Film Analysis: How Portland Unraveled In Game Four

By Matt Esposito

If my 7th grade school year was a Sci-Fi movie, it would have pitted Northern Acne versus the dreaded Shifting Teeth of the South. I was ugly. Or, as my Mima would say, I just had “an unfortunate face.” Still, this wasn’t as ugly as Game Four of the Portland-Los Angeles series.

Hopefully you chuckled at that. This blog won’t bring many happy thoughts. Regardless, despite abdicating my duties for Game Three, I wanted to breakdown this latest contest to bring back some consistency (Click the shiny blue for Game One and Two breakdowns.) Without further ado…

Deep Trouble From The Jump

What’s more unbelievable than me having a girlfriend? The fact that the first quarter wasn’t over before she glanced up from playing Bricks n Balls to mumble, “Why is LA so much better than the white and red team?” Still, there were actually some bright spots from the stanza that will be addressed. But first, the bad.

After running into a Lakers defense that is firing on all cylinders, Portland grew visibly frustrated. Plus, seeing some decent looks rim out doesn’t help. They rapidly descended into hero-ball; a formula that plays right into the hands of Los Angeles defenders.

Portland is at their best versus LA when they make every defender work. This is one of the reasons why I promoted an offensive strategy that saw the ball work through Jusuf Nurkic. Getting him touches in the short roll, post or perimeter transforms the offense into something more free flowing. It also forces the Lakers out of position and into more switches. Hero-ball curtails ball movement and makes LA’s job much eaiser.

CJ McCollum was the only person to touch the ball during that play, just like Dame is the only one to do so in this next play. The stagnation allows for AD to either defend well during the switch or help on a rotation. He did both and Portland suffered.

A rewatch of the first two quarters displays a bevy of isolation plays. These sets can work but become less effective when three to four other Blazers are not moving. Los Angeles had loads of time to prepare for drives and communicate directions to teammates. There were some positive takeaways, however.

Signs Of Life

Terry Stotts is a fine basketball coach, but I have grown increasingly more frustrated with him throughout this series. Frank Vogel’s scheme to smother Dame and CJ is apparent. So far, Stotts has gone all-in on trying to free his two lethal scorers. A pivot towards working through more often Nurkic is not an enticing option, but one which should have been explored further.

Nurk’s touch near the hoop is lovely. Therefore, when LA stunts towards Dame on pick-and-rolls, slipping him short roll passes is a viable option. Nurkic is favored to score when players like JaVale McGee, Markieff Morris or even LeBron James are forced to rotate onto him. A few successful short roll dump offs will pressure Los Angeles to change their pick-and-roll defense and in turn free up Dame and CJ.

Movement during short rolls also creates easy chances. Nurkic is not a great executor (more on this to come) but he must be trusted to deliver the pass. Portland may have no other choice. Watch this dime to a slashing Carmelo Anthony.

This next short roll is so close to completion. Nurkic simply tossed the ball too high for McCollum to snatch it and score. Regardless, I’d rather gamble on Nurkic hitting an open teammate for an easy two than rely upon motionless, lifeless isolation ball.

To boot, Hassan Whiteside can even be deployed as the short roller. Surely, he has no problem throwing his big body at defenders who are late to help.

What To Gamble On To Avoid Elimination

There is a decision to be made. Stotts can keep trying to find way to unleash his two best players. So far this series, LA has made that remarkably hard to do. He could also lean on Nurkic more. Yet, we’ve seen Nurk’s inconsistency to create offense for others.

Conventional wisdom – something I lack – suggests that Stotts should rely upon his superstar to stave off elimination. For quarter one, I’d zig instead of zag. LA has done a good enough job at limiting Dame this series. But, Dame can still shoot Portland into a win. Emphasizing ball movement and pick-and-roll dumps to the Blazers bigs can result in Los Angeles switching the way they defend Dame. The goal is to get him and CJ more space to create and to do so you must give LA a reason to stay closer to Nurkic and Whiteside.

This is easier said than done, however. For every impressive assist Nurkic tosses, he throws out a turnover. Stotts has Nurkic-centered plays ready to call yet, his trust level may not be terribly high. I understand that. But with the way LA is defending his backcourt, what other choice does he have right now?

The backdoor pass was there if Portland was moving with any gusto, but Nurk couldn’t execute and Melo didn’t cut hard with timing. Below, he chucks a pass to Dame that would result in push-ups if this were a summer hoops camp.

Despite these turnovers, it is not difficult to imagine these sets as high scoring chances. Again, I’m not advocating for Nurkic to command the entire offense. Rather, he needs to be involved more often during the game’s opening stages so Dame and CJ can reap the benefits when the Laker’s adjust their defense.

One Last Thing

Stotts must engage in the chess match. Los Angeles can adjust on defense in real-time. Here, a double team against Melo is capitalized on by hitting the open teammate. Portland runs the same set a couple of possessions later and LA adjusts by not sending the double team.

They decided that it made more sense to surrender a contested, midrange two to Carmelo instead of leaving a 7-footer open under the rim. If Stotts has a wrinkle to this play, that was the time to add it. If not, he should consider putting more space in between running the same set. LeBron is too smart and will have his team adjust properly.

What To Expect In Game Five

Keep an eye on the hero-ball theme. Will Dame try to put his team on his back one more time? Will Vogel be expecting this and therefore send even more help at Dame? If so, can Stotts call plays that take advantage of that help? Am I asking too many questions?

Probably. But feel free to drop your expectations in the comments or hit me on Twitter @Mattesposito_. Additionally, listen to The Playgrounder podcast to hear my cohost and I argue for Portland to explore trades this offseason. Thanks!

Published by Matt Esposito

Founder/Writer for Theplaygrounder.com and contributor to Red’s Army Twitter: @Mattesposito_

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