One of the hot button topics of the current NBA is the changing style of the game. With new rules and the success of teams like San Antonio and Golden State, the league is supposedly ushering in a new era of pace, space, and positionless basketball. The ideal big man is now one that can shoot from the outside, defend along the perimeter, and pass like a guard. More and more people seem to be buying into this vision of how basketball should be played, including TNT's marketing department.
Somebody must have forgotten to send the memo to the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies. For sure, both teams move the ball and play team basketball and the Blazers bought into the value of the three pointer a long time ago. But each team trots out huge, intimidating frontlines and frequently runs their offense through isolation post-ups. They don't just have one old school power forward or center, they have several.
Normally, we would be analyzing LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol more individually. As the best players on both teams, this will be one one of the key matchups of the series. Understanding the role they play on their respective teams and their strengths and weaknesses will be critical to understanding the series as a whole. But the impressive number of incredible tall men that each team possesses and the way they have both mixed and matched their players during the regular season series requires us to consider each team's frontline as a whole.
Every fan on this site knows that the Blazers' offense starts with their miracle man in the post. Aldridge is just about as complete as you can get from the left block. He's can go over either shoulder, muscling his way into the middle for fouls and jump hooks or spinning away from the defense for his patented turn around. Opponents react to this arsenal of moves in a variety of ways. Some double hard from the perimeter. Some dig. Some double late and from the baseline. The Memphis Grizzlies typically don't bother with any of that nonsense. Tony Allen may go for a steal now and then and Gasol might double if Aldridge gets really deep position, but for the most part the Grizzlies let their guys defend LaMarcus one-on-one. What makes them unique is how many different types of defenders they can throw at Aldridge.
During the season, the Grizzlies often started with Zach Randolph checking LaMarcus. No doubt familiar with LMA's game, Randolph likes to front, denying the entry pass and forcing Aldridge to catch the ball far away from the block. The farther out Aldridge catches the ball, the better. On the perimeter, Randolph can use his quickness to contest shots and Aldridge's height advantage becomes less of a problem.
Gasol takes the opposite approach using his size and strength to lean on Aldridge, bodying him up once he catches the ball. Gasol's first goal is to prevent Aldridge from spinning into the paint and as he tries to force him into his turnaround jumper. This is a tricky balance. In order to cut off the middle, Gasol has to be physical with Aldridge. In order to contest the turnaround, he has to be ready to step into Aldridge's air space once he fades.
In the past, this type of defense has really bothered LaMarcus. Tyson Chandler essentially shut down Aldridge in the playoffs a few years ago using this very strategy. The key thing Chandler was able to do was avoid fouling on LaMarcus' pump fake or up and under move. Aldridge likes to fake his turnaround getting the defender to step into his space or leave his feet. Once the defender's momentum is going towards him, he can jump into the defender drawing the foul.
Since that time, Aldridge has gotten better at these counters and he scored or drew fouls on Marc Gasol the few times they were matched up during the regular season. Marc Gasol certainly has an impressive feel for the game but he hasn't found that Chandler-ian balance when dealing with Aldridge. All of this puts Gasol at risk of picking up quick fouls.
This is the first of many dilemmas that this frontcourt matchup presents. Should the Grizzlies guard Aldridge with their best defender and risk getting their most important player in foul trouble? This same question applies to the Blazers as Aldridge is, in some ways, the best matchup for Gasol as well. But I'll get to that in a minute.
Last but not least (ok, maybe least), Kostas Koufos will likely get a few possessions guarding LaMarcus. In games this season, Koufos played Aldridge similar to Gasol, playing behind and letting him catch the ball on the block. However, Koufos was much less physical with Aldridge, content to let him turn towards the rim and to use his length to make those shots difficult.
Each approach has it's own pro's and con's and LaMarcus can exploit them all in different ways. Against Randolph, he can look for backdoor lobs (rare against Memphis' disciplined help defense) or re-establish his position by backing Randolph down after the catch. From there, he can use his size advantage to get to the rim or shoot over the top. If the Grizzlies send Gasol his way, Aldridge can work to draw fouls or face up and attack off the dribble. Of all the players, LaMarcus should have the most success against Koufos but even that won't be a cakewalk.
None of these relationships are static and it will be interesting to see how the players feel each other out over the course of the series. It wouldn't surprise me if Gasol, who has one of the best basketball IQ's in the business, finds that same balance Chandler did after a couple games. It also wouldn't surprise me if Aldridge changes the entire complexion of a game or two by getting the Gasol into foul trouble. Each guy will be tweaking the way they approach the matchup and it will be interesting to see how Aldridge handles so many different looks. Look for Memphis coach Dave Joerger to change up the matchups in order to keep Aldridge off balance.
Unfortunately for Memphis, the left block is only half the battle as Portland involves Aldridge in multiple pick and rolls every play. To my surprise, each one of these defenders displayed remarkable quickness defending along the perimeter. Look at where Gasol sets up to defend this pick and roll.
Now compare that to where Robin Lopez sets up on a similar play.
That difference makes it much easier for Memphis bigs to contest Aldridge's pick and pops since they have a few less feet to cover. The Grizzlies even had Randolph hedge screens when they were determined to prevent Lillard from scoring. This not only takes away Portland's most reliable shot, an Aldridge 18 footer, it also limits Lillard's ability to penetrate and scramble the defense.
In response, the Blazers are going to have to mix in more hard rolls to rim than usual. When the Memphis bigs drift this far away from the paint, it makes it easier for the rolling big man to get behind his defender. Well, easier in the sense that if the point guard can pass the ball through two sets of flailing, gigantic arms the roll man will catch the ball with a clear lane to the hoop. There's precedent for this as Aldridge rolled hard to the rim more often during last year's playoffs. He even did it a few times against Memphis this season.
Notice how this type of defense forces Gasol to come across the lane and pick up Aldridge triggering a series of secondary rotations. Jeff Green pinches Lopez in the post leaving Batum open in the corner and Randolph rushes to recover. Aldridge scores here but it's a fairly tough shot and he missed Batum wide open in the corner.
It's absolutely critical the Blazers attack the hoop but they will also need to make the right pass once the defense shifts. LaMarcus is deft passer out of the post but he struggles to read the defense on the move. Robin Lopez isn't a complete stiff but he's not known for his facilitation skills. The crisp rotations of the Grizzlies will force both these players to make passes they aren't accustomed to making. Last year Aldridge and company were challenged to be more physical. This year, they will be challenged to be more physical and refined.
Surprisingly, one of the best at passing on the move is Meyers Leonard. While nearly every bit of Meyers' game has been painfully slow to develop, he just seemed to wake up one day with a knack for finding weakside shooters. Unlike the rest of Portland's bigs, Meyers makes his decision immediately when a weakside defender crashes into the paint.
Beno Udrih gets his hand on this ball but you can see what Meyers was thinking and it was a darn good idea. Raise your hand if you would take a wide open, Damian Lillard corner three on every possession for the rest of your life? Everyone? Yup, that's what I thought.
This raises some interesting possibilities for Meyers' role in the series. You can also see the effect his shooting has in the second part of the clip above. The Grizzlies almost never switch pick and rolls but the shooting combination of Lillard and Leonard forces them to. Lillard easily gets by Gasol who is so far out he can't protect the rim.
The only problem is that basketball is a two-way sport and Leonard still can't call himself a two way player. Meyers has especially struggled with holding position in the post as bigger players bully him down low. No one is better bully than Zach Randolph. Most Blazers fans are intimately familiar with Z-Bo's game but I'll give a brief overview for all of you youngins who missed that particular era of Rip City.
Z-Bo has always been a go-to scorer in the post. He likes to face and jab step his opponent into oblivion. From this position he can rise for his awkward looking but fairly reliable jumper or attack off the bounce. Randolph has a unique mix of speed and strength. He can usually get half a step on his defender and then his girth does the rest. He'll drop his shoulder to create just enough space to flip the ball over taller defenders. He can score on anyone that can't match either his speed or strength and feasts on offensive rebounds. Meyers might be bigger in measure but he doesn't play that way and I would avoid this matchup like the plague.
Luckily, the Blazers have plenty of guys that do play big. Both Aldridge and Lopez have checked Z-Bo in the past and both have done just fine. Chris Kaman should have the physical tools to do the job but he got worked in their matchups this year. It's a pretty small sample size, but Kaman bit on too many of Randolph's fakes and frequently gave up deep post position. He's one of the best at ducking in and all of the Blazers defenders will have to be diligent to prevent those kinds of easy looks. Relax for a minute and Z-Bo will have you on his back a foot from the rim.
Freeland would be another option but he's already foul prone before trying to deal with a physical force like Randolph. I suppose he has six fouls and doesn't play many minutes but I would be worried about him fouling Memphis right into the bonus.
Like the Blazer bigs, Randolph also struggles to pass on the move. He's gotten much better facilitating from the elbow and making hi-low passes with Gasol but all bets are off once he puts the ball on the ground. The Spurs forced Randolph into some of his worst shooting performances by waiting to double until he had put his head down and attacked the rim. It's pretty hard to see open shooters when your face in buried in your initial defenders chest clearing space.
Gasol, on the other hand, is a great passer from each and every situation. You could put him on a water polo team and I bet he'd hit guys on backdoor swims from the middle of the pool. In fact, the most striking thing when scouting Gasol is how dangerous he is from every spot on the floor (except for maybe behind the arc where he never goes anyway). Put him at the elbow, he can knock down a jumper or pick your defense apart with pinpoint passing. Closeout to take those things away and he dribbles right by you still able score or pass with equal proficiency. Put him on the block and he can rip through for a sweeping hook shot or fade over his shoulder. Try to double team and he'll make one handed dimes that would make Sabonis proud. Put him in the pick and roll and he'll make plays like this one all day.
Gasol is assisting on 19.7% of his team's baskets this season, according to basketball-reference.com. That would be the 29th highest mark for a center in the history of the league. He truly is one of the great big men passers of this generation.
This kind of all-around game makes him nearly impossible to defend. In order to do so well, a defender needs the strength and length to bother him in the post combined with the lateral quickness to pressure him on the perimeter and make passes at least a little difficult. Only a couple guys in the league have that combination of skills but luckily one of them wears red and black.
I've always thought Aldridge was an underrated post defender and this clip illustrates why. Not many guys get Gasol this cleanly. Aldridge's strong base and quick hands are a tough matchup for anyone. Just ask Dwight Howard, who probably had the most difficulty scoring against Aldridge during last year's series.
What makes Aldridge really special is that he can closeout shooters better than almost anyone at his position. Aldridge has some of the best footwork and controls his momentum well. This allows him to change directions quickly when opponents put the ball on the deck.
That clip is against Randolph but the skill is almost more important against Gasol. That's why I like the Aldridge matchup for the Blazers the best. That decision comes with the same concerns about foul trouble so both Lopez and Kaman will probably get the lion's share of the minutes with Aldridge as an important change of pace. Both centers were adequate containing Gasol during the year. Anyone who has seen Kaman's whirling spin moves towards the rim knows he's more fleet of foot than people give him credit for. That quickness rarely gets tested on defense but he's ready to whip it out if need be.
The fact that he made such a difficult shot shows you just how good Marc Gasol is. No one is going to be able to shut him down completely. He averaged about 19 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists against the Blazers this year, a little above his season averages. The Trail Blazers will have their hands full but it's nice that Portland's coach Terry Stotts has just as many bodies to throw at Gasol as Joerger has to throw at Aldridge.
The only problem is that the Portland bigs often have to make up for the weaknesses of their guards. Memphis doesn't have that problem. One way Portland has responded when defending a particularly dynamic point guard is to switch pick and rolls. This simply cannot happen with Gasol. He will torture smaller guards on the block and pick teams apart if they try and double. Aldridge and company may be up to the task of the defending the Grizzlies frontcourt but it will take all of their focus and energy.
That's really where Gasol separates himself from Aldridge and the rest of his peers. His weakside defense and positioning is something to behold. He's constantly aware of everything that's happening on the floor and moving to snuff out the offense's most immediate threats. He knows how to ignore what's not important, is willing to completely abandon his own man if the situation calls for it, and contests shots at the rim without fouling. During the regular season series, Marc frequently left Lopez or Kaman to help defend Lillard or Aldridge.
There goes Kaman cutting through the lane and there goes Gasol not giving two shakes. You can see Kaman throw his arms in the air asking for the ball but Gasol knows there's really no passing angle and Aldridge is a much bigger threat.
Lopez and Kaman better be aggressive and ready to hit their jumpers because they need to keep Gasol honest. If he's allowed to play free safety completely the Blazers' whole offense will suffer. Both Lopez and Kaman are capable of scoring in the pick and roll and Kaman has shown an intriguing ability to attack off the dribble. This is another way the Blazers can collapse the defense but Kaman needs to do a better job protecting the ball against the active hands of the Grizz.
Taking Gasol out of weakside help position is also why Portland should make an effort to involve Gasol in pick and rolls as much as possible. It may seem weird to attack the defense at its strongest point but it's a much easier to dribble by Gasol and score over Randolph than the other way around. Pulling him out of the paint and moving him around should be a key goal on every Blazer possession.
The best way to move big men is to swing the ball from side to side. This flips the strong and weak sides of the floor forcing the defenders to switch responsibilities on the fly. Whoever is on that "second side" is going to have a much better chance to pierce the defense after it's already been warped. This is where C.J. McCollum can play a critical role. He's been lighting it up lately and his floater could be particularly useful as the Grizzlies' frontcourt walls off the paint.
The worry with CJ is that he can't be in shoot only mode all the time. The Memphis bigs are going to rotate and force him to make difficult reads within a crowded paint. That could either go great with McCollum slicing up the defense and finding open shooters or it could lead to some ugly turnovers. Regardless of whether he starts or comes off the bench, the Blazers need him to make a positive impact on the floor.
The alternative is to play Steve Blake extended minutes. This would be alright except that the Grizzlies' big men overplayed Blake to pass during the regular season series. He struggles to finish at the rim but is still effective by penetrating to bend the defense and then finding his open teammates. That only works if the defense actually bends and Memphis has mostly just ignored Blake's drives. The Grizzlies bigs are some of the smartest in the business and Blake joins Lopez and Kaman as key players that need to keep them honest.
Once a shot goes up, the fight for the rebound will be physical, nasty, and mesmerizing. Both teams focus on controlling the boards and have some of the best offensive rebounders in the game. Lopez and Kaman were huge during the regular season matchups where the two teams played each other to a standstill. The Grizzlies collected 22.4% of their offensive rebounds compared to 22.6% for the Blazers, according to stats.NBA.com. I expect this to be a wash throughout the series as well but this will be an important and fiercely contested battle from two evenly matched opponents.
The biggest wildcard in this entire matchup is Jeff Green. He's a capable stretch four who's critical in the Grizzlies' bench unit. This normally wouldn't be a problem since Dorell Wright matches up well with Green but his absence creates a difficult problem to solve. Both Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland have struggled to defend perimeter players and neither has the post game to hurt Green on the other end. That's the double whammy you want to avoid when trying to counter small ball. Portland can't let the Grizzlies goose their offense on one end without giving up anything on the other end.
The easy solution is play LaMarcus Aldridge whenever Green moves over to the power forward slot. LMA is absolutely mobile enough to chase Green around the perimeter and can punish him on the other end. However, this could be tricky to pull off in practice since Green typically comes off the bench. Joerger could time his substitutions for when Aldridge sits and you don't want the opposing coach to be able to dictate the rotation of your best player. Green isn't good enough to merit restructuring an entire rotation but in an evenly matched series, even small advantages get magnified. This one could easily break Memphis' way.
Other possible counters include playing Lopez and Kaman together. Neither could defend Green but Green couldn't defend them either. Stotts could also try and play Meyers Leonard whenever Kosta Koufos is on the floor. This would give the Blazers their own shooting advantage without giving up too much on the defensive end.
Koufos is a nice player but he's not the offensive force the other Memphis bigs are. His defensive numbers jump off the page. The Grizzlies allow 8.4 fewer points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. Considering he backs up Marc Gasol, that's saying something. Now, of course Koufos is going against bench units but a big part of the Grizzlies reputation is their ability to lock down when the starters sit. Koufos is the main reason why. He's incredibly mobile around the perimeter and that speed might allow him to defend Meyers better than expected. Even so, it's still worth it to pull the Grizzlies' rim protector away from the hoop on bench units.
Kaman will also spend a lot of his time matched up against Double K and it looked like a pretty even matchup during the regular season. Kaman has more of an offensive repertoire but Koufos is the superior defender. Chris might be able to score on most backup centers in the league but he'll have a worthy adversary for the next few games.
On offense, Koufos sets devastating screens. Whatever contract Beno Udrih signs next year he should give half of it to Koufos. He sets his screens and holds his position trapping the opposing guard for entire seconds. He doesn't roll very quickly and basically never takes jump shots. That doesn't matter because Udrih who is looking for his midrange pull up anyway. When he does happen to catch the ball near the rim he's got a pretty good jump hook he can go to.
The more you think about it, the more annoying it is that Memphis got Courtney Lee and Kostas Koufos for Jerryd Bayless, Darrell Arthur, and and a second round pick. While the Jeff Green acquisition has gotten the most buzz, those are the moves that have really taken Memphis to the next level.
This type of depth on both sides is rare (just ask the Clippers) and it makes this matchup particularly interesting. Not only does the frontcourt have both team's best players it also presents lots of strategic choices for the coaches. Should Aldridge and Gasol guard each other and risk foul trouble? Can the coaches force each other to adjust their rotation by exploiting certain matchups? With multiple defenders to throw at the opposing team's star, how will each team mix and match in an attempt to keep them uncomfortable? It should be a fascinating chess match with absurdly large pieces.
I can't wait for Sunday.