LOS ANGELES -- At its very essence, playoff basketball is an exercise in problem-solving -- and that’s especially true for the underdog. On Sunday night in their series opener at Staples Center against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Portland Trail Blazers met a litany of problems on both sides of the ball, some more surmountable than others, but each in need of a solution.
Portland’s most pressing issue in the 115-95 loss started with its offensive catalyst, Damian Lillard, and the aggressive defense he encountered. Since Friday, Lillard has mentioned the coming storm, specifically the traps the Clips have historically thrown at him on ball-screen actions. As expected, he saw them in full force Sunday, and the pressure destabilized a Portland offense which generally found good looks in the half court this season as the league’s seventh-ranked offense.
“They were physical, they were ready every time, they communicated,” Lillard said. “It was tough to deal with. We had to make the play and get the ball in the middle to the big, and find a weakside guy.”
When confronted with a couple of defenders, Lillard has a menu of options that usually consists of (a) moving the ball to the second side, where backcourt running mate CJ McCollum has blossomed as playmaker 1A for Portland, (b) a rolling big man in Mason Plumlee who can make a play off a pass, (c) forward Al-Farouq Aminu on the perimeter, where he’s both a vastly improved 36.1 percent shooter from beyond the arc, and capable of creating for himself, and (d) forward Mo Harkless cutting into space, or posting up a smaller rotating defender.
Truth be told, Lillard did a reasonably good job in this capacity in the first half. The Blazers had trouble getting McCollum involved in secondary actions -- in large part because of Clippers defensive ace Luc Mbah a Moute -- but Aminu found a number of open looks, Plumlee received his fair share of touches while rolling, and Harkless dragged JJ Redick down low a couple of times early for easy buckets.
Problem was … Aminu couldn’t drain a shot, Plumlee was jittery and didn’t fulfill his traditional role as playmaker (he recorded zero assists for the only the second time since the All-Star Break), and Harkless spent the half in foul trouble and managed to log only six minutes. Some of this can be attributed to the Clippers’ successful coverage schemes, some of it to bad marksmanship.
“I think defensively, they did a great job executing some of their pick-and-roll coverage,” McCollum said. “It did not help that we missed shots and turned the ball over.”
Portland coach Terry Stotts said the team and staff would dive into the film late Sunday night and make adjustments accordingly. It’s possible we’ll see the Blazers move Lillard off the ball a bit more in Game 2, a tactic they’ve explored before when a team zeros in on him. But a perimeter-oriented team like Portland without a guy up front like Blake Griffin will simply have to shoot better against coverage. On Sunday, they hit only 30 percent of their contested looks (the Clippers made almost half of theirs), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Lillard and McCollum were around 40 percent in the regular season with a defender close at hand. And rediscovering their effective weakside actions is now an imperative for Game 2.
“We didn't shoot the ball well,” Lillard said. “Usually the things we get to with myself and CJ, ball-screen actions, flairs and pindowns, they were pretty disruptive.”
The to-do list extends to the defensive end as well, where the Blazers had no answer for Griffin and Chris Paul. For Griffin, the options are limited. The Blazers have been pleased by Aminu’s progress as a low post defender, but Griffin is a graduate-level assignment. Though they enjoyed limited success switching on pick-and-rolls against the Clippers during the regular season, the Blazers got caught with undersized defenders and paid for it. The Blazers are reluctant to send traps at Paul, who has built a career of distributing against pressure.
“We switched on him,” Lillard said. “We had Chief on him to start the game on him, and he just kind of bulldozed his way to the rim and it's tough with a guy that's athletic and strong like him. If you get too physical then it's a foul because he's spinning in there and jumping in the middle with the spin. It's tough to defend.”
Portland designs its defensive schemes, as is the prevailing league trend, to take away the 3-point line -- which the Blazers did successfully Sunday -- and yield the midrange game. After the game, Lillard noted the cruel irony for any team facing Paul.
“Unfortunately, that's his game,” Lillard said. “He loves that area.”
Therein lies the problem. A few others exist as well, including Redick, who tormented McCollum with all kinds of nasty off-ball stuff -- curls, baseline actions that moved into pindowns and the carousel of stagger screens the Clippers deploy to free up their sharpshooter.
But such are the trials of the young NBA underdog, who must accumulate experience against an opponent that has plenty of it.