The Quest to Halt the Blazer’s 10-game Winning Streak Against the Lakers
By: Austin Isaacsohn
The Lakers will ride into the Moda Center Wednesday to face the Trail Blazers: a team allowing the fourth-most points per game in the league, who haven’t had an All-Star in three years, and losers of four of their last five. Yet L.A. will assuredly play the underdog for one main reason — Damian Lillard.
The point guard has absolutely shredded L.A. his entire career. Over the last three seasons, he’s averaged over 27 points per game against the purple and gold — way up from his career average of 21.9 — and has shot over 41% from deep — up from his 36.7% career mark. LA’s clearest path to victory therefore revolves around shutting down Lillard, and conversely, using his disadvantages on defense.
Someone, Say Something
Why it Worked: The shot occurs at the three-point arch, but it was action in the paint that freed up the shooter. As soon as Lou Williams goes over the high Plumlee screen (which the Lakers do because there’s just no way Mozgov can keep up with a guard on the switch), Plumlee plunges into the paint, pulling Mozgov — who still has his eyes on Evan Turner — with him. Plumlee does a good job of running away from the man guarding him, which forces Russell to pick him up, and Mozgov doesn’t see the screen from Lillard, causing even more confusion down low.
How to Adjust: Mozgov could have switched and chased Lillard out to the perimeter to get crossed up something nasty, which is what the Lakers wanted to avoid in the first place (not to mention leaving Russell on a center). Mozgov should have recovered quicker to Plumlee after the screen and let Russell get the hell out of the paint. There’s no communication inside, and all of a sudden Lillard is at the top of the arch with the ball and no one around him. Swish.
Eliminate Lillard’s Head Start
Why it Worked: The Blazers know that LA isn’t switching here, so they run a very high pick, well above the three-point line. Plumlee makes great contact with Clarkson, who was probably supposed to ice, and Randle finds himself flat-footed and guarding someone who is not only much faster than him, but now also has a running start. Randle’s teammates also didn’t do much to help their power forward. Nick Young was likely told to not help too hard off of Allen Crabbe, as most NBA teams (including the Lakers) don’t help off of 3-point shooters when they’re one pass away. Ingram’s in terrible weak side help position, but he can’t have one foot in the paint, as that’s essentially what the refs are looking for on the Defensive 3 Seconds call. He’s supposed to “toe tap” into the paint, getting in & out of there before they call the 3 second violation.
How to Adjust: There’s no need for Clarkson to fight over a screen 40 feet away from the basket. This gives Lillard a head of steam & it’s impossible to stay in front of a guard like him when that happens. Randle doesn’t square up particularly well, and gets turned sideways. This is mostly due to the head of steam, but it’s something he struggles with. Had a switch been called out by anyone, Randle could have hedged harder on Lillard, increasing his chances of not getting driven by or shot over — Dame’s best two attacks.
There are ways to solve these issues. Communication is obviously key, but setting a specific game plan against Lillard that involves fighting over his screens whenever possible to chase him off the three-point line (just not 40 feet away), and hard hedging (if forced to switch) to limit his penetration and shooting would behoove LA.
A Little Too Small-Ball
Lillard is not without weaknesses as a player — weaknesses that can be exploited by size. Lillard is only 6’3, and his partner CJ McCollum is 6’4, making them considerably shorter than the Lakers usual backcourt pairing, not to mention they are both subpar defenders. And because D’Angelo’s recent knee injury will keep him out of the game, Brandon Ingram running point will increase that size advantage exponentially. Ingram opens a ton of opportunities all over the court, and can shoot over most guards, not to mention undersized ones.
There isn’t much a smaller guard can do when faced with this length in the post — not to mention out at the three-point line. McCollum gets a great contest below against James Harden, but the two inches or so between the players makes a huge difference when it comes to release/contest point.
Ingram will also help a lot on this end. While lineups that feature him at point flounder offensively, and he can struggle to keep up with waterbug-type guards, his length poses numerous threats to spot-up shooters — which will come in handy against the Blazers, who shoots the 8th-most three pointers in the NBA.
While the Trail Blazers are likely to scheme to avoid a dreaded Ingram-Lillard or Ingram-McCollum matchup, when those situations inevitably arise, the rookie must be ready. That also means that Jordan Clarkson and Lou Williams will see a lot of time against Portland’s two best players, and should both exploit that pairing by attacking relentlessly on offense — thus making Lillard and McCollum work harder on defense and become that much more fatigued on offense.
Notes: The Blazers allow the third-highest three-point field goal percentage in the entire league, at 38.2%, so LA’s shooters should have opportunity to get hot. Portland is significantly better at home (0.9 Net Rtg) than on the road (-5.2 Net Rtg). Expect a lot of poor defense on both sides, as the Lakers (110.5) and the Blazers (108.9) are in the bottom-5 in the league in Defensive Rating.