After Games 1 and 2 of their first-round series in Los Angeles against the Clippers, there were more than a few people writing the Portland Trail Blazers off as merely a footnote to the 2016 NBA Playoffs. Sure, they punched their ticket to the show but they were only meant as fodder for one of the top four seeds in the Western Conference. A tune-up team to be schemed, pegged, and put away in four, maybe five games.
Fast forward to Monday night after a 98-84 victory saw the Blazers tie the series with the Clippers at 2-2 and now there are a lot of folks singing a different tune.
I'm not going to pretend that the injuries to point guard Chris Paul and forward Blake Griffin aren't immensely important (and probably catastrophic to the Clippers), but let's not forget that the Blazers were ahead and holding a steady lead in Game 4 before Paul went down with a broken hand and Griffin re-injured his quad.
While I'm not a fortune teller, if I had to lay a bet down on the outcome of that game with a healthy Paul and Griffin I would've given the Blazers better than a 65 percent chance to close that game out with a victory. There is a lot of credit that could and should be handed out for that effort as well.
Mason Plumlee has evolved into a rim-protecting, rebounding, and shot blocking monster; three things he didn't really do all that successfully this season when physically outmatched, so major kudos to him. Al-Farouq Aminu rose like a phoenix from the ashes of Games 1 & 2, erasing his terrible shooting with the best performance of his career in Game 4, and an acceptable effort in Game 3. Again, well done, Chief.
There are plenty of other performances to be thankful for: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum resuming their regular season roles of Batman and Robin (the dynamic duo took over in Game 3), Allen Crabbe making an appearance (finally) in Game 4, and the steady consistent effort of Moe Harkless in all the little ways.
On the defensive side of the ball the Blazers put together one of the best and most consistent efforts of the season in Game 4. They hounded shooters, chased guards off the 3-point line, clogged the lane on drives and basically played with controlled chaos, making it difficult for the Clippers to ever really get into the game.
The biggest change, however, may have come on the offensive end. Defensively, it's usually about effort and will. Offensively, it's about putting yourself and your teammates in the best position to succeed and it was one little thing that seemed to unlock the Clippers defense.
The Trail Blazers are a heavy pick-and-roll team. Despite missing seven games this season, Lillard finished second in the NBA in overall points from the pick-and-roll (ahead of Paul by 46 points in one more game). McCollum finished in sixth place just in front of James Harden. So yeah, that's kind of their thing. The Clippers knew this and they did their best to completely snuff it out in Games 1 and 2. They blitzed, trapped, pressed, rotated, and made life absolutely miserable for Portland's 1-2 punch anytime they got near a pick.
Every time the Blazers set a pick within a foot of the 3-point line there were at least two Clippers there ready to push them off the line and chase the guard to the sideline. They would not let them dribble and turn the corner either way and they absolutely would not let them get to the middle.
With this strategy the Clippers negated two of the Blazers' biggest strengths this season: 3-point shooting and attacking switches and sagging defenders out of the pick-and-roll. During the regular season it was simple for opponents; go under the screen, get burnt by a three. Fight over the top, and Lillard would attack the rim while McCollum would pull up for the midrange two. It was like clockwork. In Games 1 and 2 those options didn't exist.
The Clippers appeared to have a game plan predicated on where the Blazers were setting screens. If the big was at or near the 3-point line they would bring their big (usually DeAndre Jordan) out to just inside the 3-point line - close enough to contest and/or deny the opportunity for a clear look at the three if the guard got caught on the screen, but just deep enough to funnel the guard out of the lane while weakside help sagged off to offer support in the paint.
Take a look at this play in particular. In an effort to change the coverage, Blazers coach Terry Stotts subbed in rarely used Chris Kaman to switch things up a bit. His ability to knock down the shot from 15 feet made him a threat the defense couldn't just leave alone, or so goes the thinking. The problem here was that the guard, in this case Damian Lillard, was so flustered from being pressed out at the 3-point line that he didn't show the patience necessary to let the play come together.
You see Kaman comes to set the screen on Austin Rivers just above the 3-point line, while Cole Aldrich shows to just inside the 3-point arc. Kaman sets a screen that absolutely collapses Rivers, one of the few good screens that were set in the first two games, but Lillard is impatient and tries to turn the corner early. He loses control and Aldrich ends up knocking the ball loose and triggering the break for Los Angeles.
Had Lillard allowed Kaman to roll here and then strung Aldrich out he would have had three different options: Attack the mismatch on Aldrich, kick to the wide-open Harkless or allow Kaman to settle into the gaping hole in the coverage left by the flattened Rivers. Of course none of that materializes and it's a wasted possession for Portland, something that would play out over and over and over again over the first 96 minutes of the series.
Even when Lillard and McCollum made the correct reads, with Aminu, Harkless, Henderson, and Crabbe all unable to hit a shot from anywhere outside 16 feet, the Clippers had no incentive to change up their scheme. They were perfectly okay with allowing them to shoot outside for a couple of reasons; they weren't knocking down the shots (mostly) but the Clippers were also doing a great job of closing out on shooters and taking away their airspace at the last second.
For all the talk about getting Lillard the ball in a better position, working him off-ball, freeing up McCollum to knock down shots, needing the bench to hit their open looks, and a plethora of other wishes there was one simple change that popped up immediately in Game 3.
The first couple of pick-and-rolls from Portland had a vastly different look if you paid close enough attention. They began setting picks four and five feet further out. They were daring Griffin, Jordan, and every other Clipper defender tasked with trapping to come out to 30+ feet. This change looked like the key to unlocking the Clippers' defense.
With a couple extra feet between the backline and those out front there was now a huge pocket of space behind the two involved in the pick-and-roll. If Portland's guards were patient they could find a rolling Plumlee, Kaman, Aminu, or Harkless sitting in oodles of space. With space comes options that didn't exist before. They had the time necessary to make the next play - attack, pass, or shoot. While the correct read wasn't always taken initially, they all started to find their groove. Plumlee became a 6-foot-11 Jason Kidd, slinging passes all over the perimeter to open shooters.
With the extra space there, weakside defenders now had a few more steps to go to fully recover on any kind of cheat, slide, or help. Take a look at this play, here, early in Game 4. Lillard and Plumlee trigger the pick-and-roll at about 28 feet, and this time Lillard shows patience. He strings the trap out to the sideline where the Clippers are trying to force him. But he keeps his head up, and finds Plumlee sitting on a plot of land so big that it'd probably go for seven figures in the Pearl District.
With the Blazers running an overload on the right side of the floor, Aminu is left on an island that would make Darelle Revis jealous. All Plumlee needs to do is get Luc Mbah a Moute to take one false step into the lane to give Aminu the full blown time-share treatment on the left side of the floor. Plumlee does just that, then swings the ball to Aminu who checks the wind, accounts for the wind generated by the collective gasp of the crowd when they realize just how ridiculously open he is, then calmly knocks down the three, setting the Moda Center on full tilt.
To get a statistical look at the vast improvement with this subtle but incredibly effective change, just a simple glance at the data is enough to let you know it's working. In Games 1 and 2 Lillard averaged a staggeringly awful 0.230 points per possession (PPP) out of the pick-and-roll. To put that in perspective, out of EVERY SINGLE PLAYER who scored in the pick-and-roll this season in the NBA he would've been tied for dead last.
Aminu's shooting from the spot-up doesn't fare much better either. His 0.462 in Games 1 and 2 would've tied him for fourth-worst in the league, tied with former Blazers Thomas Robinson and JJ Hickson. Not exactly the cream of the jump shooting crop to say the least.
Now get to Games 3 and 4, and Lillard bumps up to 1 PPP, which is right there for one of the best ratings in the league. Meanwhile Aminu's spot-up shooting sky rockets to 1.43 PPP, which is bordering on Stephen Curry territory when compared to his regular season numbers.
This is the NBA, however, and most professional teams are capable of adjustments of the fly, so the Blazers had to mix in a trend-breaker to keep the Clippers off balance late in the game:
Here McCollum and Crabbe start the play by swapping wings, replacing each other's position to get the Clippers' defense moving. McCollum sets the first of two (weak) picks on Rivers, but this is simply a misdirection as the play then goes to the primary pick-and-roll between Plumlee and Lillard. However, this is where the plan totally flips for the Clippers.
Anticipating the pick-and-roll that had burned them all night long, Jordan keeps tight and flat to Plumlee to prevent the free roll to the open space and to help funnel Lillard away from turning the corner. Meanwhile, J.J. Redick - while a much improved defender from his early years in the league, he's nowhere near Paul's level and it shows here - gets on his heels and flips his hips, showing Lillard inside, and it's too late.
Lillard is one of the best in the league at attacking this kind of coverage and splitting the defenders, probably to a fault. There have been quite a few times this series, particularly early on, where he attempted to split the coverage and turned the ball over. This time though he's got the Clippers reacting instead of dictating and he takes full advantage, pushing the ball through the middle and attacking the rim.
Jeff Green is forced to come in from the weakside corner and close off the lane. This leave the red hot Aminu wide-open in the left corner. If you've followed me at all you may know that Aminu shoots better from there than nearly anywhere else on the floor. It's his honey hole. The last thing you want to do as a defender is leave Aminu alone on the left side of the floor when he's 5-9 from 3-point range. The most likely result ends with him improving to 6-10 from beyond the arc and that's exactly what happens.
This play essentially iced the game for Portland. It proved to be a perfect ending, a left-handed counter punch uppercut when the opponent was looking for the overhand right that had landed all night long. In the words of Prince: "Game. Blouses."
While much (if not all) of the focus will be on the Clippers losing both Paul and Griffin, the Trail Blazers staff should be given some serious credit for inserting this minor wrinkle into the game plan. By adjusting where they initiated their offense, they fundamentally changed how the Clippers' defense had to play. The Blazers went from prey to predator, forcing the Clippers to pick their poison instead of letting the Clippers dictate the terms.
That's the sign of a team on the rise, a team showing growth. It's these small adjustments, the tweaks that can swing the tide of a game and eventually a series that good teams and good coaches make. The shame in Paul and Griffin going down is that the fans don't get to see how the Clippers react at full strength.
The series is still far from over, so now Blazers fans get to see how the Clippers react after the loss of their two best players and what kind of game plan they come out with. I would expect that Rivers throws everything and the kitchen sink out there; traps and presses, full and halfcourt, zone and junk defenses, anything and everything to keep the Blazers off balance.
That's the greatness of the playoffs. Whether evenly matched or incredibly skewed, coaches and teams get to play a real life game of chess, constantly evaluating the moves of their opponents and anticipating the next series of moves while trying to implement their own.
What do you all think? What has been the biggest "small" change you've seen so far this series? Leave your thoughts, comments, and ideas below!