How the Blazers defended Montrezl Harrell defensively and reminded the Lakers of their true identity

The LeBron James-Anthony Davis Lakers won their first 59 games in which they led after three quarters. If the champion team of last season was ahead after three quarters, the game was functionally over. Not once have they blown such an advantage, and the remarkable reliability comes mainly from their excellent defense.

No team allowed fewer points per 100 possessions in the fourth quarter (100.8) than the Lakers last season. They were fourth in the clutch defense before the Orlando bubble, and then improved in the clutch settings when the playoffs arrived. Beating the Lakers late in games was almost impossible, because scoring on the Lakers late in the games was almost impossible.

The Portland Trail Blazers unleashed the 59-game winning streak on Monday with a lead in the third quarter. After trailing 85-84 through three quarters, they outscored the Lakers 31-22 in fourth place to walk out of Staples Center with a 115-107 victory that last year’s roster would never have allowed. But last year’s roster did not include Montrezl Harrell.

The Lakers took a calculated risk on Harrell. By paying only the mediocre exception to him, they managed to secure a player who was in a vacuum far more valuable than they should reasonably have been. They took him away from rival Clippers and assuming they were confident that Marc Gasol would reach the minimum, they knew they had a more traditional center to balance his shortcomings. Harrell played largely well in his first three games as a Laker. His points, offensive setbacks and energy are real assets.

But these assets can best be applied to bank setups he can physically handle. Asking him to play in a difficult time puts a target on his back. It was especially Monday where Frank Vogel left him on the floor for more than 15 minutes of playing time. When Portland realized how exploitative he was on defense, he was too tired to fight back. This is essentially what the Lakers lost this game. The Blazers chased Harrell to extinction on pick-and-rolls.

The Lakers apparently decided on an aggressive cover against Damian Lillard to prevent him from dripping in easy 3-pointers. This kind of catching only works if the big defender immediately chases the ball handler immediately off the screen, bothering him enough to make the rest of the defense turn in his place and perhaps force that ball handler to panic. Instead, Harrell gets caught up in the afternoon nap, without showing Lillard hard enough to slow him down or fall far enough back to do anything to Enes Kanter. He was in the middle of the play, yet he did not affect one side of it.

Harrell is a little more observant the next time Portland walks pick-and-roll, but still does not get nearly high enough on CJ McCollum. He leaves enough air space for McCollum to make the ball bounce in Jusuf Nurkic’s pocket. LeBron James turns, but he’s just not enough to challenge Nurkic here.

A few plays later, Portland just catches him asleep. He does not flash or drop. He freezes, and by the time he realizes that Nurkic’s screen is going to take Kentavious Caldwell-Pope out of the play, it’s too late for him to scurry back to McCollum.

As things got worse, the Lakers abandoned the lightning-fast scheme to simplify things for Harrell. It also did not work. If he falls back on this play, his only resistance to Lillard’s drive is a lazy swat that results in an offense.

Next time on the floor, Portland delivers the dagger. Another Lillard-Nurkic pick-and-roll. Harrell plays a drop cover again, but does not see Nurkic leaking to the middle of the floor. Lillard sneaks the ball off him for an easy ride and setup.

At this point, Vogel has seen enough. He takes Harrell out of the game and replaces him with Kyle Kuzma, but the damage is done. Portland leads by eight with less than two minutes of play, and the Lakers’ popular defense in the fourth quarter allowed a staggering 134.8 points per 100 possessions in the final frame. Game over. Jackets win.

And it was a preventative victory on a number of levels. A healthy and engaged Anthony Davis might have been better off attacking Harrell over his mistakes. If Harrell had been given a break at some point in the 16-minute period, he would have been better able to take on the more active defensive role that Vogel’s game plan requires. It was ultimately a loss of coaching because Vogel did not put his player in the best position to succeed. He asked an attacking sixth man to defend one of the most dangerous plays in all of basketball, and he burned for it.

At some point, it was probably intentional. The Lakers are four games in a 72-game slogan. They have 11 players competing for big minutes and it is not yet clear which of them fits together best. The advantage of the home court does not have to be a priority if your biggest competitor shares your arena. Vogel’s goal is not to win every game in the regular season, but to use it to prepare for the post-season. He wanted to see how Harrell would react defensively against a competitor in a difficult time. His fourth quarter minutes were an experiment.

But it was a failed experiment. The Lakers have now seen first-hand what happens when they leave their defensive identity late in a game. This is a mistake they no longer need to repeat. Harrell can play a valuable role in this team. He just can not play the specific role he was asked on Monday. When that counts, Davis or Marc Gasol should be in the middle to maximize the defense that ultimately made the Lakers a champion. This is the ticket to preserving the kind of clues that the Lakers hope they will never blow again.