NBA, NBA Players, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers

What have we learned from two games of Trail Blazers-Thunder?

Before the playoffs began, we used this space to check in on six key questions that would help decide who won the first-round series between the Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder. The Blazers now lead that series 2-0 after sweeping their home-game set, so we figured now was as good a time as any to check back in on the same six questions and see what the Thunder might be able do to reverse some of the trends that have hurt them so far, and potentially get themselves back into the series as it moves to Oklahoma City.

Here we go …

1. How will Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum deal with OKC’s size and pressure?

So, this is the big question the Blazers have working in their favor so far.

Lillard, in particular, wilted under the Pelicans’ pressure on the ball last year, and he has reversed that in a big way so far in this series. He’s scored 59 points in two games to go along with 10 assists, and he’s shooting 19-of-42 from the field and 9-of-19 from 3. Oh, and he’s taken 15 free-throws. Test: passed. McCollum struggled shooting in Game 1 but practically burst into flames at one point during Game 2, and he’s got 57 points and 8 assists on 21-of-45 from the field and 6-of-14 from deep.

The two guards have manipulated Oklahoma City’s pick-and-roll coverage splendidly, alternately using screens and rejecting them, splitting defenders and scooting around them, driving to the rim and stepping back, hitting short-rollers and finding outlet men. None of Steven Adams or Jerami Grant or Nerlens Noel has been able to contain either of them off the dribble.

Simply put, if the Thunder can’t figure out how to better execute their pick-and-roll defense, they’re not coming back in this series. Adams and Grant are leaving far too much space for the ball-handlers to either split or snake on the pick-and-roll, either of which is death to the kind of coverage they’re playing. They need to force these guys to string out their dribble and throw lobbed passes over the top to players like Enes Kanter and Meyers Leonard and then force those guys to make plays on the move by recovering in time to contest quick shots. It’s a tall order, obviously. But this is the playoffs; nothing is going to be easy.

2. Will Portland’s other guys hit their shots this year?

The Blazers got an absolutely monster game from Kanter in Game 1 (20 points, 18 rebounds) and across-the-board good performances from their supporting cast in Game 2, but were particularly buoyed by a terrific game from Moe Harkless (14 points, 9 rebounds) and timely shooting from Seth Curry.

Oklahoma City should, in theory, be well-equipped to deal with the Blazers’ supplementary players. Kanter is difficult to guard on the block, has good footwork in pick-and-roll situations, and crashes the offensive glass as well as anyone in the league, but all of those things are defensive strengths of Adams. He is one of the league’s best post defenders. He is used to sliding his feet and sticking with guards and bigs in pick-and-rolls. And he’s a premier box-out guy. If he can’t handle Kanter and keep him from impacting the game in positive ways, that’s a big issue for the Thunder. Adams did a far better job on him in Game 2, but other problems presented themselves elsewhere.

Not having Andre Roberson as another defensive option on the perimeter hurts the Thunder greatly in this series. Terrance Ferguson is getting fried by McCollum (CJ is 8-of-13 from the field and the Blazers have scored 76 points on the 60 possessions where Ferguson has been McCollum’s primary defender, per Second Spectrum matchup data on NBA.com), and there’s not much reason to think he’d any do better defending Lillard. George has spent most of his time defending Harkless and/or Aminu, which seems like something of a waste but might be necessary because A. the offensive burden he has to carry is significant; and B. it helps to have your best defender as the guy roaming around trying to wreak havoc off the ball. Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way so far.

3. Can the Blazers get passable defense (and playmaking) out of Enes Kanter?

Again, Kanter was huge in Game 1. He was all over the offensive and defensive glass. He made plays in space. And he held up well enough defensively to stay on the floor. That was not the case in Game 2, but the Blazers found ways to make up for it.

Oklahoma City needs to keep in mind what Donovan said about Kanter few years ago: namely, that you can’t play him (because he can’t hang in pick-and-roll defense). Run pick-and-rolls right at him every time until the Blazers take him off the floor.

4. Is there any answer for Paul George’s pick-and-roll snakes?

As we noted prior to the series:

Paul George against the Blazers this season: 38 points, 10.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists per game on a 45-46-85 shooting line. There’s a reason for this, and it comes down to the way George’s preferred method of offensive attack works against the Blazers’ preferred method of guarding pick-and-rolls.

Namely, the Blazers prefer to drop the big man back into the paint and coax ball-handlers into a pocket of space near the elbows while George counteracts that strategy by snaking his way around the screen in order to find himself in even more open space than the Blazers would prefer to give him. George also developed a ridiculously rude counter-move where he catches the defender leaning toward the screen + snake, and crosses back over as quickly as humanly possible, while Adams flips the screen in order to create space so that George can step back into an open 3.

George was then miserable in Game 1, shooting 8-of-24 from the field and generally looking not too much like himself. The shoulder injury seemed to clearly be bothering him throughout the game, and he was both not getting to his spots like he usually does and missing makeable shots when he did get to them. He was quite a bit better in Game 2 and in the first half seemed to relish showing that his shoulder was OK, shimmying it several times after made jumpers. But he did not look anything like the unstoppable force he was during the teams’ four regular-season matchups.

Portland has not really altered its coverages too much here; they’re just doing a really good job of executing and forcing him into somewhat uncomfortable looks, and he’s not making enough of the relatively easy looks he’s been able to get. Saying “just make more shots” is silly as an adjustment, but George probably needs to do a bit of a better job creating space for himself once he gets into the middle of the floor, and getting Harkless or Aminu off his back so that he can operate in space rather than a crowd.

5. How does OKC align defensively?

It’s largely been Westbrook on Lillard and Ferguson or Dennis Schroder on McCollum, and it has mostly not worked. Dame hasn’t shot particularly well when defended by Russ (6-of-19) but the Blazers have scored at an efficient rate nonetheless, and the Thunder have been blitzed with Ferguson on McCollum. As mentioned previously, the fix here seems to be less about particular matchups and more about the Thunder doing a better job of executing their scheme.

6. Will Westbrook be Westbrook or will he beat Westbrook?

So … 50-50, basically? Westbrook has 29 rebounds and 31 assists through two games. That’s to be expected. He was 8-of-17 from the field in Game 1 and OKC kept it close, and he was just 5 of 20 in Game 2 and they got blown out in the second half. He hasn’t made many particularly egregious defensive errors or turnovers and he has not gotten too shot-happy, but if George isn’t going to be the world-beater that he was for much of the regular season, then the Thunder cannot afford to have Westbrook shoot poorly as well. Perhaps using his size advantage on Lillard to go into the post early in the game could get him into rhythm, and then allow the Thunder to play off of him on the block. And again, attacking downhill against Kanter in space is a must.

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