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Isolation Offense Isn’t Enough for Trail Blazers

Portland finds early scoring success, but can’t sustain it.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Imagine every Portland Trail Blazers game only lasted the first 12 minutes…don’t ask why. But if that was the case, the Blazers would have 11 wins, nine losses and one tie. That’s marginally better than their record when all 48 minutes are played; the first is their only positive quarter in terms of plus/minus.

Their performance in the second and third quarter more accurately reflect their play on the season. Portland has won those quarters just nine times each, as many wins as the team has this year. In a portion of the 13 lost second and third quarters, the opponent’s lead gets too great to overcome and the result of the fourth quarter is nullified.

The flow of Blazers games often reflects this dilemma. Set plays are run in the first quarter or two, but then the pace of the game sweeps that structure away. Coach Terry Stotts emphasizes a free-flowing offense. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum anchor the offense. Sometimes the second and third quarters exhibit the blandness of a Houston Rockets game.

At the NBA level, trusting players’ intuition isn’t a bad tactic. However, a team full of new faces can’t operate as smoothly as a team with chemistry when improvising. No longer do dependable pick and rolls between Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic generate an open shot opportunity somewhere on the court.

Against the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night, the Blazers demonstrated how an unfamiliar, unstructured offense struggles against an elite defense. They were outscored 17-27 in the third quarter, shooting 26.1% from the field and missing eight of their nine three-pointers.

The Blazers recorded five assists on six made field goals in those 12 minutes. A majority of the 17 misses were unassisted attempts, highlighting the relation between assists and shots that hit the bottom of the net.

That isn’t to say isolation basketball should be nixed from the offensive playbook. Portland tops the league in points per isolation possession at 1.07. The roster has several elite shot creators and finishers, namely Lillard and CJ McCollum. Rodney Hood is also scoring a ridiculous 1.42 points per isolation.

Instead, isolation possessions should be minimized in the Blazers offense. Mismatches or game tempo sometimes calls for it, but consecutive trips down the floor with fewer than three passes aren’t a reliable source of offense.

Simple movements like setting more screens can happen in the natural flow of the offense and create better shot opportunities. Portland’s big men should set more picks besides the initial high pick and roll screen to free up the ball handler. From there, Lillard and McCollum can capitalize on a scrambling defense or the switched opposing big man.

Off ball screens to free up shooters are easy to emphasize as well. The defense’s attention will always be on the star back court, so Portland can exploit that with an extra pin down or flare screen.

More space from screens, combined with ball handlers dribbling with their head up, ideally leads to more open looks and therefore more assists. And for the Blazers, more assists generally indicate offensive success.

In the six games Portland has recorded fewer than 19 assists – their season average is 20 – only one has resulted in a victory. That lone victory came against the Dallas Mavericks because the Blazers shot 51.7% from the field.

On the other hand, Portland is 4-3 in the seven games they recorded more than 21 assists. The three losses came against elite teams: the Milwaukee Bucks, Houston Rockets and Toronto Raptors.

To prevent opponents from stringing together big runs like the Clippers did in the third quarter on Tuesday, the Blazers need to involve more players in every offensive possession and not rely on isolations as much. They show that type of semi-structured play in the first quarter but fall away from it as the game progresses. Continuing to balance free-flowing offense with screens and ball movement could fix Portland’s second and third quarter struggles.