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Boxed In: How the Warriors targeted Damian Lillard on both ends of the floor

They unleashed the “junk” defense and also forced Lillard to defend in space.

Portland Trail Blazers v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

With time running out in the first half, the score was 65-46 in favor of the Portland Trail Blazers. Not only did they hang 65 points against the Golden State Warriors; they did it efficiently (130.0 offensive rating).

A combination of struggles creating advantages on offense and an inability to contain Damian Lillard — fresh off of his incandescent 71-point performance — and his teammates plagued the Warriors. It felt like it was over at the half, and the Warriors seemed like they were dead in the water.

But an end-of-quarter possession provided a glimpse of just how the Warriors could attack the Blazers and get themselves an easy source of points:

The tactic was quite simple: have whoever Lillard’s guarding come over to set a screen, force the switch, and make Lillard defend in space. The effect is devastating, with Jordan Poole taking Lillard off the dribble and driving all the way to the rim.

The Warriors can sometimes fall into long bouts of offensive stagnation simply because they fail to resort to the simplest of solutions. Their offense can be as intricate as a beautifully woven piece of tapestry, but in times where the picture their offense paints is a jumbled mess, keeping it simple and going for the low-hanging fruit is often the answer to their woes.

The Blazers weren’t afraid of going after the low-hanging fruit themselves. Plenty of possessions in the first half involved targeting Poole on mismatches and zeroing in on his struggles with defending in space.

The Warriors left Poole on an island to fend for himself on some possessions, but they eventually tried all sorts of things to prevent the Blazers from getting the matchup they wanted. Whether that was hedge-and-recover, switch-to-blitz, or just plain fighting over screens in an effort to stick their man, the Warriors tried almost everything (the operative word being “almost”):

The Blazers try to get Patrick Baldwin Jr. switched onto Lillard, but Donte DiVincenzo subsequently goes over to spring a double soon after the switch (called “switch-to-blitz”). Shaedon Sharpe is the release valve. Baldwin recovers toward Sharpe but struggles to defend in space against the athletic rookie.

When the Warriors seemed like they were out of ideas in terms of how to contain Lillard, they sprung their ace card almost immediately out of the half:

Take note of DiVincenzo faceguarding Lillard in an effort to deny him possession of the ball, all while the rest of the Warriors aren’t matched up on anyone — in other words, a box-and-one. The Warriors know all about the box-and-one; they were infamously on the receiving end of one during the 2019 NBA Finals.

It was also something they took and used on opponents last season, with Gary Payton II typically being the faceguarding menace they unleashed upon unsuspecting primary creators. It was part of their versatile brand of defense that ranked second in the regular season and helped them win a championship.

In the instance above, it worked to great effect. Drew Eubanks tries to hand the ball off to Lillard, but DiVincenzo’s ball denial takes away that option. Eubanks settles for an ill-advised hook shot that misses badly.

It seemed like every time the Warriors went to a box-and-one against Lillard, the Blazers would be at a loss as to how to attack it. Once Lillard gave up possession of the ball — or was outright denied the opportunity to even touch it — the rest of his teammates would trip over their own feet trying to create for themselves or for each other:

Cutting off Lillard from the rest of his team worked to perfection. His teammates were far from the kind of shot creator, scorer, and playmaker that he is. After Lillard scored 19 points on 6-of-12 shooting (2-of-4 on threes) and dished out 5 assists in the first half, he was limited to a pedestrian line of 6 points on 3-of-9 shooting (0-of-3 on threes) the rest of the way.

The Blazers were outscored by 21 points during all of Lillard’s minutes in the second half. While Lillard doesn’t warrant all of the blame for that putrid plus-minus mark, his presence on the floor certainly didn’t help the Blazers’ defense.

Remember the possession above during the end of the second quarter that got Poole a layup? The Warriors went back at Lillard during the third quarter by doing the same thing over and over: having his man come over to set the screen and forcing him to defend in space.

Doing this obviously gets a player with questionable defensive ability into the action, but it also forces him to expend energy on defense that would otherwise be for possessions on offense. Making Lillard have to defend in space increases the chances of him not being as effective on the other end — a calculated strategy that worked to perfection.

Buoyed by the aforementioned change in tactics and strategy, the Warriors blitzed the Blazers in the third quarter by a score of 39-17. Outscoring the Blazers by 22 points in a quarter they have historically owned has been more the exception rather than the norm; prior to the game, they had been a minus-48 in third quarters this season.

More importantly, the third-quarter blitz — part of a 75-40 second-half drubbing — got the Warriors to two games above .500 and a 32-30 record that slightly edges out the Los Angeles Clippers in the standings.

The Warriors are now fifth in the Western Conference. The question now becomes this: Can they hold on to that seeding — maybe even improve it — until Steph Curry and Andrew Wiggins return?

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