The Portland Trail Blazers played some of their best basketball of the season against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night in Game 2 of their Western Conference semifinals playoff series. Unfortunately, "best of the season" wasn't good enough - the Warriors rampaged over the Blazers in the fourth quarter and cruised to a 110-99 victory.
At this point, all but the most ardent of Blazers supporters will admit the series is functionally over. The Warriors have convincingly beaten the Blazers twice without league MVP Stephen Curry - and now Curry is scheduled to return in Game 3 or 4. Expecting Portland to turn that around and win four of the next five games against the greatest regular season team of all time is a bit of a stretch.
But that doesn't mean there's nothing left to play for. The Blazers are a young team and have improved all season. Playoff games against an opponent that is as elite as this year's Warriors are a rare thing; as such, the Blazers can still salvage this series by gaining some experience in the final games. Here are a few things the Blazers can learn in their remaining playoff games:
How to play CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard together: There has been some hand wringing all season about whether or not the Blazers can afford to pay max/near-max deals to two small-ish combo guards who have overlapping skillsets and are both somewhat limited on the defensive end. Seemingly, the Warriors are the team most able to exploit the perceived matchup weakness; Klay Thompson running off screens is a nightmare for either Lillard or McCollum to cover, necessitating that one of Portland's guards must guard a bigger player instead. Unfortunately, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute doesn't play for the Warriors - nearly all of their players are offensive threats in their own right, creating a mismatch for the Portland backcourt. If the Blazers can find ways to keep McCollum and Lillard on the court at the same time against the 2016 Warriors, they can find ways to play McLillard against anybody.
The Blazers already tried different defensive matchups for Lillard and McCollum in Game 2. Terry Stotts opened the game by assigning McCollum to Shaun Livingston, Moe Harkless to Thompson, and Damian Lillard to Harrison Barnes. The matchups worked well, with Lillard using his strength to hold his ground against Barnes and Harkless doing a better job of chasing Thompson than McCollum did in Game 1. The remaining two contests will be a good opportunity to continue testing similar cross-matches and determine how to best play Lillard and McCollum together against bigger teams like Golden State.
Defensive Communication: Success with team defense in the NBA is contingent upon experience and familiarity with teammates. In modern systems, players must work together to cover all five opposing players by reading the offense, switching, and communicating as a unit. It's not surprising that the young, inexperienced, and overhauled Blazers have struggled on defense for long stretches all season. Communication, especially, has been an issue, and a primary culprit behind the Blazers' inability to defend off the ball.
The Warriors, on the other hand, are masters of communication and switching. Because of their length at every position, and continuity from last season, they've developed a system in which the players can seamlessly swap assignments on defense several times in the same possession. The result has been a team that finished with an elite defensive rating, but was No. 29 in the league in average speed on defense. The takeaway is that Golden State plays good defense by not moving, but instead finding the most efficient ways to cover the opposition:
With Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu in the starting lineup, the Blazers have begun to switch more often and have improved their defensive communication, but they still pale in comparison to the Warriors. These final few games are a good opportunity for the Blazers to learn how to improve their team defense from a squad that has mastered it.
48 minutes of solid play from Lillard: A dirty secret among Blazers fans is that despite some gaudy scoring numbers, Lillard's contributions during the 2016 playoffs have mostly been empty. In Game 2 he went supernova for 17 points in the third quarter, but was not heard from the in fourth, failing to score. In Game 1 he finished with 30 points, but shot only 30.7 percent on 26 field goal attempts. Perhaps most concerning, Lillard is 15-56 on 2-pointers in the playoffs.
Some of Lillard's struggles can be laid at the feet of Aminu, Harkless, and Allen Crabbe. Those three have ranged from inconsistent to non-existent on offense, which has allowed defenses to focus almost entirely on Lillard. That being said, nothing excuses 30 percent shooting on 2-pointers over the course of eight games; in these last two contests Lillard should strive to improve his shot selection around the hoop and find more efficient ways to score, even if it means trusting his inconsistent teammates to hit shots. In the long run, developing good habits when dealing with swarming defenses will pay dividends for Lillard and the team.
Dictate the tempo: The Blazers have tried to outscore the Warriors all season. It worked once when the Blazers beat the Warriors 137-105 in the first game after the All-Star break. But that strategy has now failed in five other games. Stotts should at least consider changing the flow of the matchup while trying to outgrind the Warriors in a halfcourt slugfest. We saw in the fourth quarter of Game 2 that the Warriors' defense will likely still shut down any non-CJ McCollum isolation plays in the halfcourt, but a slower tempo might also help the Blazers slow the Warrior buzzsaw on offense. In the bigger picture, learning to dictate the tempo and make an uptempo team like the Warriors uncomfortable could be invaluable, even if it does not translate to victories in this series.
What else can the Blazers do to salvage this series? Let us know what else you think in the comments below!
-- Eric Griffith | @DeeringTornado | GoBlazers87@gmail.com