The first two games of the 2016 NBA Playoffs have not been kind to the Portland Trail Blazers. Last night's 102-81 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers put the team in a 2-0 hole as they head back to Portland for game 3 on Wednesday.
Mason Plumlee's improved play, however, did provide a small spark of hope for the Blazers. After a completely ineffective Game 1, Plumlee rebounded last night to lead the Blazers in every statistical category, finishing with 17 points, 10 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals and a block.
Plumlee's effectiveness came from fully exploiting his personal strengths: open court play and passing.
At the beginning of this play Plumlee grabs the rebound, recognizes that no defender is in front of him and starts to sprint up court. The second Chris Paul threatens to cover him he gives up the ball and continues toward the rim, ultimately being rewarded with a return pass and an and-one. Too often during the regular season Plumlee had a tendency to overdribble and lose the ball in transition when a smaller guard picked him up. Last night he played under control on every fastbreak opportunity and recognized when to pass.
Plumlee also took advantage when the Clippers failed to cover him in the open court:
When no guard stops the ball he goes all the way to the lane for the layup. This is the perfect positive example of Plumlee in the open court - he recognizes that his man is not going to be able to stop him and then takes advantage of the confusion of a center handling the ball.
Unlike earlier in the season, these plays show that Plumlee has figured out how to properly utilize his ballhandling skills - he has learned to pick up the dribble and find a guard the instant a smaller player stops his drive, but is also still aggressive enough to take the ball to the rim if nobody stops him before he's 10 feet from the basket.
Plumlee's passing skills also came to the forefront last night. The Clippers defense consistently overplayed the Blazer wings as they flashed to the perimeter. Several times the Blazers countered with backdoor cuts and Plumlee repeatedly read the play perfectly and found the cutting player for an open shot.
Plumlee's passing can be a major asset for the Blazers' offense. With so few solid shooters in the starting lineup, his ability to thread the needle and hit cutters for layups has allowed Terry Stotts to artificially create spacing when the defense overplays on the perimeter. That said, the Clippers, thus far, have not had Jordan drop entirely off Plumlee in these situations. It will be interesting to see if Doc Rivers adjusts by sending Jordan all the way under the basket when Plumlee has the ball on the perimeter as a way to prevent layups from backdoor passes.
Despite the overall positive performance, Plumlee's limitations were also on display Wednesday night. On defense, his assignment was to stick with DeAndre Jordan at all times, and box Jordan out at the expense of his own rebounding in order to ensure that the Clippers did not get second possessions. But several times, Jordan was able to simply overwhelm Plumlee with his superior length and athleticism and pick up an offensive rebound despite Plumlee's solid box out.
Plumlee also gave up several easy shots in the lane. On some occasions this is by design - the Blazers had Plumlee stay home on Jordan, even when an opposing guard beat his man to the basket, so as to prevent the alley-oop pass and offensive rebounds. But when Plumlee did pick up a smaller player in the lane, he was less than intimidating:
Plumlee's complete inability to shoot outside of five feet also hamstrung the Blazers offense. He was covered by JJ Redick or Paul in the lane on several plays, and failed to even look to shoot or make a move toward the hoop:
The result of this particular play is positive, thanks to exceptional ball movement, but over time having a center who has no offensive ability that close to the hoop and can be covered easily by a guard will be a disadvantage for the Blazers.
Ultimately, Portland's Game 2 loss to the Clippers painted a perfect portrait of Mason Plumlee. He has the athleticism and skill to be a threat in specific situations, but he also fails fundamentally at being a true center when compared to Jordan. At times, his passing and open court play can generate scoring opportunities for the Blazers against the toughest of defenses, even when the team's outside shot has failed. That bonus of Plumlee's game was on full display last night. The bottom line is that the Blazers will need Plumlee's non-traditional skills to continue outweighing his limitations if they hope to compete with the Clippers on Saturday in Game 3.