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Blazers Trying to Free Lillard Against Pelicans, to No Avail

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Zach Lowe of ESPN breaks down how Portland’s sets, though theoretically sound, aren’t quite working.

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

The Portland Trail Blazers are scrambling for answers after falling behind 0-2 to the New Orleans Pelicans in their best-of-seven first-round playoff series. Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard has felt the sharp end of defensive pressure applied by Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis and has averaged only 17.5 points in the two games, well below his season average of 27. Zach Lowe of ESPN broke down the plays the Blazers are using to try and free Lillard, or at least get his teammates open looks, to mixed success.

After deep analysis on a video clip of a screen play, Lowe offers a summary of Portland’s misery:

The combination of Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis is absolutely swallowing Lillard on pick-and-rolls. He can’t even stretch his arms, let alone pull up for an open 3-pointer. Portland has scored just 0.4 points per possession -- not a typo -- when Lillard shoots out of a pick-and-roll, or passes to a teammate who shoots right away, per Second Spectrum tracking data.

Then Lowe gives a potential counter, while admitting that All-NBA center Davis sends the best-laid plans of mice and point guards sailing into the cheap seats.

In general, anytime Portland finds Rajon Rondo on Lillard instead of Holiday, they should go right into pick-and-roll mode for him. Rondo is a screen magnet.

But New Orleans isn’t a passive recipient of Portland’s strategy. They’ve seen all this on film now, and they are making life very hard for Portland. Davis is obliterating things all over the floor. Put him on Nurkic, as the Pelicans did in Game 1, and he smothers Lillard and McCollum at the point of attack. Stick him on Aminu -- their gambit for most of Game 2 -- and he roves around as a one-man zone, getting in everyone’s business and discarding shots at the rim with a calm disdain.

Lowe spends several hundred words on Portland’s options in the article (while spending time on other teams’ sets as well). It’s a must-read for those who want to dissect exactly how the Pelicans are stifling the Blazers attack.