Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals didn't go how the Portland Trail Blazers wanted. The Golden State Warriors got the best of them, and Portland’s defense puzzled fans as they watched Stephen Curry get open looks at the 3-point line with Enes Kanter sitting deep in the lane.
The Internet knives came out quickly for Terry Stotts, with the fervor boiling over to national media shows on Wednesday questioning just what on earth Portland’s coach was thinking giving Curry that much space. Stotts was questioned postgame about his decision to keep his big men soft — in what’s called ICE coverage — rather than blitz the pick-and-roll the way the Houston Rockets had done the series before vs. Golden State.
His response was sniping, saying he would, “Look into that.”
Stotts’ answer to the intrepid reporter wasn’t just about the fact that the Rockets lost while Curry scored 33 points against their blitz. It was that he and his staff of assistant coaches and video coordinators have spent more time than anyone in the media scouting how to stop the Warriors in the pick-and-roll. Put simply, Stotts had already looked into it.
But that begs the question: what was the plan, and how did it go wrong?
For starters, Synergy suggests that Curry’s FG% goes down whenever he takes a dribble off a pick-and-roll screen and takes a jumper or a runner. It goes way back up, near 60 percent, when he takes it to the basket. The Warriors star’s stats are also sky high when it comes to passing to cutters off the pick-and-roll, so Kanter’s soft coverage is partly explained simply by trying to limit him to the right areas of the floor.
Other teams have been able to force Curry into poor shooting nights by applying tough pressure over the top, despite having a big man lay back softer in the lane. Even the Blazers employed this tactic against Golden State during the regular season, with their roll man defender sitting as deep as the free-throw line.
The problem for Portland in Game 1 was that their guards often got caught up on picks, and didn’t apply nearly enough pressure on Curry. Whether that was due to fatigue or perhaps nagging injuries it’s not clear — Damian Lillard was seen grabbing at his hamstring at one point — but it was a serious issue.
Portland also seemed to make an error in how close to the timeline they picked up Curry. Blazers guards defended Curry near the halfcourt logo, but Kanter more or less stayed tethered near the free-throw line. The result was that Golden State’s forward initiated screens a step or two higher than they normally would have, which widened the gap between the Warriors star and Kanter.
Portland’s plan was no different than any other ICE coverage. The Blazers wanted to let Curry get a head of steam and make a decision to shoot from midrange, but that doesn’t work unless someone is putting pressure over the top. In Game 1, Portland just couldn’t cut it.
In Game 2 what we’ll need to see from the Blazers is better defensive play from the wings as they fight over screens. It also might be reasonable for Kanter to take a step up above the free-throw line, although his mobility in nagging injuries might limit how much higher we see him go. I’d expect to see Zach Collins continue to defend higher, as well as more pick-and-roll plays defended by Moe Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu.
If Portland can manage those two things, they could put more pressure on Curry and shorten the amount of space their beleaguered big man rotation has to cover.
Watch the full video breakdown above to see how the defense all works on film.