Portland Plays Great Defense To Win, Which Hasn't Always Happened

The Portland Trail Blazers are the poster boys of the tempo-free stat movement in the NBA. Because they play at such a slow pace (dead last in the league by a wide margin), people incorrectly assume they're a good defensive team and a poor offensive team. In fact, it's quite the opposite, as the Blazers rank 7th in offense and just 15th in defense once you adjust for pace.

But Portland's defense is getting better. They acquired Marcus Camby from the Clippers in February, and since then, they've risen in the rankings. Last night, the Blazers put that improved defense on display, limited Dirk Nowitzki and a loaded Dallas Mavericks team to just 89 points (or, more accurately, a rate of 101.1 points per 100 possessions). 

How did they do it? As Ben Golliver from Blazers Edge reported on Wednesday, the Blazers devoted nearly their entire practice to scheming to stop Nowitzki. LaMarcus Aldridge was instructed to crowd Nowitzki, and the rest of the team was told to encourage Nowitzki to roll to the basket on pick and rolls, rather than let him pop out to shoot his patented jumper. After last night's win, Golliver writes that the Blazers executed the game plan to perfection.

And rarely will you see the Blazers execute a team defensive gameplan so thoroughly against a team with as many offensive weapons as the Mavericks. On Wednesday I wrote about some of the defensive adjustments assistant coach (and former Dallas assistant) Joe Prunty was implementing.  Tonight, we saw all of them.  

LaMarcus Aldridge got up into Dirk Nowitzki's body early and often, getting an early touch foul as feared but disturbing Dirk on multiple possessions.  "We were just trying to be physical," Aldridge told me after the game. "Not let him get comfortable, not let him find his balance." It worked: Dirk finished with just 15 points on 5 of 13 shooting.

The Blazers also aggressively played the high pick and rolls, daring the Mavericks to look for secondary options like Shawn Marion and Caron Butler and physically preventing Nowitzki from establishing his preferred position at the top of the key. Importantly, they limited Dirk to just 4 free throw attempts for the entire game (and gave up just 9 total free throw attempts to the Mavericks). 

After the game, Nate McMillan singled out Prunty and his assistant coaching staff for their work on the scouting reports and noted, with more pride and forcefulness than usual, "we executed the game plan tonight."    

But of course, having Camby helps. In the past, with the Nuggets, Camby was definitely an overrated defender because he showed no inclination to step out and contest open jump shots. He also wasn't a great weakside defender, choosing instead to pad his block and rebounding stats. However, he improved his fundamentals with the Clippers and has been a textbook weakside defender in Portland. 

As Golliver writes:

But with Camby the Blazers now have a safety-valve of sorts.  Obviously, he's no Dwight Howard but he does understand defensive spacing very well and he contests shots without taking himself out of rebounding position.  Importantly, his presence frees up his teammates to pressure ball handlers and body guys like Dirk without worrying about getting beat for uncontested layups. "You know me, I'm just roaming and trying to guard the paint," Camby told me after the game. "Trying to have my teammates' back out there."    

Since it's defense, not offense, that the Blazers need, performances like last night's go a long way toward improving their chances at scoring a first-round playoff upset.

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