Trail Blazers

2021 NBA Playoffs: Michael Porter Jr. picked on defensively by Blazers

Trail Blazers
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Blazers had a week to gameplan for its first-round matchup against Denver thanks to the NBA play-in tournament.

Heading into Game 1, the game plan on offense became clear: attack Michael Porter Jr. and bomb away from three. 

As a rookie last season, the 14th overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft showcased elite offensive skill but also appeared lost on defense, which bottlenecked his playing time. As a sophomore, he has improved, but it's still an exploitable weakness.

As everyone knows, the NBA regular season is about strengths and the NBA Playoffs are about weaknesses.

Well, Portland saw Denver's and exploited it en route to a 123-109 win to steal homecourt advantage in the first round.

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"We're going to have to help Michael out because it's kind of what we saw in the playoffs last year," said Denver head coach Michael Malone. 

They started putting Michael in every pick-and-roll and trying to isolate and attack him. Michael has to be better and we need to find ways we can help him.

Michael Malone on Porter Jr.'s defense

After the game, it seems the former No. 1 player in the nation knows how he can improve.

"Keep playing hard, keep playing D," responded Porter Jr. when asked what he can do better next game. "Try to make those guys into drivers rather than three-point shooters.

"I think they hit 19 threes. We definitely need to cut that down if we want a chance to win the series."

The Trail Blazers shooting 19/40 from three-point range, and taking 42% of its shots from beyond the arc, was not part of the game plan for Malone's squad.

 

"I talked a lot about it during the week, the number one concern was going to be 'Can we guard the three-point line?'" said Malone.

"We just got to make it a point of emphasis to not let them shoot so many threes... make them play inside the three-point line as much as we can," added Porter Jr. 

However, with Trail Blazers superstar Damian Lillard hitting five three-pointers, sometimes there's little the defense can do.

"He's just a really good player," explained Porter Jr. "When he's hitting those tough, contested shots just like any other great player, if he's hitting those not much you can do about it."

As for how Porter Jr. can try to contain Dame, don't be surprised to see him overplaying the three-point line next game, allowing him to drive and trust his Nuggets teammates to cover for him. 

"Try to play good D, try to turn him into a driver rather than a three-point shooter." 

When Lillard gets downhill and beats his man is when another Blazer will be open from the three-point line. To close the season, the Blazers had the NBA's best offensive rating in May (123.8). On Saturday, the Blazers had a 134.4 offensive rating per Cleaning the Glass.

To stop that, Denver needs to have perfect rotations which were harder to spot than Waldo on Saturday. Lillard had a playoff-career high 13 assists in Game 1. 

"Too many breakdowns. To win a playoff game, especially when you're undermanned you have to be on point with everything," said Malone. "Guys played hard but we need to play a lot smarter."

Specifically, Malone pointed out two Portland stretches to close the first and third quarters that doomed Denver: a 15-4 run to finish the first and a 32-13 run in the third.

"Those two runs were so impactful," added Malone.

If there was a primary annoyance for Malone, it was how easy some of Dame's shots were, though.

"He takes 8.5 pull-up three's this season and we let him walk into some of them tonight and that was definitely not the game plan."

Aaron Gordon, who may be tasked more with guarding Lillard as the series goes on, knows the importance of running Lillard, and his teammates, off the line.

“Coach [Michael Malone] was right, way too many breakdowns. We just weren't running guys off of the line. We had it in the game plan that guys are chasers and runoffs, and it was just too easy for them, too comfortable for them," said Gordon. 

"We had to make that extra effort to just get them off of the line, make it a little bit more uncomfortable for them, have them put the ball down. And then, just keep flying around, keep making the extra play.”

 

Denver aims to tie the series 1-1 on Monday, May 24th at 7:00 p.m. on NBC Sports NW, the official home of the Portland Trail Blazers.