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Breaking Down the Blazers’ Defensive Struggles against the Lakers

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Portland’s problems start on one end of the court, and it’s not all LeBron.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Portland Trail Blazers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers’ fun bubble run may be nearing it’s end. Damian Lillard’s season has essentially ended, Jusuf Nurkic looks gassed, and the Lakers are prepared to waltz their way past Portland. Just over a week ago every Blazer fan was celebrating a decisive Game 1 victory, and now they’re staring at a gentleman’s sweep. And as fun as it was watching a team will their way into the playoffs, it’s somehow always more disappointing to have to (potentially) watch them leave.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t positive takeaways for Portland: Jusuf Nurkic looked better than anyone could’ve expected, Gary Trent Jr. showed that he can be a quality rotation player, and Damian Lillard had some amazing “put the team on his back” moments. But if anything the Lakers series showed exactly where the Blazers are most deficient, and this team has a lot of work to do if they want to take full advantage of the Lillard era.

Everything the Blazers need to fix starts and ends with the defense. The team posted a defensive rating this year of 114.3, ranking 27th among all teams. The porous defense has put the offense in a situation where they have to score about 120 points AT LEAST to secure victory. But a game like Monday’s shows that it’s not exactly a sustainable strategy.

The perimeter defense is where they’ve really struggled. This current squad doesn’t really have an elite defender on the perimeter. Trent is the best defender they’ve had in the bubble, but this series especially has shown that there’s limits to his effectiveness. LeBron James dominated Games 3 and 4 because he was able to use his absurd blend of size and speed to his advantage, often leaving defenders like Trent in impossible situations.

This is a good example of that. The ultimate irritant that is Dwight Howard sets the high screen on GTJ that disrupts him just enough so that LeBron can drive by and draw the foul. There’s not a ton Trent can do right there; it’s a good enough screen from Howard and LeBron is just way too fast. But it puts Nurkic in a tough position where he has to foul in order to stop it (more on that later), and it’s the kind of play that happens far too often.

This play is tough for two reasons. First, Trent gets hit in the face by Carmelo Anthony slightly so there’s no way he can actually get to the rim to stop anything. Second, James is strong enough to fend off Trent with his butt and fast enough to never let him close that ground again. It’s an LBJ special, something he’s done forever. And while there’s a fair argument that LeBron is such an anomaly that he could do that to anyone, it has to be acknowledged that having a bigger wing (i.e. Trevor Ariza) to challenge LeBron on these plays would be highly beneficial.

One of the biggest problems for Portland has been defending the three. The Blazers gave up the second-most made threes per game this season at 13.4 only behind Milwaukee, a team whose defense is designed to protect the paint above all else. In the seeding games, that number was almost at 16 per game for Portland. Opponents made about 36% of their threes against them this season, 12th highest in the league. Teams felt pretty confident shooting the three on the Blazers this year.

The Lakers are not a good three-point shooting team. They shot very well from outside in Game 4 but have only hit 33% of their threes in the first round. They only made 34.9% of their threes during the regular season also, good for 21st in the league. But when you don’t have anyone you can trust one-on-one in the post against LeBron, you have to double him, and when you double anyone you leave yourself vulnerable because there’s an open man on the court. Alex Caruso is not a sharpshooter, but he can make it when left open enough, hence the above example.

Same with Markieff Morris, who made 38% of his threes in the regular season but only 33% since he joined the Lakers and 20% in this first round series. The Lakers set that opportunity up perfectly by getting LeBron the ideal matchup against CJ McCollum. That’s a losing battle for McCollum pretty much every time, so Melo has to help, leaving Morris wide open in the corner. The problem isn’t just that LeBron can score whenever he wants. It’s that he can open it up for anyone to score at any given time, and the playmakers in the west especially are only getting more and more talented at doing this exact thing (see Luka Doncic).

The problem with having such weak perimeter defense is that it puts unnecessary strain on the big men. Nurkic has had a lot on his plate in this series. He not only has to deal with LeBron barreling inside but Anthony Davis as well (although he’s favored the mid-range jumper in this series to much success). On top of this he’s the last resort when a Laker inevitably breaks through the first line of defense.

There’s not much you can do when James is running right at you for an easy bucket. James gets the first step on Trent and Howard makes recovery impossible, leaving Nurkic and Anthony (somewhat) as the last lines of defense. Nurkic decides the best move here is to just foul and force James to shoot free throws (which he misses, so that’s a positive). These kinds of plays happen where the bear hug feels like the best option, but it’s hard to feel good about that when you’re light on big-man options and your defensive anchor has to foul constantly just to prevent easy points.

Nurkic is just trying his best, man. James easily backs down Trent and Nurkic has to come over to help, leaving Howard open for a lay-up. He obviously misses it but James is right there to clean it up and he draws the and-one. Nurkic has to work his butt off just to make up for Trent’s lack of size, only to still get beat off the rebound (In all fairness to Trent, there’s not much anyone can do against LeBron in that situation). The moment the ball gets near the paint Nurkic becomes responsible for guarding up to three players at once, and that’s a big burden for him.

And this is what happens when you have to play your center 40 minutes a game because he’s your best defender and no one else can provide similar production. The moment Nurk is tasked with guarding LeBron, it’s over. He struggles with smaller players already, but after playing most of the game and a ton of minutes over the seeding games after 16 months of no basketball, he’s just gassed and can’t do much in this situation. Nurkic is a great defensive anchor to have, but like any good defensive big there are limitations to what he can do.

So what does this mean for the Blazers moving forward? Truthfully it’s nothing they didn’t already know; there needs to be an upgrade at the wing position defensively and they need a backup big who can relieve Nurkic and not totally fall apart when out there.

There’s an argument that Trevor Ariza could be the answer at the wing, should the Blazers re-sign him. Ariza played competent perimeter defense during his time with Portland and was effective as a spot-up shooter, but he’s also 35 and probably doesn’t have much time left as even an average defender. Melo has his moments defensively but overall was a negative on that end. GTJ is good, but all the above clips showed that while his size and strength is usually an asset, there are limitations to it. Maybe Nassir Little can develop into that guy, but even then that’s not a realistic expectation to place on such a raw young player.

Well how about the center spot? Hassan Whiteside in theory should be a solid backup center, but the idea of Whiteside often is better than the actual play of Whiteside. He’s had moments in Orlando where he’s been effective off the bench, but those feel few and far between. The answer could be a permanent move to the 5 for Zach Collins, which would be his most natural position.

Portland has some big decisions to make in the offseason. The Blazers could find a way to retain both Melo and Ariza and then start those two at the 3 and 4 spots with Collins as the backup 5. They could figure out how to keep one of them along with Whiteside. Or they could seek out alternatives in free agency or through a trade. There’s numerous possibilities here, but that’s a post for a different time.

For now, let’s focus on the current Blazers squad and their problem areas, with the defense being their most notable shortcoming. The Lakers exploited these problems and most likely will now most likely ease into the second round, assuming the bubble continues after the boycotts on Wednesday. It’s difficult enough guarding LeBron and AD, but it’s nearly impossible when no one on the roster is suited to do so. The question now is can the Blazers find the guys to fill those roles?