Written by: Eric Li
This year marked one of the tightest playoff races in the West in all of NBA history. The difference in record between the 3rd seeded Portland Trailblazers and the 8th seeded Minnesota Timberwolves was two games, and the Timberwolves only secured their playoff spot after a thrilling final regular season game against the Denver Nuggets. As a result, the difference in record between teams was negligible, and most fans expected an exciting first round. It came has a huge surprise when the 6th seeded New Orleans Pelicans sent the 3rd seeded Trailblazers packing in 4 games, the only first round sweep in the entire playoffs. Few, if any, people saw this coming. The poor offensive performance by the Trailblazers raised more than just one eyebrow, and many analysts credited the major defensive adjustments made by Pelicans’ coach Alvin Gentry in double teaming Damian Lillard. We’ll be taking a look at what the stats have to say about how the Birds beat the Blazers, and whether or not Lillard was truly suffocated by the playoff Pelicans.
Let’s first take a look at Lillard’s numbers historically during the playoffs. Through his first four seasons, Lillard averaged 25.5 points per game in the playoffs. This production dropped to 18.5 against the Pelicans, a full 3 points less than his worst year in the playoffs (against Memphis in 2014-15). Besides this series, Lillard’s production has dropped dramatically when faced with a top tier defensive team. The 2014-15 Grizzlies boasted the third best defensive rating in the league, while the 2013-14 Spurs posted a defensive rating of 100.1, good for fourth in the league. In both series, Lillard averaged around 20 points. That being said, the Pelicans put up an extremely average defensive rating of 105.6 through the regular season, sitting at 13th in the league.
Taking a look at the chart above, the majority of the data is congregated near the bottom right, with a slight upward trend. This suggests some correlation, albeit rather small, between defensive rating and points scored by Damian Lillard. The obvious outlier in the data comes from the New Orleans Pelicans; a very mediocre defensive rating paired with a terrible performance by Lillard. By this metric, this year’s playoff performance by Lillard fails to matchup with history. This leaves two possible reasons: either the Pelican’s defensive strategy was specific to stopping Lillard, or Lillard simply did not perform as he usually does.
In terms of individual defense, we only need to look so far as Jrue Holiday’s defensive stats. Holiday matched up against Lillard an overwhelming majority of the time, ranging from 33.3% of possessions to 54.7% possessions. During this time, Lillard averaged a measly 25.8% field goal percentage. Interestingly enough however, Holiday sat at a poor defensive rating of 110 and a defensive box-plus-minus of -0.1. Though DBPM has its drawbacks in estimating the defensive contributions of an individual player, Holiday’s defensive rating clearly shows that he was by no means shutting Lillard down. In 2015-2016 when Portland advanced to the second round, Lillard also averaged an offensive rating of 110, so this was nothing outside of the norm for Lillard.
Now comes the question of the double team. The general strategy in combatting a double team is to get other members of the team involved. We can track this by recording usage and passing percentage. From the regular season to the series, we see that Lillard’s usage percentage dropped from 30.6% to 24.9%, falling below that of his streaky backcourt partner CJ McCollum. The question is whether this was a cause of the Pelicans effectively double teaming Lillard, forcing him to give up the ball more often, or because of Lillard’s own knowledge that he had been shooting poorly. Taking a look at passing percentage, we see that Lillard passed the ball 68.3% of the time he touched it. When compared to his regular season pass percentage, which sits at 65.85%, the difference is insignificant. Given that Lillard wasn’t necessarily passing more out of a double team and was continuing to touch the ball at a similar rate as he was before (82 times per game in the regular season verses 85 times in the playoffs), we can conclude that Lillard was comfortable working the offense, ruling out the idea that the Pelicans ran an outstanding double team defense to pressure him.
Additionally, we can observe how well the Pelicans’ pressured Lillard out of shooting. Taking a look at the player tracking data, Lillard put up a very subpar 15 uncontested field goal makes on 41 attempts. This registers for only 36.6%. In comparison, Lillard scored 44.22% of uncontested field goals throughout the regular season. That being said, his mate McCollum, who was widely regarded as having a strong performance in the playoffs, boasted only 37.8% in the same shot category. The major difference between the two primary offensive contributors came in the contested field goal percentage. McCollum shot a blazing 65% when contested, with 36% of his shots coming in as contested 2 pointers. In comparison, Lillard only made 33.3% of his contested shots, a huge dive from his normally elite 49.6% contested shooting.
The uncontested field goals support the theory that Lillard underperformed. That being said, it is possible that as a result of the Pelican’s double teaming, Lillard’s contested shots were far more difficult than those of McCollum, which led to Lillard only taking 30 contested field goals throughout the entire series and making those at a low percentage. In order to flesh out whether this was the case or not, we’ll have to go to true shooting percentage.
At first glance, Lillard’s true shooting percentage was at an all-time terrible 47.1%. Furthermore, Lillards free throw rate also dropped these playoffs, down from .326 across his last four playoffs to .239, without any change in how often Lillard attacked the rim (the area where players are most likely to draw shooting fouls). Averaging 28.8% of his shot attempts in the paint through his last four playoffs, Lillard’s drive attempts went up to 29.6% against the Pelicans. This actually supports the idea of a strong defensive scheme designed to contain Lillard. Anthony Davis’ ability to defend the paint without fouling severely limited Lillard’s options. Even more supportive of the Pelicans implementing a suffocating defense was Lillard’s jump in turnover percentage, going from 11.1% from his past years up to 16.9%, a full 4.8% higher than that of his rookie year. His assist percentage dropped along with this large jump in turnovers, and directly affected the overall offensive production by the Blazers.
With these facts in mind, it appears that the Pelicans prevented Lillard from attacking the rim successfully and forced him to turn the ball over much more frequently. At the same time, Lillard only has himself to blame for missing so many uncontested shots. At the end of the day, the Pelicans were giving up outside shot opportunities, Lillard just simply couldn’t convert. We can credit the Pelicans for an above average defensive scheme, but the biggest reason for the Blazers’ devastating loss was the biggest choke from their biggest star to date.