One of the main criticisms that of heard of the Portland Trail Blazers, and particularly of Head Coach Terry Stotts, is that the Blazers fail to take advantage of mismatches or exploit opponents’ defensive schemes. This season the Blazers seem intent on squashing that narrative early on.
This week we’re taking a look at Portland setting their own game plan and forcing opponents to shift, or pay the price.
I’ll go to my grave believing that the answer to small ball is having a monster in the middle that punishes opponents for not having a true big man on the floor. Having five shooters on in space is great. If you can do what the Warriors have done and have four or even five guys out there who can attack off the bounce, hit from three and move off the ball then yeah- go for it.
But I don’t think we’ll see that kind of roster together in one place for a long, long time. Having three guys out there who can do that PLUS a fourth who’s a plus shooter and a true big inside that requires attention on every possession, that’s the more realistic ticket.
Take what the Houston Rockets have done (or haven’t, actually) with their defense. Employing PJ Tucker at the center position (hilariously) for stretches while the Rockets try to play “switch everything” defense...so far that hasn’t worked. At all. It’s so bad that they’ve discussed scrapping their scheme entirely. Not only do the Rockets struggle on the perimeter now, when Clint Capela isn’t inside they don’t have any rim protection.
Portland looked to expose this regularly when the two teams faced each other last week. The Blazers took full advantage by posting up Jusuf Nurkic deep in the paint, letting him go to work on smaller defenders one on one, or drawing a help defender and kicking out- forcing the Rockets to scramble for the entire possession.
Coach Stotts stuck with this and punished the Rockets all night long. He didn’t try to match small for small. Credit for that is shared. In the past Stotts has tried this to varying success. Some nights Nurkic would dominate. Others, he was a liability – not moving his feet defensively as the Blazers failed to get him involved offensively. The key on Tuesday was that Portland had their counter, employed it and stuck to it, consistently battering the Rockets inside where there was just no good answer for them.
Similarly, the Blazers knew what was in store against the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday night. Even without Anthony Davis, the Blazers were going to face a blitzing/trapping, aggressive pick and roll defense that forced them to make quick and accurate decisions under pressure. Going into that game, my key was simple: “make the extra pass.”
For much of the game, Portland kept the ball moving and made that extra pass. They knocked down open three after open three as the Pelicans scrambled one rotation away, futilely trying to take Damian Lillard out of the game like they did in the playoffs last season. Even though this doesn’t account for Davis’ absence, it does show that Portland is capable and willing to adapt and change their style and game plan more so than in the past.
With the exception of the game against the Washington Wizards a couple weeks past, the Blazers have had an employed individual game plans to exploit opponent weaknesses regularly. When opportunities have arisen—Nik Stauskas getting hot, Evan Turner carving up a defense or Zach Collins finding the range—Stotts has stuck with those players and those lineups to maximize the potential output.
In the early going of the season this has provided one of my most singular joys: watching a simple yet effective strategy get executed so well that the opponent doesn’t know how to adjust. It’ll be interesting to see how the Blazers react when teams start employing counters later in the season or in repeat matchups. Having a counter to the counter is the next step in the evolution of this team and watching that play out might dictate how well Portland can finish this season in the standings.