Through game three, the Blazers offense was an anemic disaster. Blown layups, embarrassing turnovers, and missed shots from the outside. It was all there. They had an offensive rating of 97.4, right around the Knicks' level of performance. In other words, they were really bad.
On Monday, the offense broke through in a big way, actually scoring at a higher rate than their season average. 107.3 points per 100 possessions is nothing to sneeze at. Perhaps more miraculous is that the statistical profile of the game didn't look all that different. The Blazers took a couple more shots but nothing drastic (87 in game four compared to 84 in games one through three). They shot a little bit better but not all that much (eFG% of 46% compared to 44.4%). They took care of the ball a little better but only cut out three giveaways (9 compared to 12). How in the world did all of that make such a huge difference?
In truth, doing a lot of things a little bit better can pay big dividends. That's part of what makes basketball so interesting. Little changes have such a large impact that teams can play drastically different basketball from night to night. But even if we accept that narrative as true it isn't very satisfying. If the Blazers are going to repeat those same results then we need to identify what little things improved and how they improved them.
Looking at the statistics one level deeper, two things stand out. First, the Blazers took more shots early in the shot clock. Through the first three games, a little under 25% of their shots came during the first eight seconds of a possession. Even more frustrating, they only shot an effective field goal percentage of 37%. In game four, those numbers improved to 32% and 55% respectively, much more in line with the team's season averages.
Second, they did a much better job finishing in the paint. Inside of five feet, the Blazers increased their field goal percentage from 52% to about 60% as a team. Leading the finishing charge were C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard. Their combined shooting percentage near the rim improved from 51% to 69% and they were probably the two biggest reasons Portland snatched a "W".
No doubt, these two things are related and both were buoyed by the presence of Meyers Leonard. Pace and space has taken off to the point it's almost gospel these days. It's amazing to see how something goes from innovative to common knowledge. A few years ago, it was considered good analysis to discuss how a shooter influenced the space of the court. Only a few writers did it in a meaningful way. Now, every person at the bar follows comments about a big man's outside shooting percentages with "And don't forget, he opens up the floor for the rest of his teammates as well".
This is a laudable step forward in our understanding of the game but we need to continue to push the envelope. A lot has been made of Meyers' shooting pulling Marc Gasol away from the hoop. What has been missing is how that impact varies significantly depending on the situation. Even with Meyers Leonard on the floor, the Grizzlies did just fine once their defense got set. In game four, the Blazers had an effective field goal percentage of 41.7% after the shot clock reached 15. Where Meyers' influence was really felt was in the first few moments of an offensive possession.
At the NBA level, if you give players enough space they can get to the rim. Guys are just too good to be defended one-on-one in space. The only way defenses function is to have the first defender take away straight line drives and then rely on help defenders to do the rest. In transition, the help hasn't arrived yet. To compensate, big men will often run back and plant themselves in the middle of the key providing backup for their perimeter defenders. By doing this, they're able to hold down the fort for a few seconds as the rest of the defense gets set.
CJ McCollum is gearing up for a drive against Courtney Lee on the right side of the floor. Marc Gasol is guarding LaMarcus Aldridge but his focus is entirely on deterring the drive. He'll worry about Aldridge later. Gasol plants himself in the very heart of the paint and his presence is enough to make CJ reconsider his attack.
Move Gasol outside the paint and it's a completely different story.
These two pictures are very similar except for the position of Marc Gasol. Leonard has spotted up in the corner and Marc Gasol can't ignore him for one second. If he does, it's an easy kick out for a triple. Everyone else is concerned about the perimeter as well so the lane is wide open. CJ McCollum blows by Lee for an easy layup. Gasol taking a few steps out was the difference between a quick two and being forced to run the offense.
This effect is pronounced because the rest of the defense isn't in position yet. Once the Grizzlies get set, they defend well enough as a team to protect the paint even if Gasol is pulled away from the rim. There are enough bodies to clog the lane in other ways. Sure, Meyers' shooting has some marginal effect but it hasn't been enough to beat Memphis' half court defense consistently. However, by combining Leonard's presence and attacking quickly, they're able to create some meaningful space. It's the combination that's the key. One without the other hasn't worked so far in the series.
In order to create these transition opportunities, the Blazers need to control the defensive glass. They did a great job in game four only giving up 7 offensive rebounds. They also got more stops allowing them to attack off the rebound instead of taking the ball out from under the hoop. Since the offense needs to get out early to be effective, the defense finishing plays will be especially important over the rest of the series.
The other factor that combined with Leonard's shooting was the absence of Mike Conley. Conley did a great job of funneling the ball into certain places. He worked expertly in concert with Gasol trapping the ball far away from the rim. Nick Calathes and Beno Udrih were much less consistent in game four and it meant Gasol was out of position occasionally.
Notice how Gasol shimmies over to the left sideline and prepares to defend the Meyers' screen. As Lillard starts his attack, Gasol is still moving left. He was expecting Udrih to do his job and keep Lillard out of the middle. If Udrih had succeeded, here's how this play likely unfolds: Gasol cuts off Lillard's drive along the sideline allowing Udrih to recover. Lillard swings the ball to an open Leonard at the three point line. However, since Gasol stopped the ball so high (notice his feet are almost touching the three point line), he's close enough to Meyers to recover and prevent the three. Meyers has to swing the ball and the defense resets. If Udrih keeps Lillard on the sideline, Memphis has a good chance to deny penetration and neutralize Leonard's shooting threat at the same time.
However, once Lillard explodes towards the middle, Gasol is essentially out of the play. Gasol has to choose between chasing the ball or staying close enough to Leonard to prevent the three. He can no longer do both. This is an important relationship to understand because it helps explain why Meyers wasn't having the same transformative effect in the first few games. If Memphis' guards can't control the ball, Meyers' shooting becomes a much bigger problem.
Dame misses this layup but he really shouldn't have. This happened a lot in games one through three but rarely in game four. Meyers deserves a boatload of credit for his effect on the game but CJ and Damian were also just better. They will need to continue to play well for Portland to have a chance.
For the first time in this series, the Blazers have really punched back. Playing Meyers and CJ extended minutes and pushing the ball more consistently are things the Grizzlies will have to adjust to. The first and most obvious possibility is that Memphis doesn't overreact but just emphasizes certain principles. It's not like the Blazers walked away with the last game. Perhaps a better focus on transition defense and funneling the ball would do the trick.
If they do decide to do something more drastic, playing Gasol on Aldridge could be one option. He's done a phenomenal job checking LaMarcus in the post and Aldridge has struggled from three. I can't believe I'm saying this, but Gasol might have more freedom to help in transition if he's checking Aldridge rather than Leonard. Giving up early long two's is probably something Memphis could live with. Just go back and look at where Gasol positioned himself in the first picture when he was checking LaMarcus. If this happens, Aldridge will need to start hitting his jumper, and fast.
They could also go small more, knowing that Leonard can't hurt Green on the block. The Grizzlies have rarely done this for extended stretches as it gets them away from their identify. However, the bench units with Green and Koufos at the four and the five have absolutely torched Portland during the series. They could just try and outscore the Blazers in a shoot out. However, you got to figure that Memphis has had so much success playing their game that they wouldn't want to start playing Portland's.
I expect Memphis to keep the same game plan heading into game five but with more emphasis on controlling the ball and getting multiple defenders back on defense. It will be interesting to see if they are able to execute more effectively and if the new focus leads to mistakes elsewhere. The Grizzlies can handle Meyers Leonard if he's the only wrinkle. But combine his shooting with transition opportunities and drives down the middle and things could get interesting.
Finally, Memphis has something to worry about.