You know that thing they always say about the playoffs? It's a cliché, no doubt, but it's a cliché because it's true - come late April, you can forget about the numbers and the narratives and the projections about which team's better than what team. Ultimately, all that matters is matchups. It doesn't matter if one team won 50 games another won 55, or if one's offensive efficiency is higher by a couple of points per 100 possessions, or whatever else. Nothing means anything except how your team plays against the opponent at hand in a given round. Matchups, matchups, matchups.
Which is why it's so difficult to analyze the play of LaMarcus Aldridge in these first two postseason games against the Memphis Grizzlies. Who is he matched up against, anyway?
Head-to-head pairings are often relatively easy to assess. When two players do battle, you can size them up and quickly identify strengths and weaknesses. This guy's long and protects the rim; that guy's a step slow and lacking range on his jumper. From there, you figure out who's got the advantage.
With Aldridge, though, it's never that simple. He's a versatile player who can attack the opposing defense in a variety of ways - and because of that, he often sees a few different looks in the course of a given game. He might encounter a lumbering big man in the post or a roving perimeter defender as he's firing a mid-range jump shot. And that's not just a theoretical statement, mind you - that's what's literally happening right now. We're only two games into this Grizzlies series, but Aldridge has already seen plenty of both.
Through two games in this series, Aldridge has been the Blazers' most productive scorer by far, pouring in 56 points (Damian Lillard, despite being a relative no-show, is still second with 32.) The problem is efficiency - it's taken Aldridge 54 shots to get those 56, giving him a fairly mediocre 1.04 points per shot. For comparison's sake, he scored 1,661 points in the regular season on 1,415 attempts, good for a much better 1.17 points per shot.
So. Matchup-wise, what's making this happen? Who in particular is playing well defensively for the Grizzlies in order to slow LMA down?
Thanks to the wealth of SportVU tracking data that the NBA has been making publicly available this season, we can now pinpoint that answer. The league publishes "shot logs" for every player, giving you a detailed account of every shot attempt including when the shot happened, where on the floor it happened and, most interestingly for our purposes, the identity of the closest defender.
And - drumroll please - the answer is a little bit of everyone. It's been a team effort for the Grizzlies to frustrate Portland's star and make him work for his points. You might think that Aldridge is a power forward and that Zach Randolph, also being a power forward, would be assigned to Aldridge for most of the night. And you wouldn't be wrong. But while Z-Bo is the most frequent Grizzlie checking LMA on his shot attempts, he's far from the only guy who's had plenty of looks. Here's how Memphis has mixed it up:
|Nearest defender||LMA avg. feet from hoop||LMA avg. feet from defender||LMA FG%|
|Zach Randolph||15.7||2.2||11-for-20 - 55.0%|
|Tony Allen||11.6||2.6||3-for-7 - 42.9%|
|Marc Gasol||11.5||2.1||4-for-11 - 36.4%|
|Kosta Koufos||11.7||2.1||2-for-10 - 20.0%|
It's primarily been these four guys working to control Aldridge throughout Games 1 and 2. The Grizzlies' three primary bigs, plus Allen who's a roving madman helping against all five guys on the defensive end, have combined to guard Aldridge on 49 of his 56 shot attempts so far in this series. (Jeff Green and Beno Udrih account for the rest, but whatever.) You'll notice that three of these four percentages are alarmingly low - Aldridge was a 46.6 percent shooter from the field overall this season, and three of the four Grizzlies have held him to significantly lower than that.
Let's talk about that. Here's a look at Memphis' four main guys and how they've defended Aldridge, one by one:
Z-Bo is the primary guy tasked with guarding Aldridge, which is interesting because Aldridge is a mobile big man who can take you into the paint or stretch you out, and while Z-Bo has a lot of strengths, mobility isn't one of them. He's a big, lumbering dude who's more comfortable pushing guys around than chasing them.
Then again, a little bit of that can work well against Aldridge. See here:
There's a lot happening on this possession, including a whole lot of cutting on the perimeter and a side pick-and-roll designed to free up C.J. McCollum, but if you'll indulge me, ignore all that and watch the battle in the middle between Aldridge and Randolph. You'll notice that Aldridge begins the possession trying to set up on the left block, but Randolph is extremely physical with him there - fronting him, denying him the ball, working hard to keep him out of position.
Rather than deal with that mess, Aldridge begins with about 8 seconds on the shot clock to head up to the top of the key, set a pick for Damian Lillard and pop out for a jump shot. The shot he gets is contested, rushed and ultimately not even close.
Randolph's physicality is a problem in this matchup. Aldridge is a big guy, but he's a lanky big, and Randolph is a goony big who can dominate you with muscle. There's a reason that Aldridge is shooting much farther from the hoop (almost 16 feet on average - see above) against Randolph than anyone else - it's because Randolph's girth forces Aldridge out of position time and time again.
The good news is that Aldridge is making a good number of those difficult shots against Randolph - 55 percent so far in this series. But there are two disclaimers there - one, this might be a fluke, as a couple of his makes in Game 2 were extremely tough shots that you can't expect to go in next time, and two, Randolph's ability to get Aldridge out of position is valuable for Memphis even when some shots do go in. Simply moving Aldridge has a way of throwing off the Blazers' offensive rhythm, mucking up their spacing and making it difficult for them to play the inside-out brand of basketball they so enjoy.
In short: Randolph is a problem. But as the numbers prove, these next three guys are no slouches either.
The big Spaniard isn't a beefy guy like Randolph, but what he lacks in strength he (more than) makes up in length - plus on top of that, he's got an impeccable sense of positioning on the defensive end. He also sets up on you early, refusing to cede the paint even for a split-second at the start of a possession. Watch the way he guards LMA here:
Gasol sets up on LMA at the elbow, refusing to let him into the paint - and once LMA gets the ball, he uses those ridiculously long arms to restrict Aldridge's movement. Try passing around that length, or worse yet, see if you can attempt a face-up jumper. Not easy.
When Gasol gets position on you, there's not much you can do. Aldridge here tries taking one jab-step in his direction and seeing if he can drive, but Gasol sticks with him nicely. With no other option available and the shot clock ticking, Aldridge figures he might as well take a fadeaway jump shot, which misses.
That fadeaway has been one of Aldridge's hallmarks for years now, and his fantastic length is the primary reason it's always worked so well. But sometimes long guys have trouble against other equally long guys, and Aldridge versus Gasol is a prime example of that. Aldridge's subpar shooting clip of 42.9 percent against the Memphis center is probably no fluke.
You would expect that when a team takes out a guy who's a recent Defensive Player of the Year at center and puts in his backup, there'd be a significant dropoff in their ability to contest shots - but with Gasol and Koufos, that's not always true. Koufos is a stellar defensive center in his own right, and he's proven absolutely brutal against Aldridge in this series.
As a physical specimen, he's pretty similar to Gasol - while the latter is listed at 7-foot-1 and 265 pounds, the former is a comparable 7 feet and 265. Koufos, like Gasol, uses his formidable length to make life difficult for opposing big men. Here's an example:
A pretty standard play here, with Aldridge in isolation against Koufos on the block, but the missed fadeaway jumper here is indicative of how hard it is to score against Koufos because of his length. Those big flailing arms make it really tough to face him up in the standard way, so Aldridge is forced to take difficult fadeaways like the one seen here. LMA is the master of that shot, but even he is bound to miss some.
His current 2-for-10 clip against Koufos in this series might be a bit of a fluke, but make no mistake. Koufos is good. He's yet another difficult defender for Aldridge to reckon with.
I know what you're thinking - Tony Allen is a weird inclusion in an analysis of big men guarding LaMarcus Aldridge. He's a scrawny 6-foot-4 shooting guard who's more likely to guard Damian Lillard than a big man like LMA. Except the numbers respectfully disagree, indicating that Allen has actually guarded Aldridge on seven shot attempts in two games, no small number.
Allen makes himself useful by roving around defensively, cheating off of the man he's ostensibly "guarding" and helping anywhere he pleases. Check him out here, where he's supposed to be checking Steve Blake but he has other plans:
There's a lot of jockeying going on here between Aldridge and Randolph, but for a moment, divert your eyes from that and focus on Allen. No. 9 is at the top of the key guarding Steve Blake, and he appears at first to be giving Blake his undivided attention, even fighting through a screen to stay with him. But then as the play goes on and Allen Crabbe sends the ball into the post to Aldridge, Allen deduces that he probably doesn't have to worry about Blake anymore, so he inches down into the paint to help guard Aldridge. Aldridge then spins right to get around Randolph to the basket, and Allen has positioned himself perfectly to reach a hand up there, swipe at Aldridge and alter his shot. Unsurprisingly, it's a miss.
Allen does stuff like this all the time. He's a fantastic help defender, roaming all over the floor and looking for little opportunities to make life just a teensy bit more miserable for opposing players. It's emblematic of a bigger thing going on in Memphis - their team defense is just stellar across the board. It's a lot more than just Allen making it happen.
Throughout these first two games, Memphis has made it a collective goal to slow down Aldridge - and slow him down, they have. The next question is what Aldridge can do in response. Playoff series are all about adjustments, but with Aldridge, it's hard to say what he can do better. Can he adjust to the tendencies of these four guys guarding him and find better ways to score? Can he pass out of the post more and look for open shooters? I don't know. It seems like nothing's working right now. Aldridge is being hounded by a group of Memphis henchmen, and the supporting cast around him is doing a terrible job contributing offense. Something's got to give. What that something is, is anyone's guess.