So much of the focus entering the Portland Trail Blazers’ first round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder orbited around Portland’s center rotation. After Jusuf Nurkic went down late in the season, I wrote an extensive preview of four of their potential playoff opponents and how they might attack new starter Enes Kanter, who had never exactly been known for his defensive prowess, especially in pick-and-roll. As it turned out, the Trail Blazers drew the Thunder, who possess a strong pick-and-roll attack but also have significant weaknesses offensively that make them easier to defend. Namely, Oklahoma City’s lack of outside shooting threats has been very important for the series, as Portland has been able to pack the paint to help onto drives and rolls to the rim, alleviating some of Kanter’s responsibilities inside. Combine that with a better-than-expected series from Kanter himself and the Trail Blazers currently own the playoffs’ second-best defense through two games in each series, only trailing the Milwaukee Bucks, who are playing against a hapless Detroit Pistons team missing their best player.
The other side of the court has been a bit more of an adventure, as a very good Oklahoma City defense has held the Trail Blazers to 95.6 points per 100 possessions through two games, the tenth-best offense in the playoffs. A +13.5 net rating through two games has Portland in firm command of the series as things shift to Oklahoma City, but there are plenty of historical reasons to think the Thunder will be better on both ends at home. Role players tend to shooter better at home, which may poke some holes in a Portland defense that’s mostly left those guys open, while the backing of the home crowd will give a little extra verve to the Thunder’s defenders.
Through two games in Portland, the aggressive defense Oklahoma City employs in pick-and-roll has been relatively successful, holding the Trail Blazers to an 81.0 offensive rating on these possessions, the fourth-worst mark in the playoffs. While there’s very little about which Portland should be worried in an overall sense, there are still cracks in their offensive attack that can be shored up to ensure this series is terminated as quickly as possible and the club moves on to the next round. In particular, some of the hedging from center Steven Adams has given the Portland ball handlers some trouble, much like the aggressiveness of the New Orleans Pelicans did in their first round series last year.
In Game 2, the Trail Blazers found some counters, each different from the last, to help them deal with Oklahoma City’s aggressiveness at the point of attack. As the series has progressed, Portland has moved their ball screens further and further out on the floor. Damian Lillard’s seemingly unlimited range adds this dimension to their offense – if Adams lays back on a ball screen near the logo at half court, Lillard will take one dribble toward the basket and nail a 30-footer, as he’s done several times already. The end result is having Adams way out on the floor, but to say he’s uncomfortable that far from the rim is an understatement, so he retreats quickly as Kanter rolls to the rim and Oklahoma City looks to reset their defense.
Lillard is able to turn the corner out of the Leonard ball screen and Adams can’t possibly corral him that high up the floor, with so many options available to him. Adams does what he can to meet Lillard above the three-point line, but the quicker guard crosses over, hesitates just inside the arc, then bursts to the rim for a lefty finish.
A secondary issue with Oklahoma City’s defensive strategy is that their point guards, specifically Russell Westbrook and Dennis Schröder, have had issues executing the scouting report and sending Lillard toward the screen, where Adams is waiting on the other side. Rather than play into what the Thunder want, Lillard has had success rejecting screens and relying on his improved quickness to beat his initial defender and collapse the defense.
Adams is way out of position to protect the rim on the drive and Schröder is unable to force Lillard to use the screen, leading to all five Oklahoma City defenders moving toward Lillard. He circles under the rim and finds CJ McCollum for a buzzer-beating three, looking off Paul George to move him before making the pass.
Portland has also experimented with Ram and Wedge screens to put Adams off his path before Kanter or one of the other Trail Blazers big men set the screen for Lillard. Setting these pre-screens pushes Adams out of position slightly, which is all the space Lillard needs to pull a deep three:
Portland’s all-world point guard misses this particular attempt, but that shot is well within his arsenal and the Trail Blazers will take this shot any time they can get it from Lillard.
Other times, Adams will have to recover from the first screen by sprinting out a little too hard, leading to Lillard turning the corner and blowing past him. If the timing works out well, Lillard can use the screen and get downhill while Adams is still moving away from his basket, setting up an impossible situation for Adams to defend. If he makes any contact with Lillard, it’s an automatic foul, but if he doesn’t, Lillard will be at the front of the rim in a split second.
Jerami Grant, who has been great defensively for Oklahoma City since halftime of Game 1, rotates over and erases Lillard’s layup, but the idea that he even had to get over there as quickly as he did is a positive for the Trail Blazers. Adams was a nonfactor defensively in the main pick-and-roll action and it took fantastic recognition for Grant to rotate and prevent two points from going on the scoreboard.
The Trail Blazers’ pick-and-roll attack has been stymied somewhat by Oklahoma City’s aggressive defensive style, but they’re finding their feet in the series in that department. Should they continue to misdirect the Thunder’s guards and deter Adams from getting high out on the floor, Lillard and McCollum should have enough success turning the corner and scoring or finding the open man to keep the Thunder at bay during the two games in Oklahoma City.