There is no doubt that the Portland Trail Blazers have been the biggest surprise in the league up to this point of the season, maybe together with the Indiana Pacers. The team is leading the Western Conference with an 18-4 record and whilst there is no clear indication if they will be championship contenders, there are a few things that are impressive about this team.
One of them is the contribution of Damian Lillard to the Blazers’ defensive scheme. Although sometimes Lillard’s presence and impact on Portland’s defense might be neglected, he is one important piece in the team’s success up to this point on the defensive end.
As the point guard of the team, Lillard is most usually assigned to guard the point guard or the ball handler of the opposing team. Apart from his athletic skills, his quickness and his ability to break screens, Lillard uses his mind to play effective defense and utilize the presence of LaMarcus Aldridge for his advantage.
In many plays, Lillard’s opponent is the one who receives a screen in the perimeter from a big man, often set by Aldridge’s opponent. In this case, as it happens with almost any pick and rolls situation, the two defenders try to stop the penetration, either by switching players, quickly trapping and then returning to their assignments or trying to break the screen.
The outcome for the offense in these scenarios are three. The ball handler might find room, surpass the big man who came out to help and drive the open lane. Or he could find an opening and take a mid to long range shot. Finally he could pass the ball to an open teammate in the perimeter or the screener, who is either rolling towards the basket or popping for an open mid-range shot.
Damian Lillard, knowing his team’s defensive abilities and the strengths of his teammates tries to force the opposing point guards to take the option with the less chances for scoring, the mid-range shot or a contested drive to the basket. The Blazers are one of the best teams in closing down shooters from long distance.
Many times, what Lillard does is that he actually gives a small opening to the opposing ball handler, forcing him to drive towards the direction the screener sets him for. He is actually giving away the mid-range shot from the playmaker, which, in reality is exactly what he should do. Mid-range shots or contested layups do have a much less efficiency from open three-pointers or easy drives to the basket.
The Blazers could live with opposing guards shooting mid-range shots all day long and all season long and that’s exactly what they are doing. That’s exactly what Damian Lillard is forcing them to do and the results are great.
Even when opposing guards sink the mid-range shot or the contested layup, that’s a good defense for Portland, a win. Because that’s a low percentage shot and the Blazers would be ok with their opponents taking such shots all game long.
Certainly, Portland’s defense still needs much more work. But the principles seem to be just fine and the more the team works on them the better the outcomes will be. Lillard’s presence is definitely a catalyst in this defensive system.