The Portland Trail Blazers’ opening defensive possession foreshadowed the entirety of their Game 1 defeat at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. From the jump, it was clear that Terry Stotts had instructed his traditional big men to hang back in the paint, as they’d done all season to that point, and play the conservative defensive scheme that has defined his tenure over the last several years.
Against most teams, that’s not a problem, but the Warriors aren’t most teams, and Stephen Curry isn’t most point guards. Curry made Portland pay for that decision, nailing nine threes on his way to 36 points and a resounding victory in the opening battle of the series. The first shot didn’t go in, but many of the rest of them did, showing Stotts that there are changes needed to his team’s defensive scheme before Game 2.
Curry walked into a three-pointer to open the game and would continue to do so throughout his 35 minutes on the floor. Enes Kanter and Zach Collins remained firmly rooted in the paint all night. The results were open shot after open shot for Curry and Klay Thompson:
It was a parade of buckets for the Warriors’ star guards, with no adjustments from Stotts throughout the game. The Portland players knew it after the game, voicing their displeasure with the defensive scheme to the media, which bodes well for them changing things significantly in Game 2.
There are a handful of solution Stotts can try going forward in this series, though none of them are perfect remedies for what ails his team. The reality is that Portland doesn’t have the personnel to hang with these Warriors the way they did against Oklahoma City and Denver – few teams are built to handle a shooter like Curry and a playmaker like Draymond Green in pick-and-roll. Houston has done the best job of making them uncomfortable over the years with their switching and trapping, but even they haven’t been able to thwart these Warriors in a seven-game series. For the Trail Blazers to do so now would be unlike anything we’ve seen in the NBA over the last several years, but continuing to hang back in the paint and hope Curry and Thompson miss their open threes is not the answer.
Trapping is an interesting option, but it will require the sort of lateral quickness that Kanter has never been able to muster in his career. As well as he’s done defensively in the first two rounds of the playoffs, trapping ball handlers has rarely gone well for teams employing him in the middle, which may lead to Stotts going with more of Collins at the center spot. While not exceptionally quick himself, he’ll hold up far better in a trapping scheme than Kanter will.
Trapping is especially important for the Trail Blazers when it’s not Green setting the screen for Curry, as Portland should be happy to let Andrew Bogut, Kevon Looney, or Jordan Bell try to create plays on the short roll. Only Bogut is an above-average passer among that group, but he’s much better from a stationary spot on the floor than making plays on the move. When Green is the roll man, things are different, but there are avenues for the Trail Blazers to explore in this area as well.
Since Kevin Durant went out with a calf strain, the Warriors have gone away from heavy minutes with Green at the 5, instead leaning on their depth at the center position to bolster their rotation. He’ll close each half at the center spot, but they’re no longer starting games with him at the 5 and playing far fewer minutes in that alignment overall. This is a positive for the Trail Blazers, as Green playing the 4 makes the Warriors much easier to defend – instead of Kanter or Collins defending Green, it’s Al-Farouq Aminu or Evan Turner, both of whom can hold up a lot better in a trapping or switching scheme. In particular, switching the Curry-Green pick-and-roll could be advantageous for Portland. Well, “advantageous” might be the wrong word, since the Trail Blazers would still be at a massive disadvantage, but it’s better to have Curry trying to isolate against Aminu or Turner than walk into open 3s against the drop coverage Portland employed in Game 1.
Green is such a great playmaker on the short roll that trapping Curry when he sets the screen isn’t all that much better than letting Curry shoot every time. Whether it’s his newly reestablished finishing at the rim, a lob over the top to a cutting Andre Iguodala, or a corner three for Thompson, there aren’t a lot of good options for defenses when Green gets going on the short roll. Switching isn’t a foolproof plan, but it’ll be better than trapping and watching Green pick apart the ensuing 4-on-3. When Golden State does break out their smaller lineup, Portland can match them, with Rodney Hood replacing the traditional big man and moving Aminu to the center spot to continue to matchup with Green and switch on those screens.
On the other hand, the Trail Blazers were within striking distance for much of the game. Things got out of hand late, but Portland had the lead down to six going into the fourth quarter and absolutely could have won Game 1 even with the poor defensive scheme they employed. If Stotts doesn’t want to change up the defense, perhaps some small rotational tweaks will be in the cards for Portland going into Game 2. Without Durant, Curry and Green are the engines that drive the Warriors forward, but they routinely open the second and fourth quarters with both of those guys on the bench for several minutes. When the team is healthy, those minutes are reserved for Durant to cook against opposing bench units, but now that he’s out, they’re going with Thompson as the only star on the floor alongside Quinn Cook, Shaun Livingston, Jonas Jerebko, and Bell.
Portland absolutely has to win these stretches. That five-man grouping is about as poor as one could expect from the Warriors, who like to go deep into their bench in these lineups. Stotts has consistently opted to do the same throughout this playoff run and the Trail Blazers lost the non-Curry/Green minutes by 7 in Game 1 – perhaps tweaks to the Portland rotation would put a stronger lineup on the floor during these minutes. Turning those minutes into a positive is an absolute must for Portland.
The Trail Blazers have a massive task in front of them in this series, but their defensive scheme in Game 1 left them with little chance to actually pull off the upset. They can tweak a few things going into Game 2 and put more pressure on the Warriors when Curry and Green sit, but the fact of the matter is that they’re going to have to contend with Curry in ball screen action for 36-40 minutes a night and need a better solution than watching him rainbow shots over the head of Kanter and Collins all night. Whether it’s trapping when one of Golden State’s traditional centers is setting the screen or switching when it’s Green alongside a smaller closing lineup, something’s got to change for Portland.