With the Portland Trail Blazers taking an 0-2 record into Game 3 of their playoff series with the Los Angeles Clippers tomorrow, it's time to take a look at what each Portland player needs to bring to the table to help bring his team victory. This is perilous work.
Though sports fans prefer to affix blame on individuals, Portland trails Los Angeles for systemic reasons. The Clippers have more talent, more experience, more depth, and more ways to win. They've taken away one aspect of Portland's game--guard scoring--and pretty much crippled the team as a result. There's no analogy on Portland's side...no silver bullet to put them on top. The two teams have been constructed differently and reside in different stages of the growth cycle. L.A. has an advantage over Portland, end of story.
Nevertheless, the Blazers can still improve their lot from within this context even if they can't change it. Here are the things I'd love to see from the guys in Game 3.
Slow down. Lead the team.
Though Lillard will take much of the blame for Portland's (probable, eventual) loss in this series, his teammates are letting him down more than he's letting them down. The Clippers have abandoned everyone else to make sure Lillard doesn't get comfortable. Lillard's fellow Blazers haven't made them pay.
That said, Lillard's semi-questionable decision-making in Game 1 and definitely-questionable shot form in Game 2 didn't help. He's looked more like the talented rookie from four years ago than the self-assured maestro we've become accustomed to this season. Except now he doesn't have LaMarcus Aldridge and other veterans to balance out the jitters. The game appears to be moving too fast for him. His moves and shots look rushed. The effect has been contagious.
That Lillard finds his space occupied by defenders is not a problem in itself. That won't happen every play. When Lillard's form and shooting stroke go astray because he's anticipating defenders, that's a huge problem. Now the defense is in his head.
Lillard needs to get to his spots quickly and smartly. He must remain aggressive with his shot. In the moment of truth, it'd be better to get the attempt rejected a few times than to hurry and miss the shot when he was otherwise open.
The Blazers are screening him free. Chris Paul isn't defending him all the time. "Normal Spots, Normal Shots" should be Lillard's mantra. What L.A. doesn't actively stop, Dame needs to feast on.
Stop getting killed by J.J. Redick.
Redick is a great shooter. He shouldn't be demolishing McCollum in every facet of the game.
Every time McCollum finds himself defended by Redick in single coverage, his eyes should light up. He got in a groove early in Game 2 but couldn't sustain it. Attacking J.J. should be an instinctive, 10 times out of 10 reaction. CJ cannot settle for the jumper. He needs to get past Redick and either pull up for the short shot or draw defenders then pass. He's more than capable of both. If CJ doesn't make Redick pay for defending him--or even if he tries to make him pay by getting into a jump-shooting contest with him--then CJ becomes much less of an asset.
McCollum's offense is so critical because his defense just isn't there. The Clippers are expecting McCollum to go over picks. They're sliding into him. He's also not pursuing efficiently. As a result one of the best jump shooters in the game getting comically free. The Blazers need to switch up their plan. If McCollum can get there quicker going under, go under. Redick will still get the shot off but at least he'll find tardy pressure instead of no pressure at all. If the Blazers need to switch, so be it. At least make the Clippers bigs have to catch and complete a shot in the lane. If McCollum can impede them even a little, help will arrive. Anything is better than what they've been doing.
Hit a three.
Aminu knows it. The Blazers know it. The Clippers know it. Algae pupae on Alpha Centauri know it by this point. Aminu needs to hit a few jumpers to free up the rest of Portland's offense.
Nobody should blame Aminu if he continues to struggle. His game wasn't designed for this. He's been put in an unfamiliar position this season and acquitted himself quite well. When he reaches the latter stages of his career, this kind of situation will be easier for him to handle. Today he's young, he's being asked to contribute in a way that's not his natural strength, and he's carrying the weight of the entire team on his shoulders. Few players will succeed under those circumstances.
The Blazers can't do anything about that right now. Aminu must continue to take open shots without hesitation. The offense will break down into turnovers and ridiculous jumpers otherwise. He need not carry Portland's victory or defeat on his back. Those decisions were made months ago. All he needs to do is relax and shoot the percentage he shoots...not a Redick or Curry percentage, but basic, average Al-Farouq Aminu production. That'd be an improvement.
Bring less of Game 1, more of Game 2.
Plumlee looked lost and overmatched in Game 1. DeAndre Jordan pushed him around. He became the hub of Portland's offense when the Clippers trapped the guards. It was awkward.
In Game 2 Plumlee was prepared to rebound. Aminu helping contain penetration eased up Plumlee's defensive responsibilities. Plumlee looked more comfortable coming out to set the screen and moving into the offense than hanging in the middle of the lane holding the ball like a hot potato. He dove to the rim, drawing fouls and converting layups. If Mason keeps playing that way, he'll be an asset.
Keep getting to the rim.
Moe Harkless is not a catch-and-shoot guy. He's agile. His best offense comes off cuts to the rim. He missed 5 layups on Wednesday night. Even with Jordan swatting shots left and right, that won't keep happening. Moe needs to continue that attack, running his defender around the court as much as possible in the process. The Blazers haven't been able to make Blake Griffin winded yet. Getting him thinking about defense instead of just scoring in the lane would be a feather in Portland's cap.
Whatever Ed Davis did to the Clippers during the regular season has disappeared this week. Davis needs to get into the game whatever way he can.
The Clippers haven't been mowing over the Blazers on the break. Perhaps Portland can spare Davis to crash the offensive glass during his shifts. Or spend his fouls knocking opponents around instead of drawing them in ticky-tack fashion.
The Blazers need some growl and punch to their game. If they're going down, they shouldn't do it meekly. Ed Davis is one of the few guys who can bring that naturally. However he lets loose, the Blazers will be better off for it.
Hit shots, clear screens.
Allen Crabbe's jumpers have looked faintly ill during this series. His defense against screens has been in a coma. The Blazers need more from him. They don't require an appearance from Super Crabbe; just the basics will do. Hit an open jumper and get around a pick in less than Rip van Winkle time.
If necessary take over and make the iso game work.
It's no accident that Henderson has prospered against the Clippers when nearly everybody else has failed. L.A. is daring anybody to beat them one-on-one. While Aminu goes, "Uhhhh..." and Crabbe says, "Yikes!" Henderson is pulling a Hermione Granger, throwing up his hands and saying, "Oooh! Oooh! Me! Pick me!"
Portland's offense is built on finding open shooters. Isolation moves aren't discouraged, but they're not at the heart of the ethos, especially for non-starting guards. Playoff series aren't won when a system goes perfectly. They're won by individuals who lift their teams when the system breaks down, carrying the team until normalcy returns. If that's Gerald Henderson's role in this series, neither he nor the Blazers should shy away from it. Watching Henderson score 10 in a quarter off of dribble post ups and sideline jumpers would be infinitely preferable to watching nobody score. The ball is stalling either way. It might as well stall in the hands of the guy who knows what to do with it.
Portland can't and shouldn't change their overall philosophy. Second unit shifts don't last forever, though. Henderson has a mandate to carry them through those crucial bench minutes if he can. The starters are more than welcome to resume Classic Blazers Basketball when they return.
Keep Smiling, Keep Hacking. Take the shot when you have it. Easy as pie.
Game 3 commences at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.