Portland Trail Blazers vs. San Antonio Spurs: Analyzing a Great Game Plan Executed Well

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers' home opener of the 2013-14 season saw the Blazers humble Conference Champion San Antonio. How'd it happen? What went right? Get the scoop right here.

One of the neat things about the NBA is that each game has its own storyline.  In general keys to success and failure for each team remain fairly constant but you never know what facets will shine forth on a given night.  Individual heroics, talent and skill mismatches, injuries and fatigue...what will be the story today?

All of the above came into play tonight as the Portland Trail Blazers defeated the San Antonio Spurs 115-105 in the home opener at the Moda Center.  But this game didn't center on any of them.  Tonight was about the gameplan, pure and simple.

Defensively this victory was about the Blazers playing to type.  Portland wants to force opponents into mid-range jumpers.  They get foiled by teams that can beat them down the court, guards with enough quicks and wiggle to get past initial defenders, and dominant, fast, athletic centers.  Guess what?  The Spurs have none of those.  They're slow.  They were playing on the second night of a back-to-back.  Portland put Robin Lopez on Tim Duncan to start the game.  Duncan tried to draw Lopez out of the middle by backing up for jumpers.  Lopez said, "Take 'em.  I'll just keep one foot and my center of balance tilting inside."  Timmy made a few shots, but even for Duncan that kind of offense isn't optimal.  He wasn't going to beat the Blazers facing up from 18-20 feet.  But that's all Portland gave up consistently.

Meanwhile Lopez used that back foot and balance to slide back in the lane on anything other than a Duncan jumper.  San Antonio's drivers were slow enough that he had plenty of time to set up before they reached the rim zone.  Portland's perimeter defenders didn't have much trouble staying with the dribble either.  The result was a mash-up of 2-3 Portland defenders lurking every time San Antonio probed the paint.

If you lack the speed to make those drives count and draw fouls or and-ones on the defense, there's only two good ways to counter that kind of plan.  You either hit three-pointers to pull the defense way out and up your scoring efficiency or you rip offensive rebounds and putbacks on the collapsed "D".  San Antonio has some good three-point shooters but that's not their bread and butter.  (Portland would probably welcome an exchange of threes with them in any case.)  For years the Spurs have treated offensive rebounds like most people treat swine flu: avoiding whenever possible.  This left them shooting mid-range jumper after mid-range jumper.  Score one for Portland.

Though the defensive success was more predictable and impressive, Portland's offensive attack really stole the show tonight.  You'll recall in Portland's last game we mentioned the Nuggets appeared to be following a philosophy (somewhat poorly) regardless of the strengths or weaknesses of the opponent.  Not so Portland tonight.  San Antonio looked as slow and ground-bound on their defensive end as they did on offense.  Portland responded by eschewing the usual bevy of three-pointers, at least early in the game.  Instead they went for a couple of options.  LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Anybody was a reliable standby.  But the other option found the Blazers penetrating, early via passes and cuts but later straight off the dribble.  Half a step on a defender was good enough.  Even when they didn't convert or get fouled they still sunk the defense deep.  With the Spurs having to respect the paint all night, three-pointers came easy in the later stages.  The Blazers built a lead in the lane and kept it by shooting lights out beyond the arc.

We should point out here that raw footspeed was seldom the issue, save for the point guards.  (Portland's PG's did to San Antonio what the league's quicker point guards usually do to Portland.)  Much of the night, especially in the first half, you couldn't count to two-Mississippi before the guy with the ball had done something with it:  pass, shoot, or take advantage of a quickly-set screen.  The Blazers didn't wait for anything tonight, catching the Spurs flat-footed.

These developments turned the usual Portland trends on their head.  With San Antonio shooting jumpers and the Blazers penetrating, Portland finally managed to get more free throw attempts than an opponent:  19-8 FTA, +12 points on the scoreboard from the stripe, more than the difference in the game.  As expected, Portland committed a fair number of turnovers--16--playing faster but the Spurs scored only 12 points after.  San Antonio couldn't attack off the break either, claiming only 2 points on the run.  Portland had 19 points after turnovers and 7 fast break points...not shocking numbers but advantages in categories that are usually a deficit.  The Blazers still got killed in points in the paint overall, 52-34.  But the free throws and a couple extra three-pointers help offset.  Shooting nearly 56% on the night also cures most of your ills.

First and foremost this was an example of the Blazers planning well and executing with energy over a vulnerable opponent.  It's also a lesson that whatever strong points and flaws the team has, that doesn't mean an automatic loss.  Sometimes your strengths will match up pretty well with the opponent, well enough to cover whatever you're lacking.

Individual Notes

Everybody should really mark how well LaMarcus Aldridge is playing on the offensive end early in the season.  You are seeing a Dirk-Nowitzki, MVP-year level of unstoppable offense from him.  Every shot he takes looks good.  He's mixing in face-up shots and post play, keeping the opponent off balance.  Do not miss what you're seeing.  He's the Blazers' ATM machine right now.  Punch in the right number and he's going to ring up dollars for you.  11-17, 24 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks.

Damian Lillard actually outscored Aldridge by a point, netting 25 tonight.  He drew 8 foul shots, shuffling in drives with his "don't blink or you'll miss it" three-point release.  He shot 7-16, 3-8 from distance, and added 7 assists and 7 rebounds.  Tony Parker scored 17 but he took 20 shots to do it, attempted only 5 free throws, and never got loose from Damian long enough to drive.  Only screens caused Lillard any trouble on "D" tonight, and even then he was working hard to get through or around them.

Watching Robin Lopez able to stay near the hoop and play against players within his speed comfort zone was like watching a duck paddle around Laurelhurst pond.  He provided the extra body to clog the lane, slide-shuffled against guards and made them pass out instead of attempting layups, and gave Duncan a wink and a "nice job" when Tim hit his shot without having to worry.  When the floor spread enough that teammates started passing him breadcrumbs and the other center couldn't recover to him fast enough it was like, "Ha!  Take THAT!"  His dunks and layins led to 12 points on 6-10 shooting with 6 rebounds and 2 blocks.  Without the foul trouble brought on by having to rotate quickly Robin was able to play 40 minutes tonight.

Nicolas Batum was out there having fun tonight.  With Lillard and Aldridge running hot and hotter Nic only had to worry about being the best Frenchman on the court.  Boris Diaw staked some claim with 6-7 shooting and 14 points (the result of being the only big with any speed in San Antonio's lineup).  Batum scored only 11 on 4-11 shooting BUT he had 11 assists and 12 rebounds, so the Marseillaise trophy goes his way tonight.  A side note: Batum's only made three-pointer came on an "Oops, I shouldn't have done that!" heave just beyond halfcourt at the final buzzer, increasing Portland's final victory margin from 7 to 10.  He didn't expect it to go in, but it sealed his triple-double in addition to (no doubt) giving the Spurs something to write in their diary in preparation for the next time these two teams meet.

When the Spurs were threatening in the second half Wesley Matthews went to work from the arc.  He went 3-6 from long range but the more impressive stat is 8-13 overall shooting, courtesy of a couple drives against the glacial defense.  When Matthews can drive in a straight line he has some nifty finishes.  Tonight's earned him 20 points.

If Wesley Matthews looked fast against those guys you know Thomas Robinson looked like a racehorse.  He only pulled 10 minutes of play but he probably could have scored 6 times if the Blazers had gotten him 10 shots.  He ended up 2-3 for 4 points.  He committed 3 personal fouls on the other end...speed and spazz combining into a bittersweet cocktail in his game.

Joel Freeland and Dorrell Wright did well again.  Check marks there.

The star player off the bench, however, was Mo Williams...Spurs Killer.  Mo went 6-9, scoring 13 in 23 minutes as the only Blazer besides Aldridge to make good with the mid-range game.  By the time Williams came in the Spurs defense was choosing between defending three-pointers and defending drivers.  Mo said, "Remember me?" and then killed them with the elbow "J".

This marks the first game of the season--and really the first in a long, long time--that every Blazer player who took the floor had a good game.  With the entire starting lineup playing off of each other and registering great nights, it was a memorable home opener.

Houston comes up on Tuesday night.  Stay tuned tonight for Ben Golliver's first Media Row Report of the year from a locker room that's sure to be walking tall.

The Boxscore, this time suitable for framing!

The REAL Timmay's Instant Recap and GameDay Thread Review.

Pounding The Rock knows that the 3rd game of the season doesn't mean much to San Antonio, but they'll still probably give due credit to the Blazers.

The JERSEY CONTEST will commence soon.  We'll let you know when.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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