guy is doubling me". That would normally be true except Matthews' defender, Khris Middleton, is still in the mix. Wesley and Thomas Robinson are both in the lane allowing Milwaukee to cover the two of them with one player. This gives Middleton the freedom to go for the steal and he takes full advantage. One defender has been guarding two Blazers way too often these past few games and it's allowing teams to double without consequence.
Damian makes this extra tough on himself by going away from the pick and being out of control. Since Brandon Knight doesn't get hit with a screen he stays right with Lillard the whole way. That means Dame is not only doubled but has no space to work with as two pairs of arms take away his passing angles.
Compare that to this play:
Notice how Steve Blake has enough room to thread a cross court pass because Jorge Gutierrez is behind the play. There's no way that pass gets through if Gutierrez is draped across his hip in the passing lane. Damian has been going away from picks more often than usual, to the point I'm not sure I saw him use a single screen against Milwaukee.
If a defense can't guard two players with one defender then they're forced to leave someone open. Normally this is a problem but teams have been willing to ignore Thomas Robinson, Will Barton and Nicolas Batum.
Despite the slump, other teams still fear Lillard as Knight refuses to help on Batum's cut. This should give Batum a wide open layup but Henson abandons Thomas Robinson, who's completely useless out by the three point line. Robinson recognizes the situation way too late and his tardy cut is of no use to Batum.
This lack of cutting from the weak side is an epidemic across the entire roster and I would argue it's the biggest reason for their recent struggles. When a defender sags into the paint, they're forced to take their eyes off of their man in order to help coral the ball. Often times they're zoned up, which means they're responsible for tracking two men and guarding whoever gets the ball first. As you can imagine, defending two guys without being able to look at them is pretty difficult but it's a heck of a lot easier if they stay in one place. Watch Kris Middleton on this play.
See how he's focused on the ball but keeps turning his head to check where Wesley is. After John Henson leaves Robinson to double Aldridge, Giannis Antetokounmpo rotates to make sure TRob doesn't get a layup. That leaves Middleton to guard both Matthews and Batum. He does a quick check to see where both of them are and then sets up in between, effectively taking away the passing lane to both of them.
And then everybody just sits there, watching as the condor-like wingspan of Henson descends on Aldridge.
Matthews finally cuts but it's a half second late and Lillard takes a crazy deep (even for him) three as the shot clock winds down. You can see how effective these cuts are by the fact that Middleton actually moves the wrong way (up the court) as Matthews runs by. When Aldridge passes to Lillard, Middleton thinks he has to step up to defend Wesley on the three point line, assuming he's still standing in the same place.
If Wesley cuts sooner either one of two things happen. Either Middleton doesn't see Wesley and the Blazers get an easy two or he notices the cut, follows Wesley to prevent the layup and leaves Batum wide open (although that assumes Batum also moves out of the corner to create a passing angle for Aldridge). Even with Batum struggling, a wide open three pointer is better than that air ball Lillard threw up.
Here's an example of what happens when the cut is on time.
Beautiful. An easy layup and the foul. Over the last five games the Blazers' free throw rate (FTA/FGA) has been an abysmal 0.197. That's low even compared to the Blazers' season rate of 0.224 which ranks second to last in the league. Portland doesn't need to make a lot of free throws to have a good offense but the lack of activity towards the rim is starting to cause some worrisome and significant ripple effects.
It simply should not be a good idea to double Aldridge in the post. Remember the start of last year when teams doubled Aldridge only to have the Blazers bury them from behind the arc? By the third week of the season, teams completely abandoned that strategy and just lived with Aldridge making their power forward look bad. One of the key differences between that year and this year is the lack of activity from our weak side shooters
Unfortunately, even when the weak side does space the floor correctly, the Blazers have been sloppy passing the ball - both in big ways and in small. With long and athletic defenders, the difference between an open three and no three is often a split second. Each pass that is slow or slightly off target adds a minuscule delay. Have enough delays and that wide open shot vanishes into thin air.
Lillard's behind the back pass is just a little slow and hair behind Aldridge. Instead of immediately whipping the ball to Batum he takes a beat to make a decision. This is especially important because he misses the opportunity to catch Giannis leaning. When Aldridge catches the ball, Giannis is still heading towards him and a quick pass would force Antetokounmpo to stop his momentum before retreating. Even the Greak Freak can't do that in time to prevent a clean look. Now, Batum should still be able to do something positive with Giannis frantically closing out on him, but Lillard and Aldridge didn't make his life any easier.
But at least they got the ball to the right place. The Blazers under Stotts have always been a team that prided itself on making the extra pass and rarely missing an open shooter. That "rarely" has turned into "occasionally" lately as if people are surprised when somebody is open.
If any sequence typifies the Blazers struggles these past few weeks it's that one. Barton gets triple teamed and smartly makes the simple pass to Wesley who dribbles back across the floor to get the ball to the weak side. Jerryd Bayless is stuck guarding Dorell Wright and Steve Blake who have good spacing between them. Wright could hit either Blake in the corner or drive and kick to Wesley for an easy three but opts for a contested runner in the lane. He falls down and the Bucks get a five on four the other way.
It's tempting to label one of these problems the underlying factor because it would lead to a strong and definitive statement of how the Blazers can right the ship. "If the Blazers could just do [blank], then everything else would fall into place." Unfortunately, things aren't that linear as everything is related to everything else in a web of dependency. The bigs need to set better screens. Damian needs to be more under control in the paint. Wesley and Batum have to make better cuts on the weak side. Everybody could be shooting better. If any of one of those things happen then it becomes a lot easier for the rest to do their part.
That's the key take home message in all this. Little mistakes and a lack of attention to detail are undermining the Blazers' offense right now but small improvements can snow ball just as easily in a positive direction. There's nothing fundamental or structurally wrong and the Blazers are too talented to have this last much longer. It may not be a very satisfying conclusion but the most accurate thing to say is that the Blazers just need to be better.
It's as simple as that.