Last week in the comment section Cloud Razor and Dan Marang asked me to talk about some of the basic assignments and nuances in this year’s defensive schemes for the Trail Blazers.
If you want to watch my video glossary of NBA defensive terms and techniques you can do so right here.
The most interesting way to tackle these topics for Portland would be to see where they lose their footing on defense, and talk about assignments and principles along the way.
Let's get this out of the way: The most detrimental breakdowns for the Blazers have come while defending the 3-pointer and the pick-and-roll.
The Long Ball
The biggest thing the Blazers get wrong this year are switches and weakside help assignments. They often like to switch their wings from positions 1-3, and were good at it in years past. But not enough time on the floor together has hurt this new-look Blazers team.
In the example above, Al-Farouq Aminu is running with Nic Batum toward Allen Crabbe and PJ Hairston in the corner. Batum sets a very square pick on Crabbe, but Aminu appears to be angling for him to slip to the baseline.
Crabbe sees the pick is too solid and assumes the switch by engaging with Batum. Aminu misjudges the transaction and misses the switch, leaving a man open.
There's also the issue of help assignments.
In the example above, Meyers Leonard is the only big man in the lineup and is low and trying to help defend the paint. It’s up to CJ McCollum to move to the nail (the help spot directly in the center of the free throw line).
First, when McCollum moves from the nail to the elbow, the weak side defenders should come on a string with him in what’s called "gapping."
That means that between these three 3-point shooters, Aminu and Moe Harkless need to be up and able to fill the gaps to discourage any of them from shooting should they have the ball.
Harkless is way too deep and CJ stays on the elbow for far too long, nearly two seconds after Boogie gets the ball.
It’s that quick hesitation that leaves the shooter open.
Portland’s opponents are getting more opportunities from three-point land and shooting a higher percentage than they have in years past and these are just a couple examples why that’s happening.
Ice, blue, down, whatever you want to call it, Portland has defended the pick-and-roll the same way since Terry Stotts’ second season with the Blazers.
The basic concept is to keep the bigger defender low to stop drives into the paint, while the guard fighting over the screen prevents the 3-point shot.
This year Portland has struggled with a couple aspects of the pick-and-roll and they’re near the bottom of the league in opponent points per-play.
This play against the Cavs is a perfect example of both guards and big men playing it just wrong enough to hurt them.
It starts when CJ gets flipped the wrong way trying to anticipate a screen while falling for a ball fake. Mason Plumlee is on the ICE, but compounds McCollum’s positioning by reaching in way too far on Matthew Dellavadova.
That's where it all goes down the tubes.
Since Plumlee reached, he’s now unable to square himself into position. He can no longer stand to both contest Delly and absorb Tristan Thompson as he dives into the lane. He has no choice but to stop an attack to the right side.
That vacates the spot for Thompson running down the middle with only McCollum to stop him.
Henderson tries to help poor McCollum clinging to Thompson’s back like he’s Yoda on Luke, and the corner 3 never looked easier.
Portland sorely misses Lopez’s decision-making, Wes Matthew’s play recognition and Nic Batum’s length.
That said, these are just highlights of what happens when they get into trouble. They do a lot right, and they need these bad reps together in order to figure out what works and to gel for the next few years.
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