They triggered the “garbage” defense and also forced Lillard to defend in space.
With time running out in the first half, the score was 65-46 in favor of the Portland Trail Blazers. Not only did they drop 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 his red-hot 71-point performance — and his teammates plagued the Warriors. It felt like it was over at the half and the Warriors seemed dead in the water.
But one possession at the end of the quarter offered a glimpse of how the Warriors could attack the Blazers and get an easy source of points:
The tactic was pretty simple: ask whoever Lillard’s guard comes 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 solutions. Their offenses may be as intricate as a beautifully woven piece of tapestry, but in times when the picture their offenses paint 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 to go after the low-hanging fruit themselves. Plenty of possession in the first half meant targeting Poole on mismatches and zeroing in on his struggles defending in space.
The Warriors left Poole on an island to fend for themselves on some possessions, but they ended up trying all sorts of things to prevent the Blazers from getting the matchup they wanted. Whether it was securing and recovering, switching to the blitz, or simply fighting for screens in an effort to hold their man, the Warriors tried almost everything (the operative word being “almost”):
Blazers try to get Patrick Baldwin Jr. the switch to Lillard, but Donte DiVincenzo then switches to springing a double soon after the switch (called the “switch-to-blitz”). Shaedon Sharpe is the release valve. Baldwin recovers against Sharpe, but struggles to defend in space against the athletic rookie.
When the Warriors seemed out of ideas on how to contain Lillard, they almost immediately jumped their ace out of the game:
Note that DiVincenzo face-guards Lillard in an attempt to deny him possession of the ball, all while the rest of the Warriors are no-matching—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 the face-protecting threat they unleashed on unsuspecting primary creators. It was part of their all-around brand of defense that finished second in the regular season and helped them win a championship.
In the case above, it worked to great effect. Drew Eubanks tries to pass the ball to Lillard, but DiVincenzo’s denial of the ball takes away this opportunity. Eubanks settles for a nonsensical 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. As soon as Lillard relinquished possession of the ball—or was outright denied the opportunity to touch it—the rest of his teammates would trip over their own feet, trying to create for themselves or for each other:
Cutting Lillard off from the rest of his team worked to perfection. His teammates were far from the type of shot creator, goalscorer 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 – off-3 on three) the rest of the way.
The Blazers were outscored by 21 points in all of Lillard’s second-half minutes. While Lillard doesn’t warrant all the blame for the putrid plus-minus mark, his presence on the floor didn’t help the Blazers’ defense.
Remember the above possession late in the second quarter that gave Poole a layup? The Warriors went back to Lillard during the third quarter by doing the same thing over and over again: letting his man get away to set the screen and forcing him to defend in space.
Doing this obviously gets a player of questionable defensive ability into the action, but it also forces him to spend energy on defense that would otherwise be on offensive possessions. Making Lillard defend in space increases the chances that he won’t be as effective on the other end — a calculated strategy that worked perfectly.
Buoyed by the aforementioned change in tactics and strategy, the Warriors outscored the Blazers in the third quarter by a score of 39-17. Outscoring the Blazers by 22 points in a quarter they’ve historically owned has been more the exception than the norm; before the game, they had been minus-48 in the third quarter this season.
More importantly, the third-quarter blitz — part of a 75-40 second-half drubbing — got the Warriors two games over .500 and a 32-30 record that slightly edges 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?