“I wish my arms was long enough to hug you all of the same time” – Slum Village (Selfish.)
Why am I starting off with a vintage rap lyric from 2004? To show my appreciation for Portland Trail Blazers fandom, specifically the diehards on their subreddit. As per request, I am following up my previous review for Game One with a breakdown for Game Two. Let’s dive in.
What We Already Knew
Coming into Game One, Frank Vogel emphasized helping off of Jusuf Nurkic to better cover Portland’s top scorers. Whats’ more, the Lakers tried to limit the amount of pull up 3-pointers Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum could take.
This often left Nurkic (as well as Hassan Whiteside) open near the perimeter; an intriguing but also precarious situation for the Blazers. Nurkic cannot yet nail triples with consistency and Hassan is gonna Hassan. Yet, Portland found some success using Nurk as a passer to cutting teammates. How did play change in Game Two?
The Initial Game Plan
Despite winning the opening contest of this series, Portland’s offense did not amaze anyone. In fact, reasonable minds could debate that the Laker’s poor shooting performance contributed more to their loss than the Blazer’s offensive outing did. During that game, both Dame and CJ still had trouble getting into rhythm (sans Dame in the 4th) and finding clean looks.
Therefore, Terry Stotts altered the offense to free up the backcourt players. He engineered more dribble handoffs (DHOs), rescreens, and deep rolls to ensure either Lillard or McCollum would have more one-on-one chances. The shot attempts were decent, coming by eiter single coverage rim looks or Dame’s vintage pull up bombs. According to the eye test, the first quarter was by far Portland’s best for offensive rhythm and shot selection.
Portland’s scheme disallowed LA from sending help off of Nurkic as often as they’d like to. Keep and eye on the big man in the video above. Defenders stuck closer to him during Game Two than they did in Game One. When the Lakers did ditch Nurkic, however, Portland was ready.
Unfortunately, so were the Lakers. Watch Kentavious Caldwell-Pope sniff out this big-to-big pass before it happens. Los Angeles prevented an easy lob and forced Nurkic to take a defended two, which he made. Still, KCP’s recognition was a sign that LA was prepared for this game plan.
In fact, the Lakers seemed prepared for other schemes too. Vogel expected Portland’s guards to take advantage of doubles by finding the open man. Take a look at this image of four Lakers surrounding the perimeter (read: Dame) and you’ll see why.
Lillard dished to a cutting Gabriel and Gabriel then kicked to the corner shooter. These were both the correct reads. But Los Angeles has an 6-foot-8 rocket scientist playing defense. Like a savant, LeBron James predicted the play and forced Gabriel into committing a charge.
Second Quarter Adjustments
In the second quarter Portland shifted towards setting more high screens. Los Angeles had premier switch defender Anthony Davis to defend many of them. His talent, combined with a well executed strategy to prevent pull up triples and funnel ballhandlers to rim protectors, resulted in many contested shots.
Want to know why the wheels fell off during this quarter? The Trail Blazers ran into a three time All-Defensive team member with nimble feet and a 7-foot-6 wingspan. It’s hard to run successful high screens when you go against a guy like AD.
What do you mix in when wanting to avoid agile, lengthy defenders during switch coverage? Try splitting the pick-and-roll early. This reduces the time switch defenders have to properly cover the ballhandler.
Yet, this technique takes a high level of skill. Plus, Los Angeles has so many long-armed defenders to reach towards the ball. If that isn’t tough enough, they have even more behemoths rotating over to help contest in the paint. Portland found little success here.
For all intents and purposes, this game was over by halftime. Portland never recovered from a large second quarter deficit and got outscored 32-19 in the third quarter. The offense grew increasingly more desperate and the game plan suffered because of it. Understandable.
Are There Any Solutions?
Sure! The Blazers supporting cast shot 6-17 from deep. Dame and CJ went a combined 2-12. While some looks were masterfully contested by AD, others were clean attempts that simply didn’t go in. Consider the example below. Dame missed a good look when JaVale McGee shaded to the wrong side during a screen. Expect more of these to drop next game as Dame returns to form.
Nurkic must also command more touches. He is still being left open too often and Portland is not making Los Angeles pay for it. Despite only recently adding the 3-point shot to his game, Stotts may want to gamble on Nurkic being able to hit it often enough. He’s also a solid creator for others and possesses soft touch in the short roll area.
If Stotts uses his burner to read this post and decides to channel more offense through Nurkic, then he may also want to consider finding more minutes for Gary Trent Jr. Although Trent’s shooting has cooled off a tad, he is still much better than Gabriel at sinking triples. Looks like the one below need to be capitalized on and Gabriel is not reliable enough to do so.
Do not be too discouraged, Portland fans. After falling down 0-1 in the series, LA amped up its defense to the level we witnessed during pre-Bubble play. That was to be expected. Things should even out during Game 3. Continue to monitor Nurkic’s usage and the ways Los Angeles defends Portland’s guards.
BONUS – PODCAST ALERT!
Zach Wilson and I had did a “shark tank” style pitch as to why Portland can beat LA this series. Tune in at the (27:30) mark to check it out. Click HERE to listen! Thanks and subscribe if you dig it!