Illustration by Genevieve Santos

What to Do When What Got You There Don’t Dance

Crack Conversations for Your 2015 NBA Playoffs
Day 12

What to Do When What Got You There Don’t Dance

Portland Trail Blazers at Memphis Grizzlies
Game 5 (Grizzlies lead 3–1): 6:30 pm PT/9:30 pm ET on TNT

When we talk about why we’re even entertaining the possibility of Portland making this a tight series with a 300 yard hail mary of a chance of winning it, we’re talking about two things really, things gleaned from Game 4. The first is the return of Dame Lillard the Possibly-a-Superstar. For about the first two and a half games, coinciding with the presence of a not yet completely incapacitated Mike Conley and a momentarily unconscious Beno Udrih, Dame Lillard realized the worst fears of any Blazers fan: He looked like a high-usage inefficient scoring guard who was an extreme liability of defense — a description that kind of loomed over his game for the entire second half of the season. He wasn’t (and hasn’t been since around the All-Star break) Portland’s Steph Curry or James Harden and in a lot of ways a statement like that feels a lot worse than if he had never done anything to invite those comparisons in the first place.

Then he came alive in Game 4.

Nothing about Game 4 dissuaded us of the notion that he is an extreme liability of defense. You simply cannot run straight into relatively basic looking picks with the frequency he runs into them. That is the fullest and best expression of a pick and having the picked defender just completely stop in his tracks will always be optimal for the offense running the pick.

Not to mention, if it wasn’t official weeks prior, it’s official right now: Lillard is not shooting well from three. His 3-pt shooting percentage is down to 34% from 39% last season (in comparison, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry both shot 44% from deep this season, Kyrie Irving shot 42% and teammate Wes Matthews shot 39%) and he’s shooting a ghastly 17% from deep in the playoffs. I’ve heard mention of a hand injury perhaps pertaining to the fingers he sprained in December. Perhaps. But when you look at his shot, everything looks OK, the ball just doesn’t go in with the reliability it once did and you don’t need me to tell you that’s problematic.

For now though and for the rest of the series that may not matter. Because if Lillard can get to the rim and finish at the rim as successfully as he did in Game 4, he’s going to continue to cause big problems for the Grizzlies. Mike Conley is out once again for Game 5 and his status for the rest of the series is uncertain. In a Conley-less world, the Grizzlies were not able to contain Lillard. Poor Nick Calathes was reduced to having to sag so far off Lillard that Lillard had his surfeit of open mid-range twos. Mid-range twos are not generally efficient shots of course but when they’re as open as Lillard’s were on Monday they can be (not to mention Lillard shot 44% from mid-range during the regular season).

For the first time in this series and the season series (which the Grizzlies swept), the Blazers seem to have an advantage. Playoff basketball strategy at its best is about finding advantages and exploiting them until your opponent resembles a little kid in a losing effort of whack-a-mole. The Grizzlies could put out this fire by having Tony Allen or Courtney Lee guard Lillard most of the time but this opens up the possibility of CJ McCollum having another big game (McCollum was more or less unstoppable at the rim on Monday en route to 18 points) or Nic Batum having more room to operate more effectively. Regardless of whether or not this would be happening if Conley were healthy, for the first time in the 2014–2015 season the Blazers have a definitive game plan to beat the Grizzlies defense. That is something.

Of course, even bigger than the stabilization of Lillard’s play has been the introduction of Meyers Leonard to the mainstream basketball-watching public.

Personally, as a Blazers fan, I’ll fully admit I’ve dogged Leonard and his status as pick #10 in the first round for the longest time. At the time of him being drafted, I didn’t want a center who projected as a long-term project and I didn’t feel like the Blazers could develop him into an effective player while our window for contention remained open. My suspicions seemed confirmed after he posted negative value compared to a replacement level player in his first two seasons and barely any positive value this season. In fact, this year — his third season — he posted lower minutes totals than his rookie year, likely due to the signing of Chris Kaman as backup center. Yes you read that correctly, the 10th overall pick in the 2012 draft in his third year as a pro was losing significant playing time to Chris Kaman of Chris Kaman fame.

And perhaps this has been all justified. I’d hardly want to jump to the conclusion that Leonard is now a legitimate starting center in the NBA based on the sample size of one great playoff game and several regular season highlights scattered about. But right now, the Blazers probably should be feeling desperate and open to experimentation. After all, desperation is the lubricant of experimentation. What Leonard, who logged 35 minutes in his breakout in Game 4, represents is just that: an experiment.

If you watch the highlights above, what you’ll see is a guy who stands 7'1" in shoes with a 7'3" wingspan and who weighs 250 lbs shooting and hitting all three of his three point attempts in a highly competitive playoff game. In the modern NBA, if you have a player who can do this, what you have is an advantage. You have size to defend the rim on defense and you have range to expose space on offense. The obvious specific advantage that comes to mind is that if Marc Gasol, the central point and quarterback of the Grizzlies defense, is forced to cover Leonard beyond the arc, this makes the Grizzlies completely vulnerable to any one of the four other Blazers starters drives to the basket. Considering how well the Blazers finish at the rim, this should be a frightening proposition for the Grizzlies.

As Willy Raedy of Blazers Edge has pointed out, the Grizzlies could have Gasol cover LaMarcus Aldridge, someone who has struggled when having to attack against Gasol, and have Jeff Green keep an eye on Leonard. But this presents two problems for the Grizzlies: 1) Less minutes for Zach Randolph, arguably their most reliable offensive option and 2) The possibility that Aldridge, another more than capable three-point-shooting big, begins inhabiting areas beyond the arc — most notably the corners — more frequently, once again rendering Gasol not-as-effective. Simply put, if the Blazers abandon their usage from the regular season — in which they won 51 games mind you — and adapt it to their current opponent they could very well roll out a lineup with all five players capable of consistently hitting threes.

Which brings me to my question:

What is more important right now, for the Blazers and for playoff teams in general: to adapt your game plan based on a small sample size to try to continue exploiting your opponent or to put faith in the process and the continuity of the process that saw you perform well in the recent past?

In a vacuum, adaptation is clearly the better option. This is why the Warriors and to some extent the Spurs are such dangerous teams in the playoffs. Their rosters are constructed in such a way that they can adapt to virtually any style of play that they’ll encounter in the playoffs. But not every team is Warriors or Spurs. As I said above, Meyers Leonard was not exactly a significant cog for the Blazers this season. His defense can be exploited by relatively basic fakes and his poor sense of balance leaves him vulnerable to fouling more often than you’d like. As much as you’d like to say, give him another 35 minutes, it may not be as simple as that. Starting center Robin Lopez provides a stabler defensive presence and to ignore the value of continuity he brings so quickly would be foolish.

This is the quandary for the Blazers and for teams not based in Oakland and San Antonio. Desperation is the lubricant for experimentation but it can also pepper spray your perspective into missing the big picture and the overall process. What seems like an easy decision on paper is, surprise surprise, not such an easy decision in practice.

That being said, Game 4 didn’t just get me excited about the rest of the series — which like I said, is still an absurdly long longshot that the Blazers win — it for once in the grisly past few months got me excited about the future.

If Lillard can’t hit threes at an elite enough rate to justify such high usage rates from three, perhaps he could adapt his game to be less like Steph Curry and more like Tony Parker, a player whose game exploded for the better once he came to terms with abandoning the three. Perhaps his driving to the rim is so lethal that he’ll be able to abuse teams from the mid-range at a rate that turns an inefficient shot into an advantage.

And if this is what Meyers Leonard is developing into moving forward, call me excited. Where I once believed Leonard would not be able to develop in time to help the Blazers during their window of contention, now in my dreamiest of dreams I can hope that Leonard’s emergence is actually part of their new window of contention. If Aldridge, Lopez and Wes Matthews do indeed leave in free agency this summer, at least we can now take solace that the Blazers have a multiple-player core to build around. If they stay, then we may be thinking of the past two seasons as mirages of their contending years that were still to coming. And what would seem like a rash decision to adapt on the fly in Game 5 may be less an indictment on the process and more the beginning of a very new process.

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