Lowe: What Cavs, Blazers, Bucks must do in Game 2

From ESPN - April 17, 2018

Stray thoughts on three Game 2s:


Anthony Davis, at 25, has reached that magical point where separate small improvements, cobbled over multiple years, coalesce to transport a player onto a higher plane. Davis has achieved unguardability. Poor Jusuf Nurkic might as well be broadcast in standard definition trying to track Davis beyond the paint.

Portland knows this. On a few possessions, the Blazers shifted Nurkic onto Nikola Mirotic so that Al-Farouq Aminu could guard Davis. Mirotic is in some ways an even worse matchup for Nurkic -- a quick-release shooter who ventures even further outside Nurkic's natural habitat.

Too many teams spot a problematic matchup and let it simmer for a few possessions, hesitant to deviate from their normal offense as if doing so is a sign of weakness. Alvin Gentry and the Pelicans attacked the Mirotic-Nurkic matchup immediately every time they saw it, zipping Mirotic through screens until Nurkic lost touch:

The Blazers downplayed the matchup issue. They noted that they held New Orleans to 98.6 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would have ranked dead last in the regular season, and that Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum wo not miss everything for an entire half again.

Fair. But New Orleans was plus-12 in 32 minutes with Mirotic and Davis on the floor, and it scored about 107 points per 100 possessions in that time -- a solid mark that could have been even better. Portland's options are limited.

Ed Davis played his usual fierce two-way game and is quicker than Nurkic. Zach Collins had a solid postseason debut, including three minutes as Portland's nominal center in the third quarter. Collins in that stint defended Mirotic, so Aminu could chase Davis.

Aminu is easily Portland's best option on Davis. If Portland had its full wing contingent -- with Maurice Harkless -- Terry Stotts would probably experiment some with Aminu at center. But Harkless is hurt, though upgraded to questionable for Game 2. Collins is a rookie. Nurkic is important on both ends.

Davis was ridiculous on defense. I mean, look at this 12 seconds of hell:

Do you know how many big men Lillard has buried with his lefty hesitation dribble? Davis sticks with him and then swallows Lillard's shot.

Lillard and McCollum could not get comfortable attacking Davis in the pick-and-roll. He intruded into their space, and even when he was perhaps a step too far toward the paint, Davis closed like a demon with those preposterous arms.

It is no coincidence Lillard got his cleanest off-the-bounce looks when Davis rested. New Orleans did not even play bad defense on those shots. Lillard just has more room, and cleaner sight lines, when Mirotic or Cheick Diallo is the one lunging at him.

Related: Gentry has to be careful sitting Jrue Holiday and Davis together! New Orleans was minus-4 in two such minutes in Game 1.

Maybe Portland could get its guards going by using someone other than Davis' man to screen for them. That's what they did to generate this clutch McCollum 3-pointer:

That might have been happenstance. Nurkic is Portland's most frequent screener, and Davis for whatever reason was guarding Aminu instead. Going that route also leaves Davis as a backline helper, ready to wreck stuff at the rim. But Aminu is an experienced screener, and the Blazers mixed in some solo Aminu picks in Game 1.

Another reason McCollum popped open there: Aminu looped from the corner to the top of the arc instead of standing still. That freaked Ian Clark into drifting toward him for a split second -- all McCollum needed:

The placement of Aminu and Evan Turner will be a key running theme. New Orleans, like all Portland's playoff opponents in this era, is not guarding either of them. Lillard and McCollum ended the game 8-of-19 from deep -- 42 percent. Aminu, Turner and Collins -- a disaster outside the corners -- were 3-of-13. Aminu will do better, but the Pelicans are just gonna let those dudes shoot:

Stotts caught New Orleans off guard out of a timeout in the first quarter by sliding both Turner and Aminu to the strong side of a Lillard-Nurkic pick-and-roll -- the side to which Lillard dribbled -- and leaving McCollum as the lone shooter on the weak side.

Defenses help from the weak side as a rule, and so E'Twaun Moore - who was fantastic on defense in Game 1 -- sloughs off McCollum here. New Orleans will be ready for this. Expect it to scrap these dictates and help off Turner and Aminu, regardless of where they are. That only puts more pressure on Portland to get creative and put those guys in motion as cutters and screeners

Portland got a ton of mileage in the regular season out of having Aminu and Nurkic improvise double picks for Lillard just as they all cross the half-court line. We saw that only a few times in Game 1.

All of this highlights the importance of Harkless, who shot 37.5 percent from deep combined over the past two seasons. Without him, Portland can juice the spacing by playing Lillard, McCollum and Shabazz Napier together -- or perhaps by bumping up Pat Connaughton's minutes.

Nurkic passed up a couple of layups when he caught the ball just outside the restricted area, with only a small help defender in his way. He has a maddening habit of going up soft and bonking those shots. Dude, you are huge and weirdly balletic. Just go up with force.

Posting Turner up against Rajon Rondo -- when the Pelicans hide Rondo there -- is not a bad idea. This implicates Portland's spacing issues too, though. Turner bullied Rondo all the way to the rim in the third quarter, only to find Davis waiting to vaporize his soul. Davis roved away from Nurkic because he knew the defender behind him -- Mirotic -- would ditch Aminu to cover for him.

Also a good idea: New Orleans posting up Holiday when the Blazers play McCollum, Lillard and Napier together.

New Orleans has always been skittish about Holiday's playmaking instincts. In the fourth quarter of Game 1, he made several puzzling decisions -- forcing drives just as Davis popped open behind him, jacking long 2s off-the-bounce instead of probing further, that crazy full-court pass.

Rondo flung up a couple of his own awful shots late, but the offense somehow felt more stable in his hands than in Holiday's. Of course, it felt most stable in Davis' hands. Give him the ball. And when Rondo rests -- leaving four shooters around Davis -- just run spread pick-and-roll after spread pick-and-roll.


Cleveland might want to write this off as a "make or miss league" loss. Cleveland shot a hideous 8-of-34 from deep. Hit their average mark, and this is probably a close home loss against a fifth seed that did not exactly rain fire either. So ... hooray?

What a listless, disengaged effort. The Cavs played as if this were Game 83, starting with LeBron. He drifted off Darren Collison several times in the first quarter; Collison led the league in 3-point percentage. Trevor Booker scooted right around James for an offensive rebound on a free throw. He let Turner sneak behind him for a layup. He sulked. He did not get back on defense.

Ty Lue is crowing about a secret best five-man lineup the Cavs did not use in Game 1. Umm, the playoffs started. The Pacers smacked Cleveland with a level of intensity these Cavs have never displayed. Might want to ratchet things up, guys.

The Cavs will get a dunk, layup or 3-pointer on a huge majority of possessions -- like, almost all of them -- when LeBron posts up Bojan Bogdanovic or Lance Stephenson. Those guys have no chance. (That's no slight. Bogdanovic played LeBron well. No normal wing has a chance when LeBron decides it's time to work.)

This is classic LeBron: He knows this, but he rarely cares to exploit it on an almost-every-possession basis until he has to. And do not lean on the "he just wants to get other guys involved" trope. His post game is, first and foremost, a vehicle with which to get other guys involved.



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