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Explaining Why Meyers Leonard Got the Ball in the Clutch

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Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts made an ::ahem:: unusual choice in the final seconds of the Trail Blazers game one loss to the Pelicans. Here’s how Meyers Leonard ended up with the ball in his hands.

NBA: Playoffs-New Orleans Pelicans at Portland Trail Blazers Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Trail Blazers found themselves down three points to the Pelicans with 12 seconds remaining in game one of their playoff series. Naturally, Blazers coach Terry Stotts draws up a play that results in a ...BACK CUT FOR MEYERS LEONARD?!

No, seriously, look for yourself:

What in the heck happened on this play and why is Meyers Leonard, who did not play at all for the game’s first 47:48 involved at all? Let’s break it down.

What Were the Blazers Trying To Do?

The play starts with Damian Lillard making a move toward the ball out beyond the 3-point line, while Evan Turner simultaneously cuts to the elbow. Dame’s move to the ball is intended to convince the defense he’s going to receive the inbound and go to work against Jrue Holiday. This opens the door for Turner to catch the ball in a playmaking position.

The Blazers now have three options to choose from. First, they’ll take advantage of the defense overplaying the in-bound pass to Lillard by having Leonard set a flare screen, hopefully springing Lillard for a three if Leonard’s man plays him tight while Lillard’s man is hung up on the screen.

Turner’s looking directly at Lillard after the backscreen in this screen shot, hoping Dame will have enough room for a tying shot:

Unfortunately Nikola Mirotic sags off Leonard and stays in position to harass Lillard on the cut.

This prompts Turner to the next option: Leonard rolling to the hoop in a mismatch after Lillard flairs to the elbow. You can see Leonard cutting to the hoop in this screen shot with the much smaller Holiday defending:

Leonard can’t get enough room for a clean pass so Holiday gets his hand on the ball, knocks it out of bounds, and leaves the Blazers stuck on the baseline down by three with no timeouts and only nine seconds to play.

After inbounding the ball Connaughton also tried to create a third option by setting a down screen for CJ McCollum in the corner, designed to open CJ for a triple from the elbow. But McCollum never got open, and Turner never looked their way.

Who’s At Fault and Why Was Meyers in the Game?

Bluntly, there’s a ton of blame to go around on this play. The on-court execution was sloppy, fating the Blazers to a contested shot, at best. Turner gets locked in on Lillard and probably should have forced the pass so Dame could go to work on Mirotic. On the other side, McCollum cuts well before Connaughton is in position to make the screen, guaranteeing that he won’t get open (not that Turner was looking for him anyway).

Of course, the players are not entirely to blame. Stotts must take most of the heat for the inexplicable decision to put a very cold Leonard into a one-possession playoff game with only seconds remaining.

Presumably, Leonard was out there because he could set a solid screen for Lillard while also being a 3-point threat. Leonard’s outside shooting would have, theoretically, forced the Pelicans to cover him tightly, setting up a back cut for an easy two points in the open space around the rim or distracted the Pelicans from covering Lillard on the flare.

Jusuf Nurkic could have set the screen, but the defense would have been able to sag off, preventing a back cut, while Zach Collins could have drawn the defender out of the paint, but can’t screen nearly as well as Leonard.

Given the play that was called, putting Leonard on the court makes sense.

But here’s the thing: If the called set requires Meyers Leonard to make a clutch play in a playoff game after sitting on the bench for 2.5 hours it’s probably best to draw up something else.

And this ignores the flawed design of the flare screen for Lillard, which needed a massive matchup failure from the Pelicans to actually work. There’s almost no way this play was better than calling for a pick and roll with Lillard and Nurkic.

The players deserve a bit of blame for poor execution, but Stotts will justifiably take a lion’s share of heat for this play call.

What Shouldn’t be blamed?

Leonard, obviously, should not be blamed for what happened. He ran the play that was called and was one Holiday swipe away from an easy dunk.

Stotts also shouldn’t be blamed for drawing up a play with a two-point basket as a secondary option. Even without timeouts, twelve seconds should be sufficient time to get a quick two-pointer, foul, and still have about nine seconds to score again.

The subsequent baseline out of bounds play that resulted in another two-point attempt deserves some criticism, as well, but it’s admittedly much more difficult to get a 3-pointer from that position without a preceding timeout, thus paling in comparison to the prior play.

The Blazers will now need to collect themselves and prepare for game two on Tuesday night in Portland. Hopefully that game won’t come down to the final seconds.