A very enlightening piece, as per usual, from Grantland’s Zach Lowe focusing on NBA teams that utilize conservative defensive schemes, their reasons for doing so and the risks involved. Lowe uses the Timberwolves, a team that rarely commits fouls, and the Trail Blazers, a team that almost never forces turnovers, as examples, highlighting the positives and negatives of each approach. Like most of Lowe’s work, it’s incredibly approachable for even the casual NBA fan who doesn’t necessarily have a background or interest in advanced analytics and basketball theory.
The entire article is worth reading, but I found this part particularly interesting …
The Blazers over the summer reconstructed their base defense to play a more conservative style, aimed at forcing as many midrange jumpers as possible. Their big men mostly sag back against pick-and-rolls, and they stick very close to opposing shooters dotting the perimeter. Some teams have those defenders along the arc dart into the paint to provide help, or at least the threatening impression of help, but Portland’s guys stay close to home.
It’s working! Only four teams allow more midrange jumpers than Portland, and nobody, not even the Bulls, allows fewer corner 3-point attempts per game, according to NBA.com. Rejoice, hipster doughnut-eaters of the world!
But wait … the Blazers, despite this fairly healthy shot distribution profile, are not very good at defense. They’re 22nd in points allowed per possession. They can pile up all the wins in the world, but they’re not sniffing a championship with a bottom-10 defense. There are a few things behind the struggle, but here’s a big one: The Blazers almost never force turnovers. They simply don’t do the sorts of things that produce turnovers — aggressive help in the passing lanes, frenzied traps, packing the paint to force risky inside-out passes around the horn. Portland has forced turnovers on just 11 percent of opponent possessions, per Basketball-Reference. That would be the third-lowest turnover rate in the entire history of the league.
Conservatism can be healthy for an NBA defense. Coaches preach it all the time: Stay home, don’t gamble, don’t reach yourself into a foul. Let’s force them into a long jumper, clean the rebound, and move on with life. If they make it, they make it. What can we do?
The Trail Blazers readily admit they don’t force many turnovers, as it’s not at all uncommon for Terry Stotts to point that out to the media when asked about his team’s defense (in fact, I think both he and Wesley Matthews made that point in their post-game comments after the victory versus the Knicks on Wednesday). But reading that the third-lowest turnover rate in NBA history was still surprising. The thing is, half of the teams with similar turnover rates that Lowe references weren’t half bad, which I think is kind of the point.
As for why the Trail Blazers don’t gamble, my guess, which Lowe addresses in the piece, is that while Portland’s bench is improved this season, there’s still enough of a drop off from the starting unit that the chance of getting into foul trouble isn’t worth the risk associated with forcing turnovers. That can seem like a self-fulfilling prophesy if you believe, as many do, that NBA teams known for playing tough defense get away with being more physical than their more offensive-minded counterparts, but I’m not sure there’s much the Trail Blazers can do about that.
And we’re back. After the Trail Blazers defeated a shorthanded Clippers team 109-98 in Game Five at Staples Center to take a 3-2 lead in the first round series, Joe Freeman, he of The Oregonian/OregonLive.com, and I, Casey Holdahl of ForwardCenter.net/TrailBlazers.com, hit the Moda Center studios once again to deliver another playoff edition of the Rip City Report podcast. Please consider listening…
On this episode, Joe and I discuss the Trail Blazers being on the verge of winning just their second playoff series in the last 16 years, what we’re expecting to see during Game Six Friday in Portland, make our picks for the Trail Blazers’ MVP and most surprising during the first five games, how the injuries to Chris Paul and Blake Griffin change the narrative surrounding the series and answer some of your Twitter-submitted questions regarding Chris Kaman’s birthday, non-Moda Center places to watch Game Six, player playoff bonuses and give a few binge watching suggestions, not that you’d ever need to watch TV again with all these fine podcasts we’re providing for you.
After struggling in the first few games of their first round playoff series, the play of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in Games Three, Four and Five has been one of the main reasons the Trail Blazers hold a 3-2 advantage versus the Clippers. Mason Plumlee has arguably been Portland’s most valuable player, and both Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless have delivered game-changing performances at times during the series, but the attention Lillard and McCollum draw from the Clippers’ defense has allowed for their teammates to have a chance to shine in the postseason. And despite L.A.’s defensive gameplan focusing almost exclusively on stopping Portland’s starting backcourt, Lillard and McCollum are combining to average just over 40 points a game during the 2016 playoffs.
Given that, and the fact that they even made the playoffs, let alone are a game away from winning Portland’s second playoff series in the last 15 years, TNT analyst Charles Barkley declared on last night’s edition of “Inside The NBA” that Portland’s backcourt is second only to Golden State’s, the team the Trail Blazers would face should they advance to the next round.
Damian Lillard was having one of his worst shooting nights of the season through the first three 36 minutes of Portland’s 108-98 victory versus the Los Angeles Clippers in Game Five of their first round playoff series Wednesday night at Staples Center. Though he no longer had to deal with being defended by guard Chris Paul, who is out of the series after breaking a bone in his right hand during Game Four, the Clippers continued their series-long tactic of throwing constant double teams and traps at Lillard, pestering the 6-3 point guard to go just 1-of-10 from the field through the first three quarters.
“It wasn’t even so much missing the shots that was bothering me, it was just I couldn’t get any attempts because they were so aggressive,” said Lillard. “They played a smaller lineup more often than they did the first couple games, but everything that I did, they were just as aggressive. It was obvious that they wanted me to get rid of the ball just like it was in the first four games.”
And for most of the night, the strategy worked. Despite being being without Paul and Blake Griffin, who is also out for the series with a left quad injury, the Clippers took a five-point lead into the intermission. Even when CJ McCollum got his shot going in the third quarter, scoring 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting, Los Angeles was still able to go into the fourth quarter tied at 71-71.
But even though Lillard was struggling, Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts decided to leave his point guard in the game to start the fourth quarter. Stotts said after the game that he changed up that rotation in order to get McCollum some extra rest, though it ultimately had another benefit.
“I usually play the third and then I sit the first couple minutes of the fourth,” said Lillard. “But I hadn’t gotten it going, and Coach Stotts knew that it was a game that we needed to win. It was a huge game for us. I think he left me out there just so I could get it going.”
Which he did. Lillard made his first attempt of the fourth quarter, a 26-foot pullup three-pointer, after just 15 seconds had elapsed in the fourth. Less than two minutes later, he made another pullup three. He stripped Clippers guard Pablo Prigioni on the ensuing possession and then converted the turnover into a fastbreak dunk, which gave Lillard eight points roughly two minutes.
“I’ve always been able to put the first three quarters behind me and come up big when my team has needed it,” said Lillard. “All my teammates throughout the game, they just kept saying, keep shooting, stay with it, stay aggressive, keep your mind right. I would have been doing that all along, but it felt good to have that encouragement and that support, especially with them trapping so high out. I had to trust the right play, hitting the guy in the middle and allowing him to make the next play to the weak side. I just had to be patient.”
But Lillard wasn’t done just yet. He left the game with just over nine minutes to play in order to get the rest that he’d usually get at the start of the quarter before returning at the 6:25 mark to presumably play the remainder of regulation.
And from there, it was Lillard Time.
He’s go on to make a 16-foot jumper and two three-pointers over the course of a two-minute span that saw the Trail Blazers extend their lead from 10 to 17 while effectively putting the game out of reach with 3:38 to play. By time Lillard subbed out with just under a minute to play, he had put up 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting from the field and 4-of-6 shooting from three in eight and a half fourth-quarter minutes, helping Portland take a 3-2 series lead with what could be a deciding Game Six scheduled for Friday at the Moda Center.
Some players might have chosen, either subconsciously or otherwise, to defer exclusively to his teammates or find reasons not to shoot after struggling through the first three quarters like Lillard did. But that’s not how he got to where he’s at, and it certainly wouldn’t get the Trail Blazers to where they want to go. Regardless of how the game starts, Lillard is always out to finish thanks to a firm belief that the next shot, and the one after that, and the one after that, is going to find the bottom of the net.
“Regardless of how I play in the first three quarters, always in my mind I tell myself, ‘You going to come up big,’” said Lillard. “Even if it comes down to one possession, if I’ve got one point and there’s one possession left in the game, I always tell myself, ‘You’re going to come up big.’ So I was counting on that. That was it. It’s just the mindset, confidence.”