Watching Film: Transition Defense vs. Denver


Let’s rewind a couple days, way back to when Donovan McNabb hadn’t been traded to a division rival for spare parts and the iPad was still sitting innocently in some Best Buy storeroom. Back to that glorious April 1 when the Blazers summarily annihilated by the Nuggets in Denver, allowing 52 points in the paint and 18 fast-break points.

As you’re about to see, 10 of those transition baskets occurred in the third quarter. The Blazers began that quarter down one and left it down 11. As we’ve discussed, the defense wasn’t nearly what it was the week prior against Dallas — a game which we’ll be using as a loose barometer for the defense required for meaningful postseason success. But upon second viewing, the half-court defense was better than I initially gave it credit for. The rotations were still stilted, but satisfactory to some degree (given the opponent).

Yes, the 52 paint points stick out, but if you remove the 17 Denver points off layups and dunks gained in transition sequences in the following video, that’s just 35 points in the middle. In other words, had the Blazers allowed fewer points off running plays, their overall defensive effort was very manageable — at least before we get into their 41 percent shooting. The following ten plays could not have all been classified as fast-breaks in the box score, but they all represent my definition of transition opportunities.

(Note: The off-center-ness of the video is what happens when you count on coffee to fix morning eyes.)

Assuming by now that you’ve slapped your forehead and thought about screaming the word “TURNOVERS” but didn’t because you’re at work and that’s frowned upon, you clearly would have had a point. The Blazers committed just 11 turnovers in the game, but five of them resulted in the easy buckets you see here, the giveaways ranging from poor ball handling to poor passing to Jerryd Bayless.

Those turnovers represent Portland’s issues in this game in their simplest form. Two more breaks were allowed by missed jumpers, which will happen sometimes especially from the corner three bouncing long. But another two breaks were made possible by missed layups. If you think about that for a second, other than the layup misser, four Blazers should be in position to get back on defense in the event of such a short missed shot. You can still get beat by a good outlet pass, but you can’t consistently be overwhelmed by numbers in those situations.

Not that the manner in which Portland handled the fast breaks was appalling. In only three of the plays did the Blazers get beat because of their own poor defensive rotations and recognition. Unfortunately, in three others we can mark at least one Portland player down for not going all out in chasing the play when they had a chance to alter the situation. In all, the Blazers had poor odds — 2-on-1’s or 3-on-1’s — on seven of the breaks, meaning that their actual defense of the plays wasn’t nearly as important in how their offense allowed the break to develop.

On the plus side, we can mark the Blazers down for full-on sprinting back twice, the more notable being Nic Batum (don’t act surprised) missing a corner three and being the only Blazer to sprint back and almost make a play on Carmelo Anthony’s layup.

In the grand scheme of things, are the problems shown in this game going to affect the Blazers in the playoffs? Yes and no. It’s not often that such a high percentage of your turnovers become high probability plays for the other team in the open court. The Blazers manage the second-lowest turnover percentage in the league (.121) with the fourth-highest offensive rebounding percentage (.284), a combination that not many teams are able to pull off and certainly not an indicator of larger problems. But while Portland allows the second fewest fast-break points per game (11.2), five of the Western Conference playoff teams — minus the Lakers and San Antonio — are in the top eleven in transition scoring while being arguably better at running than some of the loosey-goosey teams above them due to better efficiency.

It all boils down to there being plenty of teams that will destroy the Blazers if you are giving up the ball in the backcourt and not sending anyone back on shots. The Blazers are capable of playing better defense, but if their offense is putting the D at a heavy disadvantage 10 possessions a game, then they will need star games from Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge offensively to make up for it. Against Denver, that didn’t happen.