The Blazers have allowed 228 points over their last two games. Although they escaped with a win over the Lakers last night, they could have effectively ended the game with a quarter left to play. Instead, they allowed a 34-point fourth quarter and had to play their starters much more than they should have. The team currently ranks 23rd in defensive rating, which needless to say isn’t contender-worthy.
The team’s pick and roll defense needs to improve. They can’t seem to find the right balance between aggression and caution. As a result, ball-handlers are torching them. Per Synergy, they rank 23rd in defending pick and roll ball handlers. I spent a while screenshotting videos to dissect the problems.
Terry Stotts’ new scheme has the guard fight over the screen no matter what, and the roll man’s defender stay pretty deep, often staying in the paint entirely. In theory, this strategy protects the middle from penetration and chases the point guard off the three point line. Here it is working correctly:
Blake has been forced to slow down, Lillard can recover. Any forward momentum the play had is gone. The only open shot created here is a 20-footer by Gasol, which is not the sort of look the Lakers want to generate. (Blake actually scored moments later, but on an awkward leaning fadeaway.)
In practice, though, this strategy often concedes a completely open midrange jumper for the ball handler. Long twos aren’t efficient shots, but a totally uncontested jumper from an NBA point guard is not a good shot to be conceding. To make matters worse, the guard’s defender, while fighting around the screen, often sees the jumper coming and jumps to contest it at an awkward angle, typically leading to a foul.
David Lee sets a solid screen, completely obstructing Lillard.
Thompson knows Lillard’s not going under the screen, so he curls tight around Lee and pulls up. His release is too quick for Aldridge to jump out and contest, and too accurate for Lillard to not contest. He leaps to challenge from behind and fouls.
Another goal of the revamped pick and roll coverage was to defend the guard and the big with just two defenders. Instead of trying to trap the ball handler with two men, leaving the remaining three defenders to cover four offensive players, the two defenders directly involved with the play contain it. This sometimes breaks down because the gaurd defender can’t fight around the screen quickly enough. Damian Lillard isn’t a great defender, but the Trail Blazers should be able to use his quickness to their advantage. Instead, he has to muscle around picks and ends up trailing the play.
Here he is, a step behind Steve Blake. (A good barometer: when the phrase “a step behind Steve Blake” is used, something’s going wrong.)
Notice the heads of the other defenders in that still. Most of them are hanging near their counterparts, but everyone’s looking at the guard. Blake ends up shooting a floater here, but he also could have kicked the ball to the perimeter and made the whole team scramble to recover.
The last problem with the coverage that I want to look at is the big man defender playing safety. The big, usually Robin Lopez, should be around the edge of the paint to intercept penetration. The problems arise when Lopez hangs too far back. An athletic ball handler can fly to the rim if he doesn’t step out far enough.
Matthews (obscured by Robert Sacre) is too far back to help. Xavier Henry has a full head of steam, and Lopez has to either (a) block his shot in spectacular fashion, (b) let him score on a layup or dunk, or (c ) foul him. Blocks are difficult. Layups and fouls are common. Henry scored on this one.
So the Blazers pick and roll coverage has some holes. If I knew how the fix them, I’d be the coach. How Terry Stotts and his crew respond to these issues might determine the ceiling of this team. Pick and rolls are important; if the Trail Blazers can contain them effectively, they might manage an above-average defense, which is all but indispensable for contention in the NBA.