The Trail Blazers enter the NBA Playoffs as a frisky eight seed led by a bonafide super star in Damian Lillard. But if the Blazers truly hope to pull off an improbable upset against the Lakers, they will need plenty of help from their supporting cast. CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic’s contributions to Portland’s foundation are well-known, but the emergence of Carmelo Anthony should not be overlooked as the postseason begins.
From consistent floor spacing to big shots in crunch time, Melo blossomed into a crucial ingredient to the Blazers’ successful run through the seeding process. Here is a look at his performance in the bubble thus far and how he can continue to contribute in a meaningful way against the Lakers.
It is important to investigate Anthony’s performance in the bubble under the proper lens. For the Blazers, who entered the seeding process chasing a postseason berth, each of their eight contests felt like playoff games. During that stretch, not including the play-in matchup against the Grizzlies on Saturday, Melo notched numbers that were superior to his last postseason outing with the Thunder.
In the Thunder’s six-game series against the Jazz in the 2018 NBA Playoffs, Melo struggled with efficiency on the offensive end of the court. He averaged a paltry 11.8 points per game on 37.5 percent shooting from the field. Prior to OKC’s exit from the postseason, Melo connected on just 21.4 percent of his three-point attempts (6-of-28).
Inside the bubble with the Blazers, Melo’s numbers represent a night-and-day difference. Through the eight seeding games, he averaged 16.5 points per game on 45.6 percent shooting from the field. When working from beyond the arc, Melo connected on 46.9 percent of his three-pointers. More importantly, he typically saved his most efficient production for crunch time. It was clear to everyone that watched the Blazers in the past two weeks that Melo was clutch and the numbers definitely support the eye test. In the fourth quarter, Melo shot an even 50 percent from the field and converted a stellar 64.3 percent of his three-pointers.
Melo’s revival in Portland is encouraging and it will need to continue, especially in crunch time, if the Blazers hope to pull the Lakers’ defense into deep water.
Unlocking Dame’s Gravity
Look, we have all seen it: Lillard gets smothered as soon as he crosses halfcourt and is forced to kick the ball to a forward that garners the same amount of respect that an Imperial Officer gets from Darth Vader on a Zoom call. Since the restart began, the pressure on Dame has, for the most part, remained the same. The difference: Melo has shown he is better equipped to exploit the extra space than the forwards that came before him.
Here is a simple example of how Melo makes the defensive pay for selling out on Lillard. Off the switch, three players collapse around Lillard as he drives to the lane. Melo’s defender, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, is already in the paint when Lillard crosses the three-point line. Luka Doncic also vacates his assignment on that side of the court, leaving Melo wide open in the corner.
Here is another look at the same opportunity unfolding, only this time a screen does not occur above the break. The Nets’ defense crowds the paint, leaving Melo wide open in the corner.
This type of action seems incredibly simple, but Melo’s efficiency is absolutely crucial. The Blazers learned first-hand about the type of pressure Anthony Davis applies when he is allowed to roam away from his assignment in the playoffs. Hopefully, Melo’s work from the corner can keep the Lakers somewhat honest.
I won’t harp on this for long—the shortcomings are obvious. The Blazers registered the third-worst defensive rating during the seeding games. Only the Mavericks and Nuggets finished with worse ratings on the leaderboard. Obviously, playing a 36-year-old Melo at small forward is less than ideal in most matchups.
Depending on the severity of Zach Collins’ ankle injury, Melo could receive a lifeline in the form of a return to the power forward spot. If that doesn’t occur, there are simple ways that the Blazers can make life a little easier for the former Syracuse star.
At the top of that list: Portland must do a better job controlling the pace. Here is just one example of how Melo gets himself in trouble in transition.
On that quick bucket from Ja Morant, Melo gets stuck in his back pedal for too long. By the time he turns, he is already trailing Brandon Clarke. Instead of rotating over to stop the ball, Melo is looking away from Morant in an effort to catch up with his assignment.
The Lakers led the league in fast break points this season (18.8 per game). The Blazers must find a way to slow down Los Angeles if they hope to mitigate Melo’s deficiencies on the defensive end in order to maximize his usefulness on offense.