Rip City Rising
With the 6th pick of the 2012 draft the Trail Blazers transformed their team from mediocre to a legitimate title contender. They might not have known it at the time but Damien Lillard was the perfect compliment to their roster, an attacking point guard that could maximize the talent around him. Already possessing an excellent big man with range in LaMarcus Aldridge and two very good wings with Wesley Matthews and Nicola Batum, Lillard added the missing ingredient, someone who could orchestrate the pick and roll.
Even as a rookie out of Weber State, Lillard demonstrated an ability to run an NBA offense by both creating his own shot off the dribble and finding open teammates when the defense collapsed. With Lillard running the show and a great shooting/spacing supporting cast the, TrailBlazers are perfectly equipped to play in today’s pick and roll heavy NBA.
One of the simplest yet most effective plays in basketball, the pick and roll has long been a staple in the NBA as it provides an easy way to create penetration into the heart of a defense. And while most teams are efficient using ball screens, the Blazers have been down right surgical this year because of their personnel.
With an elite shooter for the point guard position guard, Lillard is shooting nearly 43% from beyond the arc this year, and defenses are forced to go over ball screens to prevent the open 3 point shot, putting the ball defender in a trailing position. This affects the defensive big as he now has to deal with Lillard coming around the screen as well the threat of Aldridge/Lopez rolling to the rim or poping open for a mid range jump shot. With a 2 on 1 of sorts, Lillard can react to the defender, keeping on the drive or slipping it to Aldrigde for a pop/roll opportunity.
If the defense decides to bring help from the corners, the Blazers have Batum and Matthews, both shooting over 40% from deep, waiting for an opportunity to strike. All in all, the pick in roll is tough to deal with regardless of who is running it, but with the players Portland has it requires a five defenders acting as one, a rarity in today’s NBA.
Let’s look at how Portland exploits whatever the defenses gives them off high picks and rolls.
Pick ‘N Pop: A subtle down screen to free Aldridge starts this high pick in roll allowing Lillard to attack the defense and drop it off to his big man for an uncontested 18 footer.
The play starts with a down screen from Batum on Aldridge’s man just below the free throw line. This allows Aldridge to set the high pick and roll at the top of the key with his defender, Tristan Thompson, multiple steps behind him.
Because of Lillard’s shooting, Irving must go over the screen forcing Thompson in a help role to stop the ball penetration. This is where the down screen shows as Thompson is unable to hedge or challenge Lillard off the screen because of his late arrival.
After setting the high pick, Aldridge pops to his spot, the top of the key. With Thompson forced to stop the ball penetration, he steps forward keying Lillard to drop a simple bounce pass to Aldridge that puts the defense in another bind, leave the shooter in the corner or give Aldridge an open 18 footer.
Smartly, Jack retreats to take away the corner 3 but Aldridge is left alone to knock down the jumper to put the TrailBlazers up 8.
Opening the Paint: With defenses having to respect Aldridge’s jumper, a high pick and roll often opens a clear lane for Lillard to attack the rim as bigs are hesitant to leave Aldridge. Again, Lillard’s ability to shoot exacerbates the problem as his defender is forced to go over the screen taking away the ability to go under and prevent penetration.
Let’s look at how the Timberwolves allowed Lillard into the paint for an easy bucket out of respect for Aldridge’s shooting ability.
Portland starts the possession with a high screen that Rubio goes over chasing Lillard.
Not only does Kevin Love not hedge on the screen, he stays glued to Aldridge allowing Lillard to attack the paint. With Lillard bearing down, Pekovic helps off Robin Lopez in an attempt to stop an easy bucket.
However Pekovic does little to stop Lillard, who sends him the wrong way with a quick Euro Step en route to an uncontested layup.
Drive and Kick: The final piece to an efficient pick and roll offense is the ability to exploit defenses that collapse on penetration. With Matthews, Batum or Dorell Wright stationed in the corners, defenses are in between a rock and a hard place when Lillard drives into the paint, they can either slide inside to prevent Lillard driving to the rim ad give up an open 3 or stay at home and watch Lillard slice down the paint.
Let’s look at how Portland abused the Sixers with a wide open three after the defense had collapsed on a rolling Robin Lopez.
This time it is Lopez setting a high screen for Lillard who slides by him leaving James Anderson chasing him.
Once around the screen and facing the basket, Brandon Davies slides over to prevent Lillard from entering the lane. This allows Robin Lopez a clear path to roll to the rim.
With Lopez rolling to the rim unimpeded, the weak side defender, James Anderson crashes down to prevent Lillard from dumping the ball inside. While its effective at preventing a lay up opportunity for Lopez it allows Anderson’s man, Dorell Wright to slide up from the corner to the wing unguarded. As soon as Lillard sees Anderson cheat inside he fires a pass over to the wide open Wright for a 3 point attempt.
With all the time and space, Wright calmly knocks down the three, one of a franchise record 21 for the Trail Blazers on the day.
Summary: These there examples of Portland’s pick and roll illustrate that they have the perfect personnel to attack teams in a variety of ways with a high ball screen, a great initiator, an elite big man shooter and multiple great 3 point shooting wings. Additionally, Terry Stotts has worked in subtle wrinkles, as evidenced by the down screen by Batum, that gives defenses different looks before the Trial Blazers initiate a pick and roll. Which is key to keep defenses from blitzing the pick and roll or getting used to Portland’s offensive rhythm.
Whether Portland can maintain this pace is yet to be seen, especially the shooting from deep, but they have found an extremely effective backbone of their offense that is nearly unstoppable when all cylinders are firing.
But a great pick and roll game doesn’t win 22 of the first 27 games, that requires having a truly special player on your roster capable of taking over in crunch time. Of course I’m talking about Lillard, the reigning rookie of the year that has improved drastically to the point where he must be mentioned in the top point guard conversation.
While his play is stellar in the first 47 minutes what makes him truly special is his clutch shots late in games. Just this week he hit two buzzer beaters with an icy demeanor usually reserved for veterans.
Let’s look at how Lillard stoned the Cavaliers with a last second 30 footer in a tie game.
As Lillard receives the ball the other four TrailBlazers run to the baseline forming a 4 low set, isolating Lillard against Alonzo Gee.
With the last seconds of the game melting off, Lillard calmly rises up from 30 feet and drills the game winner. The shot was so unexpected due to the distance, Gee didn’t even leave his stance until Lillard was in the air.
This is and what will separate Portland from the middle of the Western Conference and keep them in the battle for home court in the first round. With Lillard playing at a high level and able to take over games late with his ability to score, don’t expect the Trail Blazers to go away anytime soon.