The Trail Blazers hardly tried to hide their adjusted offensive approach against the Boston Celtics. Terry Stotts called the same play on the first two possessions of Tuesday's game, a screen-the-screener action meant to spring Damian Lillard for an open three-point attempt.
But instead of affording Lillard the space to launch with a high pick-and-roll or dribble hand-off, Portland had him working to get open away from the ball – a preview of its coming offensive attack over the game's next 47 minutes.
Easily lost amid late-game dramatics and fierce debate over their "moral victory" in another loss to a quality foe was the Blazers' season-high in assists versus the Celtics.
They racked up 31 dimes on Tuesday night, three more than in any other game this season. More impressive? Portland, last in the league in assist percentage this season, had help on a whopping 72.1 percent of its scores – well above the Miami Heat's top-ranked mark, per NBA.com/stats.
That seachange in statistical profile was no accident. After the game, Lillard confirmed that the Blazers made a planned, concerted effort to emphasize ball and player movement against Boston.
"We had some discussion about how we could help each other more. How we could try to work on a style that is less predictable, that people can't take us out of as easy," he said. "It's a way that we've played in the past, we just haven't played it consistently. But tonight I didn't think it was forced. We wasn't just overly trying to do it; we just let the ball hop around. We cut, we screened for each other."
Lillard led Portland with 10 assists, several of which came from more standard ball screen and hand-off fare. Still, sustained efforts to get him the ball with a head of steam and defenders trailing behind him yielded many good looks for not just Lillard, but also his teammates.
On this second-quarter possession, Portland sets up as if Derrick Jones Jr. will run off staggered screens toward the ball. But he reverses course almost immediately, slamming into Marcus Smart to goad a Boston switch and create some extra breathing room for Lillard as the Blazers' real action gets underway.
By the time Lillard hesitates and attacks after catching, Kemba Walker is already out of position, having committed the cardinal NBA sin of leaving a quality shooter in the strong corner. Splash.
Norman Powell, by the way, is shooting a red-hot 53.2 percent from the left corner this season, per NBA.com/stats. Gary Trent Jr. is definitely a more natural shooter, but Powell has worked himself into being at least nearly as effective from deep.
The real added value Powell provides Portland comes elsewhere, though. He's the Blazers' most instinctive, aggressive cutter, always looking for seams to exploit when the defense's attention is elsewhere.
How many times this season has the opposition thrown a double or triple team at Lillard in late-clock situations, counting on the Blazers' offense to remain stagnant before the buzzer sounds? It happened twice against the Miami Heat last week alone, ending both the first and third quarters.
Powell made sure that embarrassing inaction didn't come to pass in the fourth quarter of Tuesday's game.
He's in the far corner as Boston keeps two defenders on Lillard after initially stymying a high ball screen, well out of range to be an escape valve. Noticing his man, Grant Williams, zoning up behind the point of attack, Powell quickly slithers along the baseline to make himself available for an outlet three on the other side of the floor.
The shot doesn't fall, but this is the type of process Portland can live with – no matter the result.
Robert Covington, clearly trying to diversify his offensive profile of late, is another player with the length and understanding needed to be effective as a cutter.
Most frustrating about watching Terry Stotts' offense this season isn't just its steady diet of post-ups for Carmelo Anthony, but how the Blazers normally react as the future Hall-of-Famer dribbles the air out of the ball before launching his patented turnaround. 'Melo, obviously, isn't a passer first or even second; he's the most shot-happy player on a roster overflowing with them. Maybe Anthony would be more inclined to embrace his playmaking ability from the post, though, if his teammates actually encouraged him to do so by cutting and screening away from the play.
It won't always be as easy as Covington's cut from the weak wing below; Jaylen Brown cheating for a steal helped create that wide-open space down the lane. But any off-ball movement whatsoever will inevitably help both 'Melo and the Blazers manage more efficient offense during his prescribed post-ups and isos.
Jusuf Nurkic doled out a season-best seven assists against Boston, four of which came via simple hand-offs. It's been clear since he came back that his impact as a high-post passer adds a critical wrinkle for Portland's offense, even when his backdoor dimes don't always lead to assists.
Case in point: This possession from late in the first half, when Nurkic fakes a hand-off with Covington at the elbow before finding a back-cutting Lillard along the baseline. Robert Williams III knows Kemba Walker is trailing too far behind Lillard to affect a shot at the rim, so bails on Powell in the right corner – where the Blazers' trade-deadline prize is shooting a clean 50 percent on the season.
Portland, make no mistake, won't suddenly be morphing into the current Heat or early-dynasty Golden State Warriors. Any offense with a singular playmaker like Lillard at the helm should always lean hard into pick-and-roll play. C.J. McCollum isn't Klay Thompson; really limiting his dribbles, ball screens and isolations is an exercise in diminishing returns.
But with Nurkic back and Powell in tow, the Blazers' efforts to diversify their offensive attack seem more rooted in realistic utility than ever. Expect Portland to continue stressing ball and player movement over the season's stretch run, too.
"I think that's a style that we'll be able to play against any team," Lillard said.