Despite high hopes for an upset, the Portland Trail Blazers got smashed by the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 1 of their best-of-seven playoff series on Sunday night. Before Game 2 commences on Wednesday, here are five things the Blazers need to fix.
1. Break the Clippers Press
Throughout Game 1 the Clippers stalled Portland's offense with a fairly simple two-man trap against point guards. When the Blazers managed to get the ball out, their corner shooters couldn't make the Clippers pay by hitting un-defended threes. The cost went farther than the sheer number of points forsaken. The press forced Portland to start their offense later in the clock and deeper on the floor than they wanted. Not hitting open shots let the Clippers keep a man on secondary scorer CJ McCollum while reserving defenders in the lane, cutting off three major planks in Portland's scoring attack at once: McCollum, drives, and offensive rebounds.
It's worth noting that the Blazers employed a fairly sound strategy against the trap. Getting the ball to the side of the court for an open shot is a practical way of countering a trap up high. The Blazers need to keep taking those shots. Their shooters are streaky; the threes will start falling at some point.
A little more creativity wouldn't hurt either. One of the best ways to beat a trap is to get the ball past the space where it would have occurred before the defense can get there. Defensive rebounding and tempo will be two of the better weapons against L.A.'s scheme.
Beyond that, weak-side action could help. The Blazers could plant Mason Plumlee on the other side of the court up high, allowing the point guard to pass off and relieve the pressure. Plumlee is capable of making a pass or dribbling the ball into the lane himself if unopposed. If Plumlee is busy as a passing outlet in the middle of the lane, they may need to instruct Moe Harkless to fill that role.
Screening to free up McCollum might also be an option. Once the trap is broken, Portland has a brief 4-on-3 opportunity. L.A. can't spare another man to help on McCollum; he'll be single-covered. If CJ is facing JJ Redick, that's an instant scoring opportunity. If the Clippers send Luc Mbah a Moute against him, dribble drives for a pull-up jumper might be on the menu. Either way, the trap will clear against Lillard while the corner three remains open as an outlet. Getting the ball into CJ's hands might allow the Blazers to explore different options before shooting the long ball.
2. The Forwards Must Play Their Game
Al-Farouq Aminu became a scapegoat for missing 6 of 8 three-pointers in Game 1. He was doing the right thing. The more he second-guesses and hesitates, the more the Clippers will feel comfortable laying off of him. Make or miss, win or lose, he must take those shots boldly.
The Blazers can run three-guard lineups, inserting Gerald Henderson or Allen Crabbe into Aminu's slot. I suspect they'll try this. They'll also take a defensive hit for doing so. The Blazers don't have a great long-term option other than Aminu. If he passes up the open shot, Portland's offense won't get off the ground.
Moe Harkless got in early foul trouble Sunday night. The Blazers cannot play the refs. Harkless and the power forwards will be overmatched if Blake Griffin goes inside. So be it. The best revenge would be Harkless scoring as he did early in Game 1. Unless Portland frees up McCollum or Aminu catches fire, Moe is Portland's best chance to make the Clippers pay for hawking the ball.
3. Guards Need to Defend Against Screens
This is a multi-layered topic. Reducing it to simplest form: the Clippers guards got free in Game 1 because the Blazers couldn't get around picks. Going under or over doesn't matter when you're moving slowly either direction. Allen Crabbe was particularly egregious but the entire Portland guard corps needs more continuity and energy when facing a screen. Switching probably won't work against the Clippers because of their bigs. If worse comes to worse the Blazers should give up the longer shot, jetting underneath screens to prevent dribble-drives and pull-ups. The strategy isn't perfect, but it would be better than sticking to pick-setters like flypaper and watching the ball-handler take two comfort dribbles before launching a practice shot.
The Clippers don't have to beat the Blazers on the glass in order to succeed; they just need to stay even. Portland has got to start ripping rebounds and firing out quick passes. Securing defensive rebounds efficiently will help the Blazers beat the press down the floor. Offensive rebounds generate scoring, creating open three-point shots for non-Aminu players. Aminu and Ed Davis acquitted themselves well on Sunday. Everybody else needs to throw it into overdrive. If the bigs draw more fouls by being physical, so be it. The Blazers are hacking DeAndre Jordan anyway. Might as well spend those fouls in a better cause.
5. Keep Composure
In some ways this is a cop-out. Novice observers often attribute technical mistakes to emotional causes. Composure was a factor in Game 1 anyway. When the point guard got trapped, the team froze. Offensive discipline waxed and waned. Shooters got frazzled. Big men didn't jump or bang. That wasn't the Trail Blazers we're used to seeing. Even in losses the Blazers usually evidence 38 minutes of solid play vs. 10 minutes of collapse. That was inverted on Sunday.
Even Portland's Hack-a-Jordan strategy smacked of distraction. The bulk of it came with the game already out of reach. Chris Kaman became even more of a folk hero by laughing and taking abuse while fouling. What does any of that have to do with winning the game? Doc Rivers and the Clippers toyed with them by hacking Ed Davis in response. It's like Portland skipped willingly into the "bad blood" and "game within a game" aspects of the series. That's no good.
The Clippers are the better team. If both teams are distracted, L.A. will win. The Blazers are supposed to prevail by playing solidly while the other team falls apart. They can't make this about "us against the world" or coaching feuds. They have to focus and execute, trusting each other and the system. Every time the Blazers go off-message, the Clippers will secretly laugh behind their hands and walk away with the victory.
Eric Griffith will be breaking down a couple of the more technical aspects from Game 1 over the next couple days. Stay tuned!
Meanwhile, what would you like to see the Blazers change up in Game 2? Weigh in below!