Portland Trail Blazers All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge went bonkers in the final 3:30 of their 87-81 win over the Phoenix Suns on Friday night. Aldridge made five mid-range jumpers between 11 and 19 feet to effectively close out the victory.
This undoubtedly became the headline from the game, but it wasn't really the story. Yes, LMA's heroics put the game away, yet the Suns defense was the main factor in the contest being so close.
The Blazers have scored 107.7 points per 100 possessions in the last 11 games since Wesley Matthews has been out of the lineup. They've been making 9.8 threes on 27 attempts.
Phoenix held Portland to a 91.7 ORtg with only seven made threes on 26 attempts.
Much of this was because of an extremely sound strategy employed by head coach Jeff Hornacek and assistant coach Mike Longabardi.
Despite Aldridge's scorching finish it took him 26 shots to get to 27 points (to be fair he shot 1-4 from the free throw line so that's slightly skewed). That's a number you live with from the Suns perspective. LMA only had one assist and zero secondary helpers.
"For most of the game you're trying to keep them to two points, keep him off the free throw line," said Hornacek on the Suns strategy to defend Aldridge. "He had 27 points, but he had to make 13 shots. We didn't give him any free throws, we kept him out of there. That's why we were coming late. If he was going to over power us inside then we had help over there. When you also do that you got a three-man (typically P.J. Tucker) or sometimes depending how they set up maybe even a guard trying to box out Lopez."
Aldridge's very first shot of the game did a great job exemplifying how this was employed.
Here are some pictures to help break it down further:
What the Suns were trying to do was not an easy concept. It takes timing and precision to pull off. Right when Aldridge catches the ball we start to see the wheels in motion of how the Suns plan on trying to limi LMA. Alex Len is cheating over slightly, but he hasn't completely left Lopez yet. Tucker is putting himself in position to box out Lopez, but hasn't totally abandoned Arron Afflalo at this point. That's because from where Aldridge is at this moment he still has the ability to make the cross court pass for the open three.
After the game Suns forward Markieff Morris stated "I was just trying to bait him into the turnaround shot. That was our defensive scheme, take the middle away." You can see in this picture how Markieff's defensive position leads to that happening -- he leans on LMA's left side and is no longer defending him square. He's placed his left foot to the outside of LMA's left foot while maneuvering his right between the two. This slight adjustment is key because it allowed the rest of the defense to shift behind him.
From this spot, the cross court pass to Afflalo becomes increasingly difficult, creating the opportunity for Len to shift over in case LMA attempts to spin towards the rim. Tucker has gone from concerning himself with Afflalo to fully putting himself in position to box out Lopez.
Lopez had six offensive rebounds in this game, but only one came off an LMA miss and that wasn't even out of a double situation. Gerald Green had his struggles when attempting what Tucker does here, but P.J. has the size and strength to help make this scheme work.
Make or miss, the result shown above is a win for the Suns defense every time. Aldridge had to take a contested shot dealing with the length of Len.
"Our plan for the game was to come from the baseline and challenge his shots," explained Len. "When he gets in closer to the block, to the paint, I gotta come when he dribbles. We're gonna live with those shots, those are some tough shots, but he made them today.
LMA's one assist was a perfect reminder to just how hard this plan was to execute. The following play shows how this defensive strategy can scramble quickly.
Mass confusion. Tucker over helps and doubles when he wasn't supposed to. He probably does this because Kaman pulled Brandan Wright away from the basket leaving Aldridge with a free lane to the hoop if Markieff pushes LMA away from the middle like the plan dictated.
That aside, Tucker still goes too early, especially since LMA is more towards the elbow area than the left block. The passing lane for the open three is way too easy for Aldridge to identify. This was one of the few bad breakdowns not featuring Green the Suns had defensively.
I won't break down each of these following videos individually since it's all the same basic concept, but here's three more looks at when the Suns properly executed the defensive game plan.
I understand when Aldridge closes the game like he did why it can be difficult to look at this stuff in a positive light. Even on LMA's makes at the end of the game, this same strategy was used well. LMA was forced to spin baseline, and when he did he met Len or Tucker on the quick double. It's just that LMA made the tough jumpers over that defense.
What the Suns did over the course of this game defensively showed smart planning, attention to detail from both the coaches and players plus an ability to carry out what was expected of them.
This was another loss in a season that will almost assuredly end in disappointment, but it doesn't mean there aren't bits and pieces you can take solace in knowing the Suns performed in an admirable way.