C.J. McCollum had a remarkably effective game against the Spurs on Thursday night, despite the 118-110 final result in favor of San Antonio. McCollum led the Blazers with 26 points on 10-20 shooting but, more importantly, was the only Portland player that regularly thwarted the Spurs' vaunted defense.
San Antonio's defense thrives on taking away primary offense by swarming ball-handlers, and preventing high efficiency layups and three-pointers. On several occasions, McCollum displayed his ability as a playmaker to create high quality shots, despite the Spurs' best efforts.
On this play McCollum uses fancy passing to get Ed Davis a shot at the rim:
When watching this play, pay attention to what happens when McCollum is doubled by Danny Green and David West in the corner. The Spurs defenders are trying to cut off any dribbling option and will then use active hands to cut off any passes into the post. Their plan is to force McCollum to kick the ball back out to Allen Crabbe on the perimeter, where Patty Mills is already moving to help.
McCollum recognizes the threatening double and threads the needle with a bounce pass to a cutting Ed Davis. Boris Diaw fails to react quickly enough to Davis' cut to the low block and the Blazers end up with free throws.
This play is remarkable for two reasons. First, McCollum reads the Spurs defense perfectly. There are less than two seconds from screen to pass and in that time McCollum probes for a driving lane against West, recognizes that he's cut off, waits a beat for Green to commit, and then finds the open player in the post before the trap arrives. That is some remarkable cool under pressure.
Second, he throws a perfect pass through the arms of the Spurs' defense. San Antonio loves to get into passing lanes and regularly forces players to make less than ideal decisions to avoid the ball-hawking defense. McCollum makes an absolutely brilliant play to sneak the pass through the defenders and hit Davis in stride on his roll, thereby thwarting the Spurs' attempts to force the ball back to a covered Crabbe.
It is important to remember that the Spurs have the best defense in the NBA and, other than Diaw's slow rotation (you can actually see Kawhi Leonard pointing out the pending action to his teammates as the screen happens), the Spurs played this perfectly. Many players would have been frazzled by the trap in the corner and Mills' rotation onto Crabbe, but McCollum has become good enough as a decision maker that he can recognize these situations, and a good enough passer that he can find the only escape route available.
Later in the quarter McCollum finds another hole in the Spurs' defense. This time he splits the pick-and-roll coverage and gets an uncontested 10-foot shot in the lane:
On this play, the Spurs' LaMarcus Aldridge hedges hard to try and cut-off McCollum's penetration so that Geen has time to recover. McCollum recognizes this and rather than allowing himself to be forced toward the elbow, uses speed and ball-handling to split Aldridge's defense and drive straight toward the basket.
McCollum's move exposes the hole in the Spurs' defense. By taking Green and Aldridge out of the play with his speed, and going down the center of the court he temporarily confuses the Spurs. San Antonio usually prefers to swarm a player, with the help defenders using length to temporarily bat at the ball or take away a passing lane. But with McCollum dead in the middle of the court they can't cover him without fully committing, which would leave the Blazers' shooters wide open.
Additionally, the Spurs work to prevent layups and 3-pointers, which can often leave them vulnerable to attack in the mid-range. Many players would be hesitant to shoot from this spot, preferring to continue driving for the layup. Because of his extensive midrange game, however, McCollum is completely comfortable pulling up from 12 feet.
After these two plays, and a shooting foul drawn by McCollum(!) against Green, Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich brought out the big guns - he switched NBA Defensive Player of the Year Kahwi Leonard onto McCollum. Remarkably, even when faced with the best defender since Scottie Pippen, McCollum still found a way to exploit the defense:
On this play, McCollum does several things right. First, he forces Aldridge and Leonard to switch assignments. The Spurs usually switch liberally on the perimeter, but in this case they would prefer to have Leonard stick with McCollum rather than the slower Aldridge.
McCollum works hard to get the switch with repeated changes in direction, screens, and passes to eventually force Aldridge on to him. It's an impressive display of ball-handling, movement, and screen use (the same play that once bamboozled James Harden).
Once he does get the matchup he wants, McCollum recognizes that Aldridge has cut off the driving lane and clears from the key so that Plumlee can establish post position against Leonard. Many players would have tried to force a shot against the opposing forward/center here, but McCollum sees that the opportunity is not there so he checks down to the second option on the play - Plumlee in the post. Mason takes it from there against the smaller defender.
It bears repeating that the Spurs have one of the best defenses of the last 20 years this season. And McCollum found multiple ways to create scoring opportunities. With Damian Lillard totally smothered all night, McCollum's combination of intelligence, midrange ability, ball-handling, and passing proved to be the most effective weapons the Blazers had.