Trail Blazers Shun the Pass, and It Costs Them in the Playoffs

Damian Lillard’s ability to create shots has been limited by double- and triple-team defenses in the Portland Trail Blazers’ first-round series against the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Golden State Warriors chart it. The Toronto Raptors overhauled their playbook last summer to feature it. And the Philadelphia 76ers celebrate it.

“The pass is king,” said Sixers Coach Brett Brown, whose team threw more passes this season than anybody else in the N.B.A. “It’s a thing that holds a locker room together. It’s a thing that holds an offense together.”

Which brings us to the sad state of affairs in Portland, where the Trail Blazers are in serious trouble against the New Orleans Pelicans, who have a 2-0 lead in their first-round playoff series. The Blazers had hoped that this would be the year they emerged and did real damage in the postseason after four straight early-round exits — and perhaps they still can.

But their one-on-one style of play isn’t helping.

Just two teams threw fewer passes than the Blazers did during the regular season, and no team had fewer assists. Their stagnant sets largely escaped criticism, camouflaged by the team’s 49-33 record, third-best in the Western Conference.

But playoff defense is more intense and less forgiving than regular-season defense. Sure enough, the Pelicans have swarmed Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, limiting the Blazers’ backcourt tandem to 36.3 percent shooting. And while the Pelicans have assisted on 60.7 percent of their 2-point field goals, the Blazers have assisted on just 47.4 percent of theirs.

“Just a little bit frustrated,” Lillard told reporters after the Blazers’ 111-102 loss on Tuesday night in Game 2. “Just expecting more out of myself. Coming into the playoffs, you know teams are going to lock in and try to make the game hard for you.”

Lillard credited the Pelicans for sending “two and three” defenders at him whenever he touched the ball.

“But the opportunities I do get,” he said, “I have to be better. Simple as that.”

Neil Olshey, the general manager of the Blazers, told me in an interview last month that Coach Terry Stotts is a firm believer that the first good shot on a possession is the best shot. So don’t expect the Blazers to make four or five passes every trip down the court. It helps that Lillard and McCollum are so effective at creating open looks for themselves.

“A lot of times, I’ll take Dame or C.J. shooting off the dribble over anything else we can produce,” Olshey said at the time. “But I do think that when the ball is moving and everybody is involved, it forces defenses to work harder, and you’re getting guys who are out of position when Dame or C.J. are going at that matchup. It’s not against a set defense.”

In other words, Portland spent much of the season searching for that sweet spot between moving the ball and allowing Lillard and McCollum to do their best work by not moving it much. No team averaged more dribbles per touch.

Portland, to be sure, is not a selfish team, and Lillard and McCollum are not selfish players. The Blazers do create offense for each other, but it’s often by setting on-the-ball screens. During the regular season, Portland actually led the N.B.A. in “screen assists,” which are screens for a teammate that directly lead to a made field goal.

But unless you are the Houston Rockets, who treat the ball as though it will detonate if they don’t fire off a 3-pointer quickly enough, most teams benefit from ball movement or run the risk of letting defenders clamp down on their stars — as the Blazers can see in their matchup with the Pelicans. Consider that nine of the last 10 N.B.A. champions ranked in the top half of the league in assists. More to the point, three of the last four champions led the league in assists: Golden State in 2017 and 2015, and San Antonio in 2014.

It should be noted, of course, that winning teams often have higher assist totals simply because they are good at making shots. But the Blazers are, by any objective measure, a very good team — and they play with respectable tempo, ranking 19th in pace.

The Raptors were a good team, too: Last season, they went 51-31 and advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals before being swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers. An injury to Kyle Lowry, Toronto’s All-Star point guard, hardly helped. But the Raptors were incredibly reliant on the one-on-one skills of Lowry and DeMar DeRozan last year and they finished at the bottom of the league in assists.

So last summer, at the insistence of General Manager Masai Ujiri, the Raptors scrapped their offense. Ujiri wanted more players involved and a greater emphasis on passing. The idea was that their revamped style would make it more difficult for opponents to defend them in the playoffs.

Lo and behold, Toronto went from good to great, finishing the regular season with the top record in the East. The Raptors now have a 2-0 lead over the Washington Wizards in their first-round series.

The 76ers, with their talented young core, adhere to similar principles — namely, that sharing is caring. Philadelphia, according to tracking data compiled by the N.B.A., averaged 343.9 passes per game during the regular season, a full 15 more than any other team in the league.

The pass, Brown said, “rules our day.”

“We chart it. We glorify it. We do it all,” he said. “I know that it’s everything. And it’s especially everything in the playoffs.”

Some teams are still learning that the hard way.

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