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Focused Attention: How the Lakers Dismantled a Potent Blazers’ Offense

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From smothering Damian Lillard to creating easy looks on the other end, the Lakers stymied the Blazers offense efficiently after Game 1.

Los Angeles Lakers v Portland Trail Blazers - Game Four Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The first quarter of Game 1 gave merit to the audacious prediction that the Portland Trail Blazers would upset the Los Angeles Lakers. Portland dropped 36 points against the league’s third-best defense and convincingly led by 11 as the first of four buzzers sounded.

Portland ultimately won the game, but every quarter since then has encouraged the pundit army, spearheaded by Charles Barkley, to double back on their takes. The Blazers have scored more than 30 points in only one other quarter—excluding the garbage time of Game 2 and Game 4—and haven’t reached 25 points in seven quarters.

As a result, Portland has an offensive rating of 102.2 in the series, the lowest among all 16 postseason squads. That starkly contrasts the team’s offensive rating of 122.5 in the eight seeding games, which led the bubble leaderboard by more than two points.

In that opening quarter, it appeared as though the Blazers had maintained its momentum from the seeding and play-in contests. The ball and player movements were a joy to watch…until the Lakers altered its defensive focus to suffocate Damian Lillard and the pick and roll.

LeBron and company obviously entered the matchup knowing that they needed to stop Lillard. But his off-ball involvement within the offense was different than normal and created unpredictable opportunities. Lillard didn’t play into LA’s hands by isolating or running pick and rolls.

In Game 1, Jusuf Nurkic, a threat to hand the ball off to Lillard for a quick three-pointer, found his teammate on backdoor cuts twice as the Lakers guards overplayed the perimeter. In a similar role, Mario Hezonja found Lillard around a Hassan Whiteside screen on the wing for a wide-open catch and shoot triple. Because of the hand-wrapped looks from his teammates, Lillard finished the quarter 5-of-6 from the field with 15 points.

Since that first quarter, such off-ball movement by the guards with Nurkic distributing hasn’t happened as frequently. Lillard was asked to generate his own looks in isolation or out of the pick and roll, exactly what the Lakers defense wants. They can trap him 30 feet from the basket and wall off any attempt at dribble penetration.

This focused defense has noticeably dropped Lillard’s scoring efficiency. In isolation, he’s scoring 0.56 points per possession; among 37 players who have recorded more than five iso possessions in the playoffs, he ranks 35th. It’s a far cry from the 1.07 PPP he posted in the regular season.

As the pick-and-roll ball handler, Lillard’s most common and effective form of offense, his points per possession dipped from 1.15 in the regular season to 1.00 through four playoff contests.

With an otherworldly shooter running around the perimeter, Portland’s remaining four players found room to attack the paint in the first quarter of Game 1. The team tallied 10 points in the paint and attempted 10 free throws, making nine of them.

Of the 16 quarters in this first round series, Portland has tied or outscored LA in the paint six times, one of which was that first quarter. Going away from Lillard and CJ McCollum moving off the ball allowed the Lakers to defend the paint better, hence LA’s big roster outscoring Portland down low in 10 of 16 quarters.

And everyone knows of the free throw line discrepancy, so getting double-digit opportunities from the charity stripe in a single 12-minute span created uber-efficient offense for the Blazers.

Another result of the ball and player movement was, surprise surprise, assists! The Blazers collected eight in the first quarter, the most of any quarter in the series. Carmelo Anthony, who averages 2.3 assists per game in the series, accumulated three in his first nine minutes of play. His quick hit ahead pass to a streaking Wenyen Gabriel led to a dunk and energized Portland’s roster.

Gabriel’s dunk contributed to two of the team’s seven fastbreak points in the opening frame, its most of any quarter. The Lakers have obtained a sizable advantage on fastbreaks, which are usually the easiest buckets around. Without energy on the defensive end and heads up passing, the Blazers have floundered in terms of creating transition opportunities.

Without Lillard in the bubble due to a knee injury, even the well-oiled offense from Game 1’s first quarter likely can’t save Portland against a team touting LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Nonetheless, that one 12-minute span indicated that this core roster, with improved offensive structure and more shooters flanking the perimeter, can put up gaudy numbers against even the best defenses. And with defensive questions going forward, the team will need that sort of offensive production on a nightly basis.

For those of you who made it this far, thank you for reading my story! It’s pretty cool to know people enjoy—or at least put up with—the content I produce. But what would be even cooler is if you read one (or all) of the stories I’ve linked below. Games in the bubble are not just about basketball, so neither should the coverage.

“Your Money Can’t Silence Me” from Sterling Brown in The Player’s Tribune

“Privileged” from Kyle Korver in The Player’s Tribune

“Y’all Hear Us, But You Ain’t Listening” from Tobias Harris in The Player’s Tribune

“Ain’t No Sticking To Sports” from Kyle Kuzma in The Player’s Tribune