CJ McCollum made some amazing clutch plays down the stretch against the Thunder on Sunday. But the Blazers were only in position to win in the closing moments because they have been taking care of the little things early in games.
Let’s take a moment and appreciate some of these “hidden highlights” (small moments that have a disproportionately large impact) that have helped the Trail Blazers all but secure the Western Conference’s 3-seed.
With appearances from Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless, Pat Connaughton, and a surprise Robin Lopez sighting!
Good Defensive Position + Quick Hands = Steals
The Blazers are never going to lead the NBA in steals as long as they employ coach Terry Stotts’ conservative gameplan — they’re basically trying to avoid any “you reach, I teach” moments (is that still a thing?) that can potentially lead to easy baskets for the opposition.
Despite the low number of steals, the quality of takeaways has been standing out lately, especially from the backcourt. Portland’s guards are consistently using quick hands as a secondary defensive tactic after establishing good position (e.g. stopping penetration), rather than attempting to steal the ball as a primary move.
On this play McCollum runs Corey Brewer off the 3-point line and Damian Lillard rotates over to prevent the lay-up attempt. After Brewer is stopped dead in his tracks, McCollum swipes at the ball and comes away with the steal (direct link to vid in case embed isn’t working).
This is great stuff from nearly all the Blazers guards and a recent development that portends an elite defense. Creating turnovers out of fundamentally sound defensive positioning, as opposed to swiping at the ball as the player drives by, or jumping on a pass and forcing a bad defensive rotation if the steal is missed, is a small symbol of how disciplined and effective the team has been on that end of the court.
This tactic has the added bonus of creating steals without risking fouls — it’s easier to grab the ball when directly in front of a player, and the refs are more likely to give the defense the benefit of the doubt when the defensive player is in good position.
Harkless Lurking for Weakside Blocks
Harkless has become a low-key defensive menace for the Blazers. His high “switchability” and versatility has always been useful on the perimeter, and he’s recently added weakside blocks to his arsenal.
Watch here as Harkless cheats off of Brewer (28 percent 3-point shooter for his career) and erases Carmelo Anthony’s shot attempt (direct link):
This play stands out for two reasons. First, Harkless’ timing has been impeccable. He reads perfectly when the offensive player is about to go up for a shot and swoops in to challenge only after it’s too late for the bailout pass. (Insert your own joke about Melo passing while that close to the bucket.)
Second, Harkless rotating off weak shooters for blocks has the added bonus of allowing Nurkic to box out the opposing center, in the video above that’s Steven Adams, so that the Blazers can challenge shots at the rim while also putting their best rebound in position to defend against offensive putbacks.
This isn’t the first time Stotts has put Harkless on a poor 3-point shooter and allowed him to roam on help defense — Harkless picked up a similar block against James Harden while guarding (read: ignoring) Luc Richard Mbah a Moute last Tuesday against the Rockets — so we can expect to see more of the same strategy in the future.
Connaughton has been colder than ice cold, making only one 3-pointer on 12 attempts over the last five games. He’s been part of a big problem for Portland’s bench, which has been outscored by opposing benches 164-65 over the last four games while shooting only 35 percent from the field.
Connaughton’s shot chart from the last five games. Yikes.
The good news for Connaughton is that nearly all of his attempts have been good looks; the offense is still creating open shots, he’s just not knocking them down (playlist of six misses against the Celtics on Friday).
Connaughton has been a streaky shooter all season, and he’s already played over 1300 minutes this season after playing only 459 over the last two seasons combined. Presumably, his cold shooting is just a long downswing and will correct itself as he adjusts to playing 82 games as a rotation player for the first time in his career.
Stotts Calls My Favorite BLOB Set
Stotts tried to set Nurkic up for an easy basket against the Celtics on Friday using my favorite baseline out of bounds (BLOB) set (direct link).
Why’s it my favorite? Because Robin Lopez beat the Nuggets on the same play in 2014.
Dame Looking Like Wayne Gretzky Out There
The Houston vs. Portland game had 6 secondary assists (hockey assists). Lillard had 5 of them. The credit he received for 6 assists undersells how many baskets he created for teammates.— Eric Griffith (@EricG_NBA) March 22, 2018