By now, we have heard, ad nauseam, the Trail Blazers talk about improving their defense. Heard it in training camp. Heard it in the preseason. And heard it all throughout the first 19 games as they have put together a resume as the NBA’s worst defense.
On Monday, thanks to a break in the schedule that will allow them potentially four practices this week, they retreated to their Tualatin bunker to begin addressing their defensive problems.
Meyers Leonard called Monday’s practice the most physical workout of the season. Ed Davis left grumbling about the length of the practice, and his need for a nap after it. And Lillard left wondering if the team didn’t need to change its identity, which would include evolving from their nice-guy persona off the court to more of a meaner, rougher group on it.
Perhaps never before has a practice been more welcomed than Monday’s get-together in Tualatin, when the Blazers centered every meeting, every drill and every ounce of attention into defense.
“We gotta start from somewhere,’’ Davis said. “I read your article – we are bad. It is what it is.’’
If Davis was defensive about public perception of the Blazers and their defense it was nothing compared to coach Terry Stotts. For how short and biting the coach was Monday to criticisms about his defensive philosophy, he was refreshingly revealing about his defensive game plan moving forward and pointed about potential moves to the roster.
So without further ado, let’s go behind the Blazers’ Day of Defense at Monday’s practice.
When Damian Lillard drove to work Monday, he knew what would be waiting for he and his Blazers teammates: A practice focusing on defense, defense and more defense.
He was right.
“That’s all we did today,’’ center Mason Plumlee said. “It was all defense.’’
But Lillard said this practice was different from the get-go, and it started with a stern and drill-sergeant like Stotts.
“The urgency was just waaaay, way, way up,’’ Lillard said. “It was like we had to be sharp. Everything we did wrong, coach would stop it. And he would be like, ‘That’s what I’m talking about.’’’
Lillard said Stotts stopped nearly every possession in practice.
A mixed up communication, like Lillard and Maurice Harkless had during a key late-game drive by Derrick Rose last week in New York? Whistle. Lecture.
A failure to offer help on a drive, like Mason Plumlee did during Sunday’s 130-point onslaught against Houston? Whistle. Lecture.
A brain fart, like watching the ball in the backcourt while your man slips behind you for a dunk, like Sam Dekker did to Harkless on Sunday? Whistle. Lecture.
“Like, nothing was sliding,’’ Lillard said. “We were held accountable for every single thing that went wrong.’’
The whistle-and-lecture portion of the practice came after a long film session, which players say wasn’t unlike other film sessions. But perhaps more than in the past, players say they noticed their errors a little more.
Lillard says he normally returns home from a game and immediately watches the replay of the game. On Sunday, he broke tradition.
“I didn’t even watch it because I knew we were going to see everything when I got here,’’ Lillard said.
One clip that was shown included poor transition defense, which resulted in a Houston three-pointer in the fourth quarter that extended an eight-point lead to 11. During the clip, Lillard noticed he didn’t run back as hard as he could. He was tired at the time, and had fallen out of bounds after taking a shot.
“I remember I kind of jogged back,’’ Lillard said. “If I could have just made myself sprint harder and take away that corner three …’’
As they say in the NBA, the film doesn’t lie, and there was something for everybody. Plumlee lamented at some offensive rebounds he allowed. Harkless at getting caught watching the ball and losing his man. Davis at not fighting hard enough underneath.
“In our film sessions, we’ve always addressed what’s wrong, and reinforce what’s right,’’ Plumlee said. “We are trying to work at figuring it out. We are all in this together and nobody here likes being part of a bad team.’’
After the practice, which left many on the team with sweat-soaked gray t-shirts, Plumlee and Stotts sat and shared a conversation. It was back and forth, and continued well after the two stood to depart, each man’s hands waving and each nodding their head in agreement.
The topic, Plumlee says, was help defense, which has to rank at or near the top of the Blazers’ biggest weaknesses.
“You go through rough stretches and you have to figure it out,’’ Plumlee said. “We have to find something. You don’t become a good defensive team because you are good people, you don’t become a good defensive team because you talk about it. At the end of the day you have to go do it.’’
The Blazers have said all the right things during their start, which Stotts on Monday described as “muddling.” They have stressed the importance of defense. They have tried holding each other accountable – the most known case coming after a loss in Phoenix when Harkless stood before the team and said it’s time for action, not words.
And for the most part, this has not been a group that has dogged it or shown it doesn’t care. This is a group of high character, both as people and in regard to their work ethic.
So if the effort, attention and focus is there, yet the results still come back alarmingly poor, it begs the question whether the personnel is sufficient?
On Monday, I asked Stotts if he feels this team needs to make a move to bring in better defensive players.
“That’s not a question for me,’’ Stotts snapped. “It’s not a question for me and it’s not even an appropriate question right now.
“My job is to get this group better,’’ Stotts said. “My job is to coach this team and figure out ways to improve this group. That’s my job.’’
That job, it appears, will not include budging from his conservative defensive approach.
Stotts on Monday said he remains committed to his defensive philosophy, which among other things encourages teams to shoot mid-range shots as his bigs play back and guards go over screens. He also favors his guards switching with bigs on pick-and-rolls to take away the three-point shot, which often leaves gross mismatches, such as James Harden on Mason Plumlee or LeBron James on Damian Lillard.
Curiously, he says “20-to-25” other NBA teams use the same defensive philosophy as the Blazers, which doesn’t take into account that the Blazers have different personnel, in particular the absence of a rim protector. But while the Blazers lack size, they are flush with long, athletic and active players who could be well suited for a trapping, pressure defense.
To his credit, Stotts has experimented of late, in particular on Sunday when he tried more trapping and picking up Harden fullcourt.
“The traps were not effective,’’ Stotts said noting the Rockets scored on five of the seven times he employed traps. “I like the idea of it – when I was (an assistant) in Seattle we trapped and switched for six years, and it was extremely effective. So it’s something I’m very familiar with and that I like. I don’t know that we will do it coming up. I think it’s more for special players like a Harden or Carmelo (Anthony), or somebody like that.’’
He said changing to a trapping, pressure defense would take too much time to implement during the rigors of an NBA season, when practice time is rare and when rest is as important as time on the court.
“It’s something that sounds good, but it takes work,’’ Stotts said.
He noted that in his first season in Portland he used a trapping defense that extended the bigs LaMarcus Aldridge and JJ Hickson away from the basket, and it didn’t work well.
“A more conservative approach, from my point of view, is the way to go,’’ Stotts said. “I think when you do (an extended, pressuring defense) it looks good, and it looks like you are playing hard, looks like there is effort, but it opens you up. I’m not saying it’s a bad defense. I think it takes a lot of time to work on that we don’t have. ‘’
Stotts remains committed to switching on defense, and said the numbers from Sunday’s game back up his philosophy.
“I know most don’t like it when we switch bigs … but it was actually effective last night,’’ Stotts said, noting that Houston scored on seven of 14 possessions when the Blazers switched in the halfcourt. “The tendency is to see when he does score, and not to notice when he doesn’t score.’’
He said he holds onto the example of last season, when the Blazers made a mid-season defensive turnaround, that it could happen this season. He said the root of last season’s uptick in defense centered around pushing the bigs even further back in the pick-and-roll defense.
“I know we made our improvement last year when we dropped our bigs even more,’’ Stotts said. “Going into last year, we had Ed, Mason and Meyers and said ‘Well, we have big, active bigs, let’s bring them to (the ball handler) … that didn’t work. We turned the corner when we dropped them a little more.
“So part of my decision making is based on we already have an example – with these guys – of it improving.’’
He has also started to instruct guards to go under screens, rather than over, when they face guards who are not known for shooting. The latest example came in a win against New Orleans, who featured two guards not known for their shooting – Tim Frazier and E’Twaun Moore. Frazier went 3-for-12 from the field, but Moore went 6-for-11, which included 3-for-3 from three-point range.
Going under on non-shooters will continue, it sounds, but he said picking up full court like Sunday against Houston will likely end.
For how defensive Stotts is about his defense – and for the record, no player has gone as far as to voice objections about their style – he knows it is in disarray.
“It’s not working … it’s not working well,’’ Stotts said. “There are holes. Everybody has to look at themselves -- players, coaches – and ask what can we do better? But when you try to put your finger on it, you are not going to put your finger on it because there are a variety of things.’’
Besides a healthy rim-protecting center (no, there’s not an injury update on Festus Ezeli, who still hasn’t played), one glaring omission to the Blazers is attitude.
These are nice guys. Polite, respectful, gentlemanly, if you will.
Lillard on Monday said that has to change.
“As a group, we have to be mean,’’ Lillard said. “We can’t play the game how we are off the court. We have to make people play an ugly game. I don’t want to say rough people up, but we have to make it an uncomfortable game.’’
He says he has seen every teammate exhibit a mean streak in practice or in a game, and suggested perhaps it’s time that becomes their game-time personality.
“Just, not being a nice team … everybody likes each other, that’s a great story … but maybe we need to play a mean game,’’ Lillard said.
That could mean plowing through a screen instead of avoiding it. It could mean setting a harder screen. It could mean getting in an opponent’s space to make them feel uncomfortable.
“The Bulls,’’ Lillard said. “They play a mean game, they rough up the game.’’
The Blazers? They are the ones getting roughed up, and nearly a quarter into the season, a team that talked of getting to the Western Conference Finals has been humbled with the realization that postseasons are rooted in defense.
“Sometimes, to get yourself right, you have to have something like this placed in front of you,’’ Lillard said. “To realize … we are not what we thought we were.’’
Ever the optimist, Lillard hears the facts – the Blazers being 30th out of 30 NBA teams in defense – and embraces it as his latest challenge.
“I think when you have times like this and you struggle, the beauty is you have the opportunity to rise above what seems so tough,’’ Lillard said. “Right now, to a lot of people, it’s ‘Man, it’s continuing to happen, it’s never going to end’ … But we have an opportunity as a group to come out of it and be something.’’
Could Monday have been the start?