Derrick White can’t really be this important, can he? The absence of a second year player who’s only started 33 games shouldn’t make a playoff team look this discombobulated. But at least in the Spurs’ Thursday night thumping in Portland, that’s exactly what happened.
The Trail Blazers’ defensive scheme put the onus on the Spurs’ stars to score in one-on-one match ups, something DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay were able to take advantage of. The two combined for 60 points on just 46 shooting possessions (43 shots and 3 shooting fouls). LaMarcus Aldridge, on the other hand, struggled to score efficiently against the Trail Blazers’ post defenders, pitching in only 17 points on 21 shooting possessions (19 shots and 2 shooting fouls).
The three combined for 77 points, but had just 9 assists compared with 13 turnovers. That’s exactly what the Trail Blazers were hoping for. By trusting their defenders in single coverage, the Trail Blazers were able to stay at home on the Spurs’ shooters, turning one of the Spurs’ biggest strengths into a weakness.
The Spurs’ post ups, in particular, provided little value. They threw it into the block 26 times, and scored just 9 points on 14 shots with 5 turnovers and no assists.
The team’s total of 19 assists in the game was just the 10th time all season they’ve been held under 20, and they’ve only won one of those games. The Trail Blazers’ willingness and ability to guard the Spurs’ stars straight up limited those opportunities. Davis Bertans, for example, took just 2 shots and his only make was a rare dunk.
The Spurs’ were especially vulnerable to this type of defensive scheme because they were once again without a true point guard in the lineup. There’s a difference between breaking down the defense, something DeMar, Rudy, and LaMarcus all excel at, and manipulating the defense to induce mistakes.
With DeMar, Bryn Forbes and Patty Mills taking turns filling in, the Spurs’ still scored well, putting up 120.4 points per 100 possessions. But their 18 turnovers, and the 22 points the Trail Blazers scored off those turnovers, was too big a deficit to overcome.
Of course, if the Spurs could use the same defensive scheme against the Trail Blazers, they would’ve been in much better position. Their inability to stay in front of, alongside, or even in the near vicinity of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum led to a parade of open shots.
The Trail Blazers average 45 open and wide open looks per game and have an eFG% of 54.9 on those shots this season. They took 53 in this game and their eFG% was 61.3. Some of that was due to bad transition defense, both off turnovers and live rebounds, which led to 18 points on fast breaks, but the Spurs defense wasn’t any good in the half-court, either.
Per Cleaning the Glass, the Trail Blazers scored 113 points per 100 plays against the Spurs’ set defense. Even more so than on offense, this is where they missed Derrick most. The Spurs are 5.2 points per 100 plays better on defense in the half-court with Derrick on the floor, the best mark on the team by far. Against a team that predicates their attack on the abilities of two dynamic guards, like the Trail Blazers, that number is probably low.
It was far too easy for them to exploit mismatches and punish the Spurs for their need to switch and help.
This, too, is something Derrick would’ve been able to handle much better than any of the team’s other healthy guards.
He’s certainly not their best player. He’s not even in the top three on most nights. But in games like this one, he could easily be the team’s most important player because he brings so much to the table that is unique on this roster. There’s simply no way for the team to cobble together some amalgamation of his play-making, shooting and defense with the parts they have available. Against other teams, his absence may not have such an impact, but in this game, he was sorely missed.