Idk fam, you tell me. But seriously, Portland’s Game 1 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers was impressive. Kinda. Did Dame and company outplay LeBron and the Bronettes? Or did the Lakers simply have an off shooting night? Surely there’s an FBI warrant out for whoever stole Danny Green’s shooting stroke, but perhaps the answer is a bit of both.
Regardless, Terry Stotts was aware of the Laker’s defensive game plan before the opening tip. Considering Damian Lillard is a literal human torch and CJ McCollum is defying all known thresholds of human pain, Los Angeles head coach Frank Vogel decided on two principles.
Principle One: Help on Lillard, McCollum, Gary Trent Jr. or Carmelo Anthony should come from whoever is guarding Nurkic. This brings us to Principle Two: Fight hard to prevent pick-and-rolls and/or dribble handoffs (DHO) that can lead to three-pointers.
Stotts prepared his crew for these strategies. Nurkic was often left open on rolls and pops, ready to receive a pass and create from there. But was it always successful? Nurkic is not exactly the Al Horford of Bam Adebayos when it comes to passing from the perimeter. The tape gives mixed reviews but should leave Portland fans encouraged.
Portland had a plan in anticipation of Vogel’s defensive scheme. In fact, in their very first possession, the Blazers took advantage of this expected help. A strong pick by Nurk forced JaVale McGee to cover Lillard. Eventually, Danny Green recovered, and Lillard swung the ball back to the open man—in this case, Nurkic. A quick big-to-big pass allows Wenyen Gabriel capitalize on the play with high-percentage two.
The Lakers stunted towards whichever ballhandler was operating from a Nurkic screen or DHO. This theme continued throughout the duration of the contest, as evidenced by this late game foul by Green. To show how dedicated LA was to this plan, watch McGee abandon Nurkic to double…Carmelo Anthony.
Los Angeles made a calculated move to help off Nurkic, the weakest floor-spacer. They dared Nurkic to beat them from the pick-and-pop or the short roll. The Blazers had some counter moves for this. How did it pan out?
Nurkic As A Facilitator
With extra attention being paid to Lillard and McCollum (and rightfully so), Jusuf Nurkic had to shoulder added offensive responsibility. Yet tasking him to score often against strong defensive players like McGee, Anthony Davis, and Dwight Howard would be foolhardy. Therefore, Stotts opted to capitalize when the Lakers doubled or tightly defended his guards by deploying Nurkic as a passer.
There’s good reason for this, too; Davis is one of a handful of bigs that doesn’t give you the lower back sweats when he is switched onto a certified baller on the perimeter. What’s more, Davis often blocks triples during pick-and-roll coverage due to his length and fundamentals
So, Stotts depended on Nurkic to help free his guards in other ways. The first quarter featured handpicked plays to punish LA’s strategy of gluing defenders to Dame and CJ. For example, watch the Blazers use McCollum as a decoy to spring Gary Trent Jr. for a cut. Alex Caruso sticks to Dame instead of helping, which gives Trent Jr. the lane.
A poor pass from Nurkic foils this chance. The game plan is obvious, though: The Lakers want to deny Portland’s guards from getting the ball, and when that fails, they want to double off Nurkic. Watch Kentavious Caldwell-Pope overplay Lillard to prevent him from taking a Nurkic DHO. The result? A timely cut for a backdoor two.
This play happened multiple times in the opening stanza. Once more, KCP denies a DHO and this leads to a Dame lob.
Portland even tried this play with the less explosive McCollum, demonstrating how important this countermove was for them. McCollum fails to convert, but the play helps in keeping the Laker’s defense honest.
Shoot, even when Lillard or McCollum couldn’t shake free for the cut, the defense still dragged toward them. Here, it leaves Nurkic wide open for a three. Nurkic making these shots will be crucial to Portland’s success in this series; it’ll likely be there for the big man.
Cashing In On 3-Point Denial
Remember those two aforementioned principles? Here they are again. Howard ditches Nurkic to prevent a Lillard pull up. KCP does his part to accomplish the same. Still, Nurkic shows his gravity; Howard’s quits guarding Lillard to return to Nurk, freeing Dame to sink a wide open two-pointer.
Once more, AD leaves Nurkic to meet Lillard at the 3-point line. KCP sticks to his daunting assignment, and suddenly, I have a feeling that KCP-ing will become a verb sometime soon. Dame makes Los Angeles pay for leaving Nurkic open.
Even Hassan Whiteside got in on the action. Here, the Lakers are so hellbent on denying three-point chances off of screens and DHOs that both Davis and James prep to contest Gary Trent Jr. This overplay opens a lane for Trent to drive and score.
Lastly, watch Green go over a Nurkic screen to ensure McCollum can’t hoist a 3-pointer. CJ misses the DHO layup attempt among the trees, but you get the point.
Can This Work?
This season, Dame, CJ and Melo each ran less than 2.5 percent of their plays as cuts. An uptick in this play-type could help keep Los Angeles honest and earn some space for Portland’s guards and wings. But these sets expend tons of energy and cannot be used with much regularity in the NBA and Lillard and McCollum are too good on the ball to do this often. Plus, the Lakers have a plethora of capable rim protectors who can recover in time to prevent easy looks.
I’m more interested in Nurkic’s role. He could see more chances to score or playmake on the roll when defenders double off of him. But Nurkic is not an efficient roller; he has never finished above the 60th percentile as a pick-and-roll roll man, according to NBA.com. Whiteside, however, is a better roller with more rim-running gravity. Perhaps he can be a benefactor of this situation.
Is there room for Nurkic to capitalize on the short roll? This excites me. Cleaning The Glass reports that during his 2018–19 season, Nurkic finished in the 71st percentile among bigs for long midrange attempts, and the 75th percentile for makes. He’s also in the top quarter for assist metrics as well. Implementing him more as a short-roll threat—as a passer or a scorer—could work wonders for Portland.
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