When the game is on the line, the Portland Trail Blazers turn to star scorers Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Their offensive brilliance is enough to put Portland over the top on some nights. Other nights? Not so much. Whether reliance on the starting guards is a blessing or curse depends on the night and, sometimes, on the observer’s point of view. That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
I love the beautiful ball movement we’ve seen recently. Why does it always disappear in the 4th quarter and become hero ball time.
Some of this is natural, maybe even good.
“Hero Ball” implies the Trail Blazers have a hero. Scroll back to the years between 2003 and 2005 and you’re going to find that life is much better with one than without. Damian Lillard (and to a lesser extent, CJ McCollum) taking over games adds an indispensable dimension to Portland’s attack. Those guards don’t always win games for the Blazers, but the Blazers are always a threat to win games because of them. That’s kind of a big deal.
NBA teams revolve around their best players...the Blazers especially so. Lillard and McCollum are going to be credited with wins and, ultimately, blamed for losses. The long-term fortunes of the team ride with them in a way that is not true of anybody else on the roster right now. As such, it’s appropriate to see them take the ball in hand with the game on the line.
“Game on the line” also explains why you’re seeing more individual play in the fourth quarter, For all that beautiful ball movement, the Blazers usually enter the fourth either behind or with a lead that isn’t secure. (Obviously this it true of most games for most teams, but how many times have we seen Portland opponents mount furious charges to recapture lost ground?) Distributing might get the Blazers to the fourth intact, but it doesn’t make the victory sure. When the pressure is on and Portland needs a rally to push for a win, Lillard and McCollum naturally come to the fore. Situations that amplify that need also amplify the inevitable resolution.
Whether the Blazers can trust players other than the starting guards with the game on the line is an open question. Portland’s supporting cast is good at exploiting defensive mistakes and holes. They’re not strong individually, particularly when well-defended. Early in the game, defenses slip. When winning time comes, defenders will make up those gaps. If you had to bet your life savings on a Trail Blazers player to hit a single shot with a defender close by, which player would you stake your fortune to? Aside from a couple Evan Turner partisans, that answer is going to be Lillard and McCollum every time.
Truthfully, every player other than Lillard and McCollum carries serious offensive deficits. Some have huge holes in their game (Al-Farouq Aminu or Zach Collins). Some are erratic (Jusuf Nurkic or Moe Harkless). Some have trouble getting good looks when they’re heavily defended (Nik Stauskas or Seth Curry). As has been true in every recent season, Portland’s supporting cast occasionally looks brilliant, but those occasions are icebergs sticking out of an ocean of collective mediocrity. Lillard and McCollum are the only islands of refuge.
Portland’s ancillary players do shine, but it’s generally under two conditions:
- They’re facing opposing second units.
- Lillard and/or McCollum draw so much attention that the defense bends towards them, leaving their teammates free to operate.
Opposing teams play their starters with the game on the line, so you can scratch that one.
If defenses collapse on Dame and CJ, they will still give up the ball for the open shot, even late in the game. As mentioned above, defenses don’t like to do that late.
Defenses will collapse freely if the supporting cast is having an off night. One can argue that half of the purpose of distributing the ball early is to make the defense respect Options 3-5 so Lillard and McCollum get one-on-one coverage during critical moments. In that way, the opportunity for successful “hero ball” finishes may be a feature of the system more than a bug.
In short, some of the hero ball is good and on purpose, some of it is mandated by the roster and system, and some just happens because there’s no other choice. Arguing that the Blazers ultimately need to move beyond that crutch if they want to contend for a title is valid. Arguing that they’re capable of doing so with the roster as constructed...that’s on shakier ground.
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