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Portland’s Pursuit of the Pick-and-Roll Bodes Well For an Improved Defense

Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers have emphasized a more disciplined approach to guarding the pick-and-roll this preseason. How’s it working out for Portland’s defense so far?

NBA: Preseason-Denver Nuggets at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Save for the first preseason game against the Utah Jazz, the Blazers’ defense has been up and down. There will be really solid stretches where it looks like the team has taken a leap and then there are moments (sometimes lasting half a quarter) when it looks like all those people predicting a regression weren’t idiots after all. It’s tough to sort out, but there’s been one development that I find really encouraging.

Dame highlighted it in his post-game interview after the loss to the Clippers when he was asked how the defense was coming along:

I think we’re doing better. I think considering how many guys are on the floor, guys coming in and out, I think we’re doing well. Already doing better in our pursuit, getting over the screen and staying in the play [emphasis mine]. I think we doing better at that, but our communication is not where we need it to be if we going to take that step.

This “pursuit” is one of the big differences I’ve noticed so far during the preseason. The last few years, pursuing has been one of Portland’s biggest problems. Guards would get stuck on a screen, fall too far behind the play, and be unable to catch back up. When people complain about the Blazers’ pick-and-roll defense, they’re usually complaining about all the space that develops after a guy dribbles around a pick. In other words, they’re complaining about plays like this one:

George Hill dribbles left around a Rudy Gobert screen, and look at how much space he creates; Lillard is a full step behind from the jump. He has an opportunity to get back into the play when Hill pauses after his second dribble but he hesitates. It looks like Lillard thinks Hill is going to pull up for a jumper. You can see Lillard swing his arms and interrupt his running motion as if he’s about to jump, preparing to contest the shot from behind. The result is that Mason Plumlee is left alone, in space, trying to defend two players. Not good.

Lillard could have done a number of things better on this play. He could have gotten over the screen faster and he could have sprinted back in pursuit rather than assume Hill was going to shoot the ball. Since he failed to do both, he couldn’t stay in the play, and he left his teammate in a no-win situation. If Plumlee covers Hill, Gobert gets an easy alley-oop. If he covers Gobert, Hill gets an uncontested layup (which is exactly what happened).

Now, it’s important to recognize that the scheme the Blazers use puts a lot of pressure on the guards. We don’t say this enough. Portland drops their big men more consistently and farther back than almost any team in the league. This protects the big men by keeping them close to the rim and makes it extra difficult for Lillard to stay attached to his man. If coach Terry Stotts were wedded to an aggressive, trapping style defense, we’d probably be talking about Plumlee’s frustrating lack of foot speed rather than Dame’s shortcomings.

But picking a defensive scheme isn’t about who it makes look good and who it makes look bad. It’s about what sets the team up for the most success and Portland has very good reasons for choosing the scheme they have. If they’re going to be successful, that means the Blazers’ guards will have to handle the pressure the scheme puts on them much better than they did last year.

Luckily, that first clip aside, it seems like they’re doing just that.

I’m mostly concerned with the last few seconds of the clip but the context is important. CJ McCollum is guarding Joe Johnson on this possession and the Jazz run a great play to get him open. Johnson runs side to side, around a pick, and then sets a screen for Rodney Hood. McCollum thinks the Jazz are going to pass to Hood as he sets up in help position, a few steps away from Johnson near the paint. Woops. Hood immediately re-screens for Johnson and CJ is caught a full step behind the play just like Damian was in the first clip.

The difference is CJ’s pursuit. He gets on his horse, busts his butt, and pursues the ball around two screens. Rather than stay behind the play he catches back up to it. The other main difference is that Grant Jerrett is a half-step higher than Plumlee was and he lunges at the ball. This activity forces Johnson to cross-over twice, delaying him just enough to give a CJ a chance to recover. McCollum’s hustle turns a really well designed play into a turnover. This is the pursuit Lillard is talking about in the opening quote.

It’s fairly obvious how pursuing the basketball helps contain the ball handler but a strong pursuit also disrupts passing lanes. In this clip, Trey Lyles (a very good shooter) is wide open at the 3-point line for a couple seconds but Hood can’t get him the ball because of Allen Crabbe’s activity.

It’s tough to pass the ball when you’re trying to keep it away from the defender in front of you and the guy draped all over your back. If Crabbe falls a step behind this play, Hood makes that pass much sooner. The other advantage to staying in the play is that Crabbe can stop his momentum when Hood picks up his dribble. He’s not behind the play rushing to catch up so he can shift his weight and start moving out towards the perimeter before Hood even turns to make the pass. This means Crabbe is in the perfect position when Lyles catches the ball, preventing any attempt at the three. Typically, a pick-and-pop out to the 3-point line is very difficult to defend but Crabbe’s dogged pursuit (and Davis’ impressive discipline) forces an ugly turnover.

The same thing can happen if the big man rolls. By pursuing the play, there’s an extra set of hands to deflect or deter the pocket pass.

If Moe Harkless dies on this screen there’s an easy passing lane to Derrick Favors for the dunk. Instead, he hustles back and his length makes the difference, forcing the turnover.

It’s basically impossible to never fall behind a play. That’s what a screen is designed to do. By getting in the defender’s way they give the ball handler a head start. That’s unavoidable. What separates the good defenses from the bad defenses is how fast that defender can recover and if the rest of his teammates can stall long enough to allow him to do so. The Blazers are pursuing and recovering faster than they did last year and it bodes well for their improving defense.

That statement applies to Damian Lillard too. It’s tempting to see the clips I pulled and conclude that the rest of the team is improving while Lillard falls behind but that’s more coincidence than anything. There were examples of Lillard pursuing the ball well, they just didn’t illustrate the points I wanted to make as cleanly as these clips did. Lillard remains Portland’s worst defender because as he has improved, so has everyone else. It seems like getting over screens and pursuing the play have been points of emphasis for the entire roster. That includes the very top all the way to the very bottom.

The frustrating thing about defense is that if you shore up one area the offense just attacks you somewhere else. You have to be solid in every single facet before the results really start to show. Portland hasn’t done this outside the Utah game. They’ve allowed too many transition buckets or been bullied inside. Communication could certainly be improved and the players out of sync too often.

All of this is to be expected during the preseason and most of it is correctable. The bigger worry is that the Blazers’ guards are simply incapable of defending a pick-and-roll, making the rest of the team’s defense matter that much more. You can have all the coordination and familiarity you want but if the guards keep putting their teammates in no-win situations, it won’t matter. I wouldn’t say they have broken through just yet but they’re chipping away at Portland’s most important and seemingly intractable problem. If this trend continues, then one of the roster’s perceived limitations will fade and the Blazers’ defensive ceiling will rise accordingly.