If there was one thing apparent after the Golden State Warriors’ dominant 116-94 Game 1 victory to open the Western Conference finals, it was this: The Portland Trail Blazers aren’t the Houston Rockets.
The Rockets defense gave the Warriors all they could handle, with their switch-everything scheme replete with interchangeable defenders capable of throwing a wrench into the Warriors’ beautiful brand of motion offense. Off-ball movement was easily covered through simple switching, while the Warriors’ staple sets such as the low-post split action were rendered stagnant.
The Rockets defense was the perfect foil to the Warriors offense, their Joker to the Warriors’ Batman. Its effect was so great that the Warriors were eventually forced to keep things simple — made even more crucial by Kevin Durant’s calf injury that kept him out for the series — by relying on high screens for Stephen Curry up top, forcing the Rockets to trap him and risk a 4-on-3 situation with Draymond Green handling the ball and being the decision maker.
In Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals, the Curry/Green pick-and-roll played a tremendous role in putting the Rockets away. Shane Young wrote an awesome breakdown of the 9 possessions in which the Warriors ran the Curry/Green pick-and-roll, which generated 18 points on 7-for-9 shooting — good for an astounding 2.0 points per possession.
While the Rockets forced the Warriors to dig deep out of their comfort zone to get past their fiercest rivals, the Blazers are an altogether different animal on defense. Whereas the Rockets crowded the Warriors’ scorers and shooters with their physical brand of defense, the Blazers are more likely to employ a traditional defensive scheme — and going traditional against the Splash Brothers, especially against Curry, is often a recipe for disaster.
Curry exploded for 36 points on 12-for-23 shooting from the field (52.2 percent), with a 9-for-15 clip from beyond the arc (60.0 percent). After largely struggling against the Rockets, Curry broke out and punished the Blazers defense, who were simply overmatched and overwhelmed by the two-time MVP’s sublime shooting.
In GSoM’s roundtable discussion leading up to the Western Conference finals, I stated that the Blazers didn’t have the defensive chops to contend with the Warriors’ firepower, and I specifically singled out Enes Kanter, who was sure to see big minutes for the Blazers with Jusuf Nurkic being sidelined. Kanter is a capable scoring presence down low, who also happens to be an excellent offensive rebounder. However, he is notoriously inept on the defensive end. I expected the Warriors to exploit Kanter’s lack of defense — and true to my prediction, that’s exactly what the Warriors managed to accomplish.
The very first play of the game from the Warriors had the goal of testing Kanter’s pick-and-roll defense. Opening with their vintage motion weak set, the Warriors have Andrew Bogut set a screen for Curry, whose defender gets caught up in the Australian’s hard pick. In what was to be the first of several instances during the game, Kanter barely moves an inch away from the paint, giving Curry plenty of time and space to shoot the jumper. Fortunately for Kanter and the Blazers, Curry misses the shot.
The first instance of drop coverage burning the Blazers comes from this possession, where a simple side screen by Green allows Curry to shake free from his defender. Kanter is stationed too far away from the perimeter to do anything about Curry, who goes up for a wide-open 3.
Seeing that the Blazers are keeping Kanter stationed deep in the paint, they run a single high screen for Curry. Kevon Looney’s pick takes Damian Lillard out of the equation, and Curry knocks down another 3 that Kanter is unable to contest.
Has the lesson been learned? Far from it. In this sequence, Kanter again elects to drop back, leaving CJ McCollum on an island against Curry. Looney sets another screen, but McCollum does a great job of fighting over it and recovering back to Curry. It ended up not mattering, as Curry buries another 3 right over McCollum’s contest.
The Warriors enter halftime with a lead, with the Blazers expected to make some adjustments on defense in order to address the problem of Curry getting extremely easy looks due to their drop scheme. Or so we all thought.
The Warriors run motion weak for Curry, which culminates in another screen set by Looney on the right wing. Instead of stepping up to trap, hedge, or switch onto Curry as soon as seeing Looney setting up for the screen, Kanter still elects to stay put in the paint, becoming a mere witness to another open 3 by Curry.
The fault doesn’t solely fall on Kanter’s shoulders. The Blazers dumbfoundedly elected to drop their big men against the Warriors’ shooters, which is an absolute no-no against the best and second-best shooters in the world.
Here is Zach Collins committing the same mistake as Kanter, dropping too far back and letting Curry shoot another 3.
And here is another instance of Collins dropping and failing to contest a 3, this time coming from Quinn Cook, who gets a shot off courtesy of the same motion weak set Curry received earlier.
“Nothing really shocks me, we’ve seen pretty much everything,” Steve Kerr said when asked about the Blazers’ approach to defending Curry using drop coverage. “I think every defense is sort of personnel-based. ... They didn’t have a whole lot of time to prepare, so they’ve got a tape to look at and I’m sure they’ll make some adjustments. You gotta do what you’re most comfortable with, what your players are comfortable with, and that’s what every team tries to do. Steph got free and had a big night and carried us at times, and obviously that was a big part of the game.”
When asked about the sustainability of the Blazers’ strategy of dropping their big men against Curry, Blazers head coach Terry Stotts had a surprisingly snarky response.
“I can’t remember, when (Curry) had 33 in the second half (of Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals), were (Houston) trapping him?” Stotts asked in response to the question from The Athletic’s Anthony Slater, who subsequently answered in the affirmative. “They were? And he scored 33 in the second half? We’ll take a look at that.”
Terry Stotts on his decision to drop the bigs vs Steph Curry... pic.twitter.com/64T7tVgFHd— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) May 15, 2019
From his response, Stotts may have been implying that no matter what kind of defense a team throws at Curry, it may not matter since he finds other ways to score or otherwise be effective on offense. While that may be true, it still doesn’t excuse the Blazers’ gameplan of leaving their big men on an island to be exploited by Curry and the Warriors’ other shooters. It is a coach’s job to know his personnel, to know their strengths and most especially their weaknesses. Kanter is already an inanimate pole on defense; making him stay in the paint when his teammate up top is unable to contest a Curry 3 due to a rock-solid screen reeks of an inability to admit mistakes and suggests a certain hard-headedness when it comes to adjustments.
I understand the quandary that the Blazers and most teams face when it comes to defending Curry: Drop your big man and pray that Curry misses, which is like praying for Kevin Durant to miss a mid-range jumper over a defender who is a full foot shorter than him; or trap Curry and let Green be a playmaker in a 4-on-3 or 2-on-1 situation, which also isn’t an ideal option, but one that poses less of a risk and provides more of an opportunity for a defensive stop instead of a virtual warm-up jump shot from the greatest shooter of all time.
Which poison would you rather pick? Perhaps the latter one would be more palatable, even if it does have a high success rate. But it’s an adjustment worth trying, rather than just stubbornly sticking to a scheme that clearly isn’t working.
Despite the tactical missteps committed during the game, Stotts is still an excellent coach. He will make the proper adjustments in Game 2, and it would be remiss to think that the Blazers will do the same things defensively that led them to being blown out of the building and looking like they didn’t belong in these Western Conference finals.
Otherwise, if Stotts and the Blazers do not adjust and still opt to rely on the same defensive gameplan, then they might be staring at a quick series that won’t end well for them. The Finals berth that the city of Portland so greatly craves will remain nothing more than a pipe dream, and the Blazers will rue a missed opportunity at giving the defending champs a run for their money and potentially inflicting an upset of epic proportions.
Nine wins down, 7 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.