The Portland Trail Blazers fell to the Houston Rockets on Tuesday night in a clash between two of the best teams in the thick of the NBA Western Conference playoff race. Portland’s narrow 115-111 loss was less surprising than the manner in which it was achieved. A normally-muted supporting cast stepped forward, filling in for the suddenly-unproductive Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. It almost worked. And nobody in that supporting cast played bigger than center Jusuf Nurkic.
For the most part, modern NBA teams have eschewed post-ups in favor of more efficient shots. Banging one big man against another has proven to be a poor use of a possession, But not all bigs are relegated to setting screens for their quicker, smaller teammates, as Portland showed against the Rockets. The Blazers hunted Houston’s guards, using the opponent’s switching scheme against them to get the ball inside to and let Nurkic dictate the offense, whether that meant scoring himself or kicking out for a three-pointer.
I wrote earlier this season that Nurkic’s post-ups are bad for the Trail Blazers. He’s still not terribly efficient. Coming into the game against Houston, Portland had scored 189 points on 258 Nurkic post-ups (passes included) this season, an efficiency mark that ranks him dead last among 18 players with at least 250 post-ups this season. Throwing the ball to him when he’s matched up against the opposing team’s center has been terrible for Portland, but his combination of size and skill with the ball plays perfectly against smaller defenders.
Portland posted Nurkic 12 times on Tuesday against Houston—just once did he match up down low with his center counterpart and that one time was when the Rockets went to Ryan Anderson at center, on whom Nurkic has a 40-pound advantage. The other 11 times, he got the ball after a switch, posting up everybody from James Harden to Chris Paul to Trevor Ariza. The Blazers benefited immensely, scoring 22 points on those 12 post-ups, more than 2.5 times as efficient as they normally are on Nurkic’s posts.
As teams elect to put smaller and “switchier” lineups on the floor, Nurkic’s ability in the post becomes more pronounced. Even when guarded by the stout Harden, Nurkic was able to see the whole floor and either find a perimeter shooter or use that threat to take it himself.
The shooting prowess of Lillard and McCollum makes it very difficult for Houston to double-team Nurkic from those matchups. After a couple of double-teams gone awry, the Rockets mostly left Nurk alone down low, allowing him to work one-on-one. He scored on all three of these possessions in the fourth quarter, though it has to be said that some of the bad habits that make him an inefficient post player showed even as the ball went through the net.
While the shot went in, this is one of the possessions where it would be better for Nurkic to kick it back out and either establish deeper position or run another action. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute mostly held his ground, forcing a very difficult spinning floater. Knowing that Houston is happy to switch any and all screens, kicking the ball back out and finding a better matchup might have been the smart move for Portland in that situation.
This play proves much better for Nurkic. He gets position on Ariza with his heels on the block, making a very quick turn and finish, rather than having to back down for a dribble or two before going into his move. Against the slighter Ariza, Nurkic also didn’t get knocked off balance before putting the shot up.
It seems to be a given that Portland is going to give Nurkic his fair share of post-ups each game as a way to keep him engaged on both ends, rewarding him for all the other work he does that can sometimes go unnoticed. When he’s matched up with his physical equal, these post-ups are almost dead possessions, but against a switch-heavy team like Houston, post plays can be more than a bone the Trail Blazers throw him; they become a weapon around which the offense can build.
All stats are provided by Synergy unless otherwise noted.