Luck or Lack? Exploring the Blazers' three-point offense vs. the Lakers

Luck or Lack? Exploring the Blazers' three-point offense vs. the Lakers

With less than a second left on the game clock, Damian Lillard rises to his right and fires a three.

Not just a three, but a deep three from the right wing. And not just a deep three from the right wing; it's a three so deep, over the outstretched arms of a hopeless defender, that you immediately think: "How on earth is he so comfortable taking that shot?"

Naturally, it goes in without speaking to the rim, much less hitting it. The crowd goes crazy. The opposing team walks off the floor, demoralized. Lillard has the facial expression of someone who's been told the same joke three times in a row.

Some might even consider the shot a bad one, but is there a bad shot when it comes to Lillard?

That was the question immediately following his 37-foot playoff series-ender against the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2019. And while Monday night's win against the Los Angeles Lakers doesn't sniff those stakes, it was a question worth asking again as Lillard drilled a fading triple from the "M" in Moda Center to close the first quarter.

Not only was that Lillard's second made three to that point, it was the 10th make of the night from the Blazers. They'd go on to make seven more in the second, giving them 17 first-half triples on 29 attempts.

The Lakers simply couldn't match that firepower. The Blazers had more points via three-pointers (51) than LA scored all half (46). You're not winning when the math is that far on the opponent's side. 

When asked about the splash-happy first half, Lakers head coach Darvin Ham gave a proverbial hat tip to the Blazers, citing shot quality. 

"We checked the analytical data at halftime," Ham began. "And according to that data, our defensive shot quality would've been No. 1 in the league because they were contested."

"They moved the ball on some of them. Some of them [were open] by design, with certain guys we shifted more off the ball. But credit to them, they made shots tonight. Seventeen threes in a half, that's incredible."

Naturally, if you're watching your favorite team's opponent burn the nets against you, one of the last things you want to hear is a variation of, "We were okay with what we gave up." But honestly, a review of the film and the numbers back that up.

Of the 17 threes made in the first half from the Blazers, eight of them were of the catch-and-shoot variety. Of those eight, four of them were made by Matisse Thybulle (2) and Trendon Watford (2). The other four were spread out between Lillard (2), Anfernee Simons (1) and Shaedon Sharpe (1).

We'll start with the Lillard-Simons-Sharpe triumvirate first. Lillard and Simons are generally treated like red-alert threats on the perimeter; Sharpe doesn't quite get that attention, but he certainly doesn't get "gapped" off the ball like a traditional non-shooter would. 

Simons and Sharpe were the "bad" ones the Lakers gave up. The defense was tilted elsewhere, opening a pure catch-and-shoot opportunity for Simons and a clean look after a corner lift for Sharpe.

Lillard, on the other hand, is where you shake your head as an opposing coach. On the first, Lillard acts as a trailer in transition, promptly draining a shot from nearly 30 feet. On the second, Lillard kicks off the chain with Chicago action — a pindown into a dribble handoff — before dishing, relocating and bombing away over a recovering Austin Reaves from 31 feet. 

I feel for Reaves on both clips. He's trying to match up with Lillard in transition while directing traffic. Nobody picks up Simons, so he finds himself toggling between him and Lillard before the shot. And on the Chicago action clip, Reaves is busting his butt trying to navigate the screen and the handoff while staying attached. All things considered, he did pretty well. It just didn't matter.

The Watford and Thybulle threes were pretty blatant gameplan calls. The Lakers simply did not care if either of them took shots from the perimeter. That's been true for the entirety of Thybulle's career; he's a 32.9% shooter from deep overall, and is only slightly better (34.4%) from the corners. 

Watford hasn't shot nearly enough on the NBA level to shift the gameplan on him. He was shooting nearly 46% from three heading into Monday night's contest, but was averaging under one attempt per contest. When you include last night's 2-for-2 performance, Watford is 25-of-71 (35.2%) from three in 89 career games.

Defenses will continue to live with those.

Eight of the other nine makes, including the aforementioned hail mary to cap the first quarter, came off some sort of movement.

There was a handoff triple from forward Nassir Little. Not only is he a career 34.1% shooter from deep, but Little has only taken 18 threes off a DHO in his four-year NBA career, per InStat tracking data. There's a reason he received "under" coverage on the handoff.

Beyond that, the Lillard-Simons-Sharpe trio just went nuts off the bounce. Pull-ups, stepbacks — you name it, they did it. The starting backcourt specifically got busy in ball-screens, pulling up above the break with the space that was given.

There wasn't a ton of space to operate with. Anthony Davis wasn't quite at the level of the screen, but he was a step or two higher up than your traditional deep drop. It probably would've been worth getting all the way up to the level.

Davis is still working his way back to the All-Defense form we saw earlier in the year, and deserves a little grace. We've probably, collectively, undersold just how much he has working against him, as well as the probability that he's still playing through stuff. But even with that context, that's probably the fairest criticism to levy towards Ham's defensive game plan in the first half.

And then there was this from Lillard, which... what the heck do you do with this?

As for the actual numbers, they're pretty daunting.

Converting over 58% of your threes in a half is absurd on its own. On the type of threes the Blazers took, and considering who took them, their quantified shot quality (qSQ) was 50.61 — a mark that would rank first in the NBA across an entire season (a full point below the Miami Heat's mark of 51.87), per Second Spectrum.

Instead, they had an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 87.93%. Doing the simple math, that's an overperformance of 37.32%. 

There have been 81 instances of a team taking at least 25 threes in the first half of a game this season. Nobody has outperformed the quality of their looks to the degree the Blazers did last night.

When filtering for the first or second half, that plus-37.32% mark ranks second in the NBA. The top spot belongs to the Golden State Warriors (38.83% above expectation), with the Thunder serving as their victims last Monday.

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