A lot was made of a certain laminated card attached to the TV monitor inside the Blazers' locker room. It contained motivational phrases and goals for the Blazers in preparation for the series. While a particular sentence may have generated some clicks and controversy, in terms of importance for the actual series, I'm more concerned with a different quote.
We will be tougher
Everybody knows that the playoffs are more physical and you have to be ready for it. If you're not, a team can take you out of your game with its sheer physicality. But that's the key - being tough enough to play your game, regardless of what, or who, the opponent throws at you. If that very strive for "toughness" causes you to play a different way, then the opponent's physicality had its desired effect before tip-off. You've done their work for them.
In what may surprise some, the Blazers struggled on offense by trying to do too much, not too little. They were shut down because they got too aggressive, not too passive. And more than anything else, they didn't trust one another and failed to read the Grizzlies' defense when it counted.
The good news is that all of these things are correctable and the foundation of the Blazers' offense looks strong.
Before the series began, I wrote about the importance of moving the Grizzlies' defense around. Their bigs, and Marc Gasol in particular, are dominant defenders equally proficient at handling their own assignments and helping others. If you never breach their outer wall, if you never force them to react to crises, then they just maintain their principles and you never sniff the paint. The first step in almost any successful possession against Memphis begins with shifting the defense.
The best way to do this is to get in the paint. Defenders are forced to collapse and almost every defender's responsibility becomes more difficult. The Blazers were surprisingly good at this on Sunday using Memphis' aggressive scheme against them. The Grizzlies had Zach Randolph hedge pick and rolls and Gasol was venturing all the way out to the three point line. This takes away Lillard's pull up jumper but it opens up lanes into the heart of the defense.
Damian Lillard took those lanes and ran through them like a running back. All told he had 14 drives during Sunday's game. These are defined as any time an offensive player dribbles from the perimeter to within 10 feet of the rim. Dame average 9.5 during the regular season. Even considering the extra minutes he played, that's quite the jump and it explains how he managed to take over half his shots within 10 feet. That's not normal for Lillard and it shows you his mindset coming into the game.
He didn't go it alone either as LaMarcus Aldridge joined the foray into enemy territory. Aldridge made multiple hard rolls to the rim almost tripling the number of close touches he gets per game. Close touches are when the player catches the ball within 10 feet. Aldridge did that seven times on Sunday compared to 2.4 during the regular season. Make no mistake, both Lillard and Aldridge made it a point to get into the paint and they succeeded against one of the best defenses in the league.
Aldridge has a clear lane to the rim on this one but usually the Grizzlies are excellent at making big-to-big rotations. You can see Gasol trying to rotate over and prevent Aldridge's layup but he's a step late. Usually, he arrives on time forcing the roll man to read the defense and make a pass. Portland has struggled with this all year (it's part of why the Clippers gave them so much trouble) but they made some nice passes in game one.
Notice that when Randolph rotates Aldridge cuts hard to the rim. He gets fouled and this a perfect example of the coordinated passing and cutting required to beat top defenses in the NBA.
They also used smart perimeter passes to beat the hedge as well. Sometimes it can be difficult to get the ball to the roll man since two sets of arms are actively trying to deny the pocket pass. This is especially true when one of those sets of arms belongs to Tony Allen.
Instead, a simple swing pass can create a better passing angle. This also has the secondary effect of pulling Gasol away from the rim. Remember how he was supposed to rotate and pick up Aldridge? Good luck guarding Chris Kaman above the foul line and Aldridge at the rim. Even Gasol can't pull off that kind of wizardry. The Indiana Pacers used these kinds of simple passes to manufacture points against the ultra-aggressive Miami Heat in Eastern Conference Finals of years past and the Blazers should look to do this more.
Unfortunately, for all the improvements the Blazers made passing inside, they struggled to find shooters along the perimeter. It was as if being "tough" not only meant getting into the paint, but also throwing it down the Grizzlies' throats and making them fall on their butts in despair - as if kicking the ball out to a shooter was a sign of weakness. The result was a game filled with rushed floaters and ill-advised layups while open shooters flapped their arms up and down at the three point line.
C.J. McCollum is literally open for five seconds until his defender, Tony Allen, gets the steal on the opposite side of the court.
Aldridge and Lillard were the primary offenders but everyone was complicit. It's hard not to wonder if their decisions would have been different if Wesley Matthews or Arron Afflalo had been the shooters spotting up. I usually shy away from speculating about the mental state or opinions of players but it's hard not to notice what all these clips have in common.
There's a certain intensity and desperation associated with playoff games. This environment tests a team's trust in itself as each player is feeling a greater urgency to be "the guy". Allen Crabbe, C.J. McCollum, and Meyers Leonard have all been thrust into bigger roles as a result of injuries. It wouldn't be surprising if the rest of the roster wasn't completely comfortable with them yet. The only problem...
They're all really good shooters!!!
Meyers, CJ, and Allen are ranked 1st, 3rd, and 7th on the Blazers in terms of three point percentage and they all shot above league average. An open three from any one these players is a great shot. Forcing up tough floaters and leaners through traffic on the other hand, not so much. The Blazers' guards combined to shoot 4-of-16 in the restricted area and were embarrassed numerous times.
Over the course of the year, this has been one of the Blazers strengths. Portland scored 1.16 points per drive which takes into account kick-outs for threes. That was second in the league to the Warriors by a fraction of a decimal point. Against Memphis, they scored 18 points on 23 drives. That's an even worse number than the inimitable 76ers.
Since Lillard and company didn't make the first pass out to the perimeter we didn't get to enjoy the tick-tick-tick passing along the perimeter. Well, we saw it once.
As a whole, Portland made 31 fewer passes than they averaged during the year. That may not sound like much, but that's the same difference that separates the Knicks and the Clippers. The lack of ball movement meant fewer catch and shot opportunities. Thirty-four percent of Portland's shots were of this variety during the regular season. Against Memphis, that fell all the way to 23%, replaced by shots within 10 feet. That's an overwhelming amount of statistical evidence suggesting the Blazers were not themselves. Their focus on getting shots in the paint worked but it ended up being counter-productive.
However, it takes two to tango. It's easy to look at two 40% three point shooters and say they're equally good. But that misses a lot of the subtlety and nuance that goes into being an effective weakside bomber. Lillard and company missed a lot of open shooters but those shooters need to make themselves more available.
In this, CJ is late rotating over so Batum doesn't have a clean passing lane. You can see McCollum running that direction and Lillard pointing to the open space on the floor but Nicolas can't deliver the ball. With 18 seconds, Batum should have been more patient. An escape dribble and kick out to CJ would have been a much better option than a tough jumper over two people. Still, an earlier cut from CJ might have made this play a lot easier on his teammate.
This one is pretty much all on Damian. He's got a clean passing lane to Meyers but he's spotted up a little bit behind him. Ideally, Leonard would drift to the corner making it easier for Lillard to see him and deliver the ball.
Rather than a lack of trust in their teammates, perhaps players were just in slightly different positions along the perimeter. Over the course of many seasons, guys get comfortable with one another. They know where shooters will be and where to look for them. When you're charging down the lane at full speed with Tony Allen on your hip, two steps to the left or right could be the difference between seeing the shooter and missing them. There's no way to know why the Blazers are uncharacteristically struggling to read the defense and to find open shooters, but they need to figure it out quick.
The idea that activity on the perimeter is antithetical to "toughness" would also explain the Blazers' lackadaisical cutting. Portland should be praised for accepting the challenge inside but that physical challenge is everywhere on the court. Their guards and wings are some of the most physical defenders in the league.
This presents two main challenges. The first is ball denial. The Grizzlies did a great job denying passes either forcing the offense to abandon its original play or causing Portland's guards to catch the ball a few steps behind the three point line. This changes all of the angles on the floor and gives the rest of the defense more time to set itself. Lillard and C.J. both had a hard time keeping the offense humming as they fought their defenders for position along the perimeter.
When passes get denied, there are a couple different ways offenses can respond. Ideally, guards are able to beat their defenders backdoor if they overplay. If that hasn't worked, guards can use different types of cuts to get open despite the defense's efforts. What you don't want to do is freak out and start breaking the offense in unproductive ways.
A great ball denial doesn't have to lead to a steal in order to be effective. That play was meant to swing the ball and probably go into a pick and roll with Kaman and Lillard. Instead, it ended up being Kaman taking Gasol one-on-one from the perimeter. Kaman actually did pretty well on this play, but the Blazers don't want to trade pick and rolls for Kaman drives. If the Grizzlies keep denying this aggressively, Portland needs to burn them and break the offense for better shots, not worse ones.
The second is using screens. This has been one of the things coach Terry Stotts highlighted as an area of improvement for game two. We often think about big men as the key to picks but it really is an equal partnership with the guards. Ball handlers need to set their men up by getting them leaning in the wrong direction and then forcing them into the screen. If a defender pushes them off their original path than it's more difficult to lead that defender into the waiting big man. See how Conley breaks up the second pick and roll and leaves Aldridge in a no-win situation with the clock running down.
The Blazer guards can do a much better job setting up their men and refusing to deviate from their ideal path. This will make it even easier for Portland to get into the paint and, hopefully, make solid reads.
At this point, we should give some massive credit to the Grizzlies' defenders, and two in particular. Memphis is solid up and down its roster but Tony Allen and Marc Gasol are on another level defensively. Look at Allen completely avoid an Aldridge screens at the top of the key.
I mean, he doesn't even make nominal contact. That kind of slipperiness is not normal and it reminds me of his success denying Durant during last year's playoffs. That guy just refuses to get screened. It shouldn't be possible.
The more I watch Marc Gasol, the more impressed I am with his quickness and the efficiency of his movement. He's patrolling not only the paint but the perimeter as well, coming out to the three point line on most Lillard pick and rolls. It's worked out pretty well for Memphis so far. Gasol allowed 0.59 points per possession while defending pick and rolls in game one, an obscenely low number. Just look at him stop the drive and then contest Kaman's jumper.
If you freeze right at the moment Kaman releases his shot, Gasol's hand is in his face, two inches from his eyeballs. No wonder he misses so badly. People that big shouldn't be allowed to have footwork so precise.
However, even when the defense wasn't so impressive, the Blazers rushed many of their attempts. This was especially and painfully obvious in transition. Typically, shots in the early part of a possession are the most productive for an offense. This was the philosophical foundation for the eight seconds or less Suns and the Blazers are no exception. During the regular season, the Blazers had an effective field goal percentage of 52.2% during the first eight seconds of the shot clock (but not including the first two seconds which typically only happen on offensive rebounds). On Sunday, that number plummeted to 21.1%. Some of this was missing good shots but a lot if was from plays like this.
Give the Grizzlies credit for getting back and making great individual plays, but the Blazers need to be more selective. That's a decent look with seven seconds left on the shot clock but not with 18.
There were also plenty of examples of the Blazers getting good looks in transition. Very few of these shots went down, as you no doubt guessed based on the field goal percentage. This last part should correct itself and it's very unlikely Portland will continue to shoot this poorly early in the clock.
They can continue to call bad plays though. I don't know if this was the gameplan, but Portland ran a lot less horns than usual. Horns is a set that places the two big men at each elbow and the wings in the corners. It's probably the most common set in the NBA and the Blazers use it heavily. That's why Portland averaged 19 elbow touches per game, about league average. It's also why their eight elbow touches in game one was so alarming. Every team's distribution of plays should change according to their opponent but this was one Portland's staples and it was quite effective the few times they did run it.
Notice how the structure of the offense frees up the paint. Instead of placing the center along the baseline and allowing Gasol to stay near the rim, horns pulls both big defenders up towards the top of the key. As a result, Lillard has more space than he usually did. This play also makes it easier for the guards to keep the Grizzlies honest. It's easy to overplay passing lanes and deny if you know Big Spain's got your back. It's a lot harder if you have to worry about lobs and dunk shots.
I also would have liked to see more cross and back screens along the perimeter. Wesley Matthews was one of the few Blazers to put up better numbers against the Grizzlies and these plays were a big reason why. This play in particular is beautiful.
Stotts knows that the Grizzlies switch all guard-wing pick and rolls. He runs C.J. to set a screen for Nicolas Batum forcing Courtney Lee to step toward the sideline in case Batum uses the screen. This step gives McCollum a head start and enough space for Robin Lopez to step in and set the cross screen. CJ misses but that's a great look.
All in all, none of the problems from Sunday seem very fundamental. The Blazers got into the paint and displayed some improved interior passing. They created a number of quality looks but failed to kick it out to shooters. That's been one of the team's biggest strengths and it should come back at some point. They have a fair number of plays they can go to more often and can make everything a bit easier by executing screens and being more physical along the perimeter. All of this has the potential for a successful offense full of good looks inside the paint and along the arc.
If I were to pick one stat to reassure Blazers fans, it would be that Portland actually took more uncontested shots than the Grizzlies did in game one. This stat misses a lot of detail in terms of where the shot took place and whether the player was dribbling or off-balance but it's a pretty good proxy for how well the offense created good looks. For all the mistakes and lack of execution, for all the trouble controlling Udrih and Conley, the Blazers still got 47 uncontested shots to the Grizzlies' 45. They made just 28% of them but that's not a sustainable number and Portland's shooting percentage will climb back up over the next few games.
It makes all of this talk about Meyers Leonard seem a little bit overblown. Portland has had a solid offense all year and the foundation was there against Memphis. Their main struggle was reading the defense and kicking the ball out to shooters. Fixing that problem should be the priority for Portland. If they do, then they won't need to think about rotation changes to goose the offense. If they don't, then putting another shooter along the perimeter that you're not passing to won't help. The Blazers need to be tightening up their execution, not considering drastic rotation changes.
With that being said, every team in every situation should be looking for positive "more offense, less defense" trade-offs. It might be tempting to think the Leonard-Green matchup is one such trade-off but Leonard has really struggled defending the perimeter. His footwork is shaky and he's super jumpy on pump fakes.
He gets the block on this play but Jeff Green is an athletic finisher who's dangerous on drives. Green would score on the ensuing out of bounds play by getting Leonard to jump for a second pump fake.
Meyers also drops lower than any of Portland's bigs when defending the pick and roll, a disastrous prospect against the midrange assassin Beno Udrih. Bench units where the Grizzlies have both Udrih and Green on the floor exploit Leonard's biggest weaknesses and, again, the offense isn't as desperate as it seems. I would much rather see Stotts go small playing Batum at the four and switching pick and rolls than putting Leonard on Green.
One trade-off the team should look for is the Koufos-Leonard matchup. Kostas Koufos is a nice player and underrated defender. He has more of an offensive game than people give him credit for but it's still pretty limited. Leonard should have no problem (ok, few problems) defending Koufos on the post and on the move. He'll still make it difficult to contest Udrih's jumper but his shooting probably more than makes up for it on the other end.
He also did much better than expected against Marc Gasol one-on-one. He fought for position well, had a couple ticky tack fouls I disagreed with, and stayed down on all of Gasol's numerous fakes.
*They called three in the key which is why Leonard gives up on the play
Considering how much trouble the Blazers have had defending the pick and roll, tricking them into exploiting a post mismatch might be a win for the defense. Would you rather have Leonard defend Gasol on the block or Lillard and Lopez try to corral Conley coming off a Gasol screen? I'm not sure there's a clear answer to that question. Now, the Grizzlies could always go at Leonard in pick and rolls but he's at least limiting penetration. Again, trading more open midrange shots for Leonard's shooting is probably a worthy gamble.
If Stotts is considering Leonard for more minutes I would guess it has more to do with Lopez's struggles. Robin's pick and roll defense has looked shakier than usual and Kaman has been doing a better job against both Gasol and Z-Bo. Considering how invisible he's been on offense, they can't afford to have his defense slip.
I praised Lopez a few months ago for being a "Master of Basketball Geometry". He's always had a knack for putting his massive body in the right place at the right time. He knows when to get out of the way, how to get out of the way, and how to clear the lane for drivers. I'm not sure exactly what Memphis is doing but Lopez was in the wrong place too often in game one.
Normally, Lopez is sealing off the opposing center and keeping them on one side of the paint. Gasol gets to the very center of the paint and Lopez is standing there useless as Lillard is forced into a tough floater. Lopez has also been less effective rolling to the rim or making passes once he catches it. One game is way too soon to make this kind of decision but this is something to watch for. A Lopez that struggles on defense and can't get to the right spots on offense is not a good player even if he's still beasting on the boards.
No matter the rotation, the Blazers offense is predicated on sharing the basketball and trusting everyone on the floor. This team has always responded to adversity well, coming together rather than splintering apart. They are being tested once again and, this time, we'll find out if that trust extends all way down to the end of the bench.
Odds and Ends
- Z-Bo did a great job of not letting Aldridge get to the middle. According to the Grizzlies broadcast crew, Memphis is trying to force LMA into his fade away jumper. This makes some sense but he's shading the middle so heavily Aldridge should be able to beat him baseline more often.
- Jeff Green played a pretty solid defensive game and was more physical than I've seen him. I guess the Grizzlies are finally wearing off on him. That being said, he goes under almost every screen. Batum could get a relatively clean look at a pull up three late in the shot clock or at a critical point during the game. Something to watch for.
- It will be interesting to see how Stotts changes the defense to handle Udrih and Conley. One thing that should be easy is putting length on the point guards whenever Memphis plays their offensively limited wings. It's a total waste to put Batum on Carter, Allen, or even Lee. For some reason, that happened a number of times in game one.
- Of all the adjustments though, Stotts needs to start overplaying the side dribble handoffs and forcing the ball handler baseline. This is tough to do because Gasol is such a good shooter and passer but they can't keep letting Udrih and Conley curl into the paint at will.
*all stats are from stats.NBA.com unless otherwise stated.