Here's a quote from LaMarcus Aldridge describing the Grizzlies' offense before the series started:
They're actually pretty simple, you gotta just guard ‘em. You know they're a team that plays through the post, through Marc and Z-Bo. They're gonna play through pick and rolls every now and then. They don't shoot many threes.
Here's Mike Conley's quote describing their offense after game two.
When we play (the Blazers), we tend to move the ball, because they pay so much attention to our big guys, it allows our guards to have some space. We get some open shots, and when we knock them down, we're pretty good. This team is so unselfish. Marc, Zach -- they sacrificed themselves (Wednesday night). They were setting screens, creating lanes for us to make plays. We were just going with what was working.
Notice anything different?
Their offense went from playing through pick and rolls every now and then to having their bigs primarily set screens and create lanes for the guards. The Grizzlies have been playing differently against the Blazers, and who can blame them? They found what's working and they're going to it over and over and over again.
What's working is a side pick and roll. This basic play has lots of variations and the Grizzlies are using them all. I previewed this play before the series began but I never could have guessed how often Memphis would go to it. Based on my count, the Grizzlies ran at least one side pick and roll on a third of their plays in game two. That's almost thirty times a game. No other play type came close.
Side pick and rolls are so important that they basically necessitated the invention of a new defensive system. When defending a high pick and roll, there are help defenders on both sides of the play. No matter which way the ball goes, defenders can help on either the ball handler or the rolling big man. With side pick and rolls, the ball handler dribbles into the middle and the entire side of the floor is empty except for the rolling big man.
Note how there's no one that can get in the way of Gasol's lumbering path to the rim.
Thibodeau's ingenious innovation was to not let the ball get to the middle in the first place. If the guard defender just shades the ball to the baseline you can trap the ball in the corner. This forces the roll man to come down the lane where there are lots of help defenders that can bump him and make his path to the rim more difficult.
However, this meant a new responsibility for perimeter defenders. They still had to fight over high screens but now they also had to force opponents away from side screens. As much as the Blazers struggle with the first task, they might be even worse at the second. If you ever hear Terry Stotts talk about "controlling the ball better", this is what he's talking about.
In this series, the Blazers have failed to force the ball handler to the baseline way too often. This puts incredible amounts of pressure on the big man who now has to defend two people. No doubt aware of this, Lillard and company have started shading the play more heavily. This is certainly the first adjustment to make but it comes with its own set of risks.
The Grizzlies are setting up a dribble handoff with Conely and Gasol. This variation on the side pick and roll has been particularly deadly in games one and two. Lillard is so worried about keeping Conley out of the middle that he overplays and gives up a backdoor cut. This is especially challenging because of Gasol's shooting ability. If he weren't such a marksman, Robin Lopez could sag off and take away that layup. As it is, the challenge falls on Lillard to manage these handoffs and picks better. He was certainly up to the task occasionally.
*apologies for the video quality on some of these
The problem is too many of those plays ended like the first two clips rather than the third. I counted 10 defensive breakdowns on side pick and rolls alone. That's over a third of all the Blazers' breakdowns for the entire game. It also means they screwed up on about 38% of the side pick and rolls they defended. Remember, even if they defend these plays well the Grizzlies still might make a tough jump shot or floater. Avoiding breakdowns is the minimum expectation for the defense so this is a completely unacceptable number.
That's the second problem. Even if Lillard funnels the ball correctly, he's struggling to pressure the ball. In an ideal world, Lillard not only forces Conley to the baseline but stays attached to his hip making the pocket pass difficult. Most of the time Lillard is struggling just to keep his man on the side. Conley uses that focus to fake Lillard toward the screen and get a foot or two of separation.
Since Meyers Leonard struggles to contain guards he drops super low. This creates a pretty big pocket through which to deliver the ball. Nicolas Batum is late on the rotation and the Grizzlies get an and-one.
The Blazers can make these rotations more aggressively in order to prevent pocket passes. Choosing to send more help could be one adjustment that Stotts makes for game three. However, that puts a lot of strain on their weakside defenders. Just look at how far C.J. McCollum travels in this clip.
That's a pretty difficult close out and Courtney Lee makes that layup more often than not. I'm not sure that asking the Blazers' wings to make these kinds of long rotations would reduce the number of breakdowns. In fact, the weakside defenders often struggled to execute their responsibilities when the ball got to the corner.
Conley is just way too comfortable there. A player that low shouldn't be able to hang out without risking losing the ball. Since his space is limited, CJ should be able to pressure the ball more aggressively and go for the steal. Since he doesn't, everyone else has to act like Conley is in a threatening position. This opens up lots of cracks that the rest of the Grizzlies can exploit.
The Blazers need a way to funnel the ball to the sideline more consistently and pressure it once it gets there. I think the ship has sailed on Lillard being able to pull that off in the next game or two. Stotts should heavily consider switching a bigger player onto the Grizzlies point guard. Allen Crabbe could be an option but he got torched in the few plays he guarded Conley. Afflalo is back but who knows what he'll look like. Batum is the guy that everyone expected to get some time on Conley and it's time he finally did. Batum's size makes it easier for him to corral the ball and those long arms take away passing lanes.
The issue with this is, of course, who guards Jeff Green? Lillard can certainly check Tony Allen so this shouldn't even be a question in the starting lineup. Jeff Green has played a lot of power forward and Stotts has crossed matched with Aldridge for pretty much all of those minutes. When this happens, Stotts has just switched all of the pick and rolls and Jeff Green hasn't done too much with it. This was the one play he scored on after being isolated against a guard and it's a pretty tough shot.
Now, there's a difference between switching in that situation away from the hoop and with the shot clock winding down but Blake did pretty well when Green went to the block as well. Portland might be able to send Arron Afflalo to defend Green depending on how his shoulder feels. If Stotts can put Aldridge on Green when he's at the four and Afflalo on Green when he's at the three, then Batum should be free to guard Conley full time.
It's not ideal, but the Grizzlies have stifled Portland by playing their stars tough and daring the rest of the roster to beat them. The Blazers should start doing the same. No matter the matchup, I think it's unlikely that Green has more success than the Conley-Gasol pick and roll is having right now. Even if it's a matchup they can exploit, isolating Green would drastically reduce their movement and the number of pick and rolls they run. For anyone who has suffered through the first two games, that would be a welcome sight.
This is not the only problem in the series. In many ways, the offense has been the bigger bugaboo. I discussed that a few days ago and there is a litany of things the Blazers need to adjust on the offensive end. As such, we can't just point to a single thing to turn things around. The defense hasn't been that bad but it will need to be great if Portland hopes to make this a series. Changing this single thing would go a long way to getting the defense where it needs to be. They obviously score in other ways, but side pick and rolls have been the main way the Grizzlies have scrambled our defense and created quality looks. It's been the first domino in a series of actions that often end with easy Memphis points.
As LaMarcus said, the Grizzlies are fairly predictable, you just have to defend them. Let's see if the Blazers are up to the challenge.