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Pick-and-roll defense: what did we learn from Damian Lillard’s outburst against the Celtics

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After Lillard carried the Blazers back on Sunday, the Celtics learned their vulnerabilities for another Eastern Conference foe

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Boston Celtics Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

This isn’t about Damian Lillard.

On Sunday afternoon, the Portland Trail Blazers point guard caught fire towards the end of the third quarter, lifting his team out of a 19-point halftime deficit. Portland stormed out to a 15-4 run to start the fourth, taking the lead after what seemed unimaginable just an hour earlier.

One great scorer can change the trajectory of a game. Lillard’s 30 point, 14 assist outing isn’t abnormal for an elite scorer like him. For Celtics fans, the worry is about how a player like him can get clean looks possession after possession. Boston won’t face Portland again this year unless for an unlikely match up in The Finals, but they’ll face plenty of players like Lillard.

Ball screen defensive coverage is usually predicated on what capabilities a team’s big man has. If they’re athletic and can move their feet well, they might switch or be more aggressive on the perimeter. If they’re bigger more imposing interior forces, the defensive strategy might rely more on dropping them back towards the hoop. For the Celtics, with Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis eating up all minutes at the 5, the latter is certainly the more reliable strategy.

But what happens when those two ideas come into conflict? What can be done when dropping the center back towards the lane only results in more space, room, and rhythm for a flamethrowing guard looking to set the Celtics ablaze?

Sunday gave us a front row seat to the conundrum Brad Stevens faces.

Lillard first got hot with a 3-pointer from absurdly deep range. It’s the type of shot you live with as a coach, but once you see it go in, you know there’s more to come:

It isn’t shots from the parking lot that unraveled the Celtics defense in that second half stretch. They missed some key coverages that allowed Lillard to get free looks. Jaylen Brown inexplicably went under a ball screen that Dame slunk behind and found room to rise up. Later, Brad Wanamaker couldn’t prevent Lillard from turning the corner and failed to execute pushing him to his weak hand:

Those six points were crucial down the stretch. Mistakes in the pick-and-roll can be costly against a great scorer. When playing in drop coverage, as the Celtics were throughout much of the game, there’s little emergency aid that a big can help with. The guard is on his own to navigate the actions and stay as attached as possible.

At the 7:38 mark, Lillard sat with 30 points as the Blazers completed their comeback. He wouldn’t score again.

Stevens shifted the defensive attack to be more aggressive with the bigs, dragging them out of the lane to shadow double Lillard and force a pocket pass to Jusuf Nurkic. While Nurkic had an unbelievable game himself, he’s nowhere near the scorer or passer that Lillard is.

The rest of the way, Boston’s defense was predicated on getting the ball out of Lillard’s hands and forcing someone else to beat them. Kanter would show more aggressively against the screen and the rest of the defense rotated properly to prevent easy layups.

Boston escaped with the win as every Celtics fan let out a great sigh of relief when Nurkic threw a full-court pass out of bounds. But this type of conundrum won’t avoid the team’s radar simply because Dame Dollar isn’t on their schedule again.

I looked at two primary pick-and-roll ball handlers on the other five top teams in the Eastern Conference–the teams Boston is likely to encounter on their postseason path. We dove into four key categories to see if they have the similar 3-point outburst potential to Lillard when shooting off ball screens.

One name does stand out above the rest: Kyle Lowry.

As an aside, there’s one important marker to examine from a statistical standpoint. Some players, such as Lowry, have a high points per possession (PPP) when taking dribble jumpers but are comparatively low on field goal percentage. Some guys, like Josh Richardson, are the opposite. The players with higher percentages and lower PPP numbers take more mid-range jumpers and two-pointers. The higher PPP and lower percentage guys, like Lillard and Lowry, are heavily reliant on treys.

That’s the number that’s dangerous for the Celtics. Most defenses are content with giving up long twos and living with the result. But if Lowry and Lillard can hit enough 3-pointers off the bounce to suck the Celtics defense out, they are fundamentally dictating how the game will be played.

Lowry has this ability and one of the best off-the-dribble shooters in the game. He hurt the Celtics on Christmas Day with these pull ups and will undoubtedly see a playoff series in Boston as an opportunity to hit more shots like this:

Postseason series demand more meticulous game-planning and a more proactive, preventative form of defense than what the Celtics showed with Portland. In a playoff game, you can’t allow someone to get hot and then take them away. By then, it may be too late.

The issue with the Toronto Raptors is that their supporting cast is not built the same way as the Blazers. Their bigs, Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam, are elite passers and playmakers off the short roll. Everyone on their roster is a capable 3-point shooter, so it’s difficult to leave one of them alone when rotating down to take away a Gasol layup.

Even worse, those guys shoot it. Gasol (39.5 percent from 3), Serge Ibaka (39.3 percent), and Siakam (36.1 percent) compound the worries of drop coverage by knocking down such a high rate of their triples on pick-and-pops. Lowry doesn’t need to get scorching hot in order for the Raptors to be tearing apart Boston’s ball screen coverage.

Let’s give Stevens and his fourth quarter units credit. They responded to the challenge, showed willingness to alter their schematics and walked away with a victory. But his coaching staff, video coordinators, and advance scouts are in playoff mode. As the dust settles around these seeding games, a second-round matchup between the Celtics and Raptors becomes increasingly likely.

The bug is now in the ear of his staff to examine proactive measures to take away open 3-point looks for scoring guards. Make no mistake, the next time an outburst like this happens it could have lethal consequences.