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Blazers’ Success Hinges on Winning the Pick & Roll Battle

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The Trail Blazers will need their offense to run smoothly against the Thunder to open the NBA Playoffs.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

There will be a lot said and discussed about the matchup between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder—and a lot of it will be prudent and relevant and all that other good stuff, but for my money, it’s who wins the battle of the pick and roll.

In case you didn’t know, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are pretty good at creating both for themselves and for others out of the pick and roll.

Lillard, who has seemingly found more gears than Mario Andretti, finished in the 95th percentile this year (1.081 PPP) in the pick and roll as the ball handler. Among players with 200 or more possessions, Lillard ranks first overall in PPP. He scores in 47 percent of the possessions—that’s absurd by the way—and he has the ability to go left, right, and pull up from 40 feet, etc. This is all to say that Lillard has taken the mantle as the “best pick and roll guard” in the league. With that, as you should expect, the Blazers are predominantly a pick and roll team and they’re damn good at it: second in the league good at it (0.982 PPP). Throw CJ McCollum (18th in PPP, 0.968) and you’ve got the recipe to attack any team you want with the pick and roll.

Here’s where the unstoppable force meets the immovable object. The Thunder are second in the league in DENYING those pick and roll points, giving up 0.793 PPP. Only two teams in the league average less than what the Thunder give up on average (the Miami Heat and the Atlanta Hawks), so what the Thunder have done is pretty special. This is all possible because the Thunder feature players like Paul George (88th percentile, 0.729 PPP) Terrance Ferguson (81%, 0.78 PPP), and Jerami Grant (91%, 0.64 PPP), who allow them to constantly blitz, trap, pressure, push, and blow up pick and rolls all night long with length, athleticism, and desire to work on the defensive end.

So who wins and how do they do it? How can the second best pick and roll offense get through the second best pick and roll defense? How can the second best defense hope to slow down the second best offense? It’s probably a bit easier for the Thunder to solve that question—they have their high level defensive personnel locked in and in tune with each other. George, Ferguson and Grant have a season of playing on the same string (and they all have Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel playing centerfield behind them) and they’ve spent much of the season on the same page.

The other side to this coin is that, as a whole, the Thunder’s defense has fallen off the proverbial cliff. Those ebbs and flows can happen in a season, but sometimes it takes a while to get everyone healthy, on the same page, and giving the necessary effort. The Blazers can perhaps take advantage of that, along with the idea that the Thunder won’t be THAT familiar with the speed and pace of the still-developing pick and roll with Enes Kanter.

When things are this close between teams, particularly when it’s on opposite ends of the floor, it’s the little things that can matter. For the Blazers, changing the angle, point of attack, where and when on the floor they are getting into their offense, and of course who it’s with—all of these elements will have to be successful in getting the Thunder off balance enough to bridge the gap between phenomenal pick and roll offense versus we should probably never run that again.

If you’re rooting for the Blazers to win one facet of the game, this is the one to pull for.