Whenever the Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs meet, J.R. Wilco of Pounding The Rock and I engage in a little back-and-forth over the two teams and their prospects. Since we're now embroiled in a 7-game series, we've decided to go into super-mode, giving you an inside, unscripted look at our thoughts about the series. Tune in after each game for the new installment!
May 11th, 2014 10:00 p.m.--Game 3, The Day After
Here's an idea that's been cropping up in both broadcast and print coverage, but the most poignant example was texted to me by a buddy during the fourth quarter of Saturday night's Game 3.
"Dallas punched a sleeping giant. Portland has to suffer for it."
While there's merit in discussing the possibility that Dallas was the perfect first round opponent for the Spurs by forcing the Spurs to develop their offense in order to deal with the kind of defenses that they'd see throughout the playoffs (or at least in the first two rounds), what I want to discuss here is more along the lines of Oregon vs. Texas.
The Trail Blazers spent the first round working on a serious hate-on for things Houston vis-a-vis that nasty six-gamer with the Rockets. And the second round isn't doing much to increase anyone Pacific-Northwesterner's affection for San Antonio. But if the reason that the Spurs have been so perfectly prepped to dismantle Portland is because of Dallas, then that means Blazer Nation would have cause to harbor resentment against all three Texas teams. That kind of thing just isn't healthy, but I know of no way to avoid it. So there's that, and also there's the possibility of the sweep thing just sitting there like a big elephant in the room, daring to be ignored. My question to you: how do we deal with these issues?
All of that's a bit too esoteric for me at this point. I'm not sure about future rivalries or hate-fests and I'm not that concerned about a sweep in principle. If it happens, it happens.
For me, I hearken back to the beginning of the season for the Trail Blazers. As the early season unfolded and the Blazers embarked on their 31-9 start, I remember watching them night after night thinking, "They're basically playing the same three cards every game. How come nobody is stopping this?" After 40 games of mostly victories, you just shrug your shoulders and accept it. "Hey...maybe they are doing something I'm not seeing or maybe the league really can't stop this. I'm not complaining!" At no point could the Blazers develop alternatives. Even if they had the inclination they didn't have the depth. They just kept playing their way.
Then the first-round matchup with Houston came. This was worrisome. Not only had the Rockets had regular-season success against the Blazers, they had time to prepare. The Blazers still didn't have alternatives. You'd have thought the Rockets would have viewed the tape and said, "Keep in single coverage, run screens, penetrate and play the inside-out game, rebound decently, and this series is ours." Instead they went with matchup basketball, slow-playing their perceived advantages with James Harden and Dwight Howard, blowing spacing and continuity in the process. At times they looked brain-dead. The Blazers took the series, waltzing on their way.
At that point it really did look like Portland's attack was more than it seemed. Maybe Aldridge's dominance forced enough breakage that opponents couldn't compensate. Maybe Lillard's poise under pressure would see the Blazers through their mistakes and predictability.
Then all of a sudden the Spurs show up with not only, "We got you", but a whole jug of "We Got You Concentrate". They didn't dilute it, didn't add water. Finally somebody looked at the scouting film, figured out the Blazers do, like, four things consistently, and found out how to take away not just one or two, but all four. That's a credit to the Spurs. It's also a wake-up call for the Blazers on their way forward. You can append "Second Round Team" to their 2013-14 season but as it's turned out, it's more like "1.5 Round Team". The Spurs have shown the difference between a squad equipped to handle anyone, anywhere and a squad that does pretty well until somebody figures them out. The rush of Round 1, Game 6 can't disguise the walloping of Round 2, Games 1-3. The Blazers weren't ready for this series mentally or emotionally, but they also weren't set up to clear this hurdle. All the prior momentum only served to make the "thud" harder when they tripped over it.
I'm not sure that's a surprise. I'm not sure it's even the most disappointing aspect of the series. Portland losing to the Spurs is no biggie at this point in the development arcs of these franchises. Portland trailing the Spurs 3-0 isn't even that big of a disaster. Portland trailing 3-0 having shown zero ability to adjust or fight back or even get more intense--with each loss only serving to make the offense look more rushed and scattered, with each defensive possession devolving into the same "can't do anything different" routine that's shadowed them all year--that shows something about this team. It also shows how much work needs to go into the project before the Blazers are ready for prime time.
So no, I don't think the Blazers end up hating the Spurs. Do you resent a mountain for falling on you when you tried to climb it with the wrong gear in the wrong season? For Portland this is less about San Antonio specifically and more about San Antonio representing the archetype of that hurdle they're not ready to leap. If it wasn't the Spurs it'd be someone else. The Blazers showed how spirited and exciting they can be this year. They've also shown how vulnerable they are and how ill-equipped at this point to deal with their vulnerabilities. That's a painful lesson, but in some ways a much-needed one.
That said, at least one game remains in this series. If the Blazers haven't summoned any gusto yet, it's hard to imagine them finding it down 3-0. In your heart of hearts, is there any way you see the Spurs losing Game 4?
Is there any way? Absolutely. One of the features of a following such a long-term core as Pop and the Big Three is that I've seen them lose nearly every kind of game in almost every way it could be lost.
That said, I give it about a 5% chance of happening. First, the Spurs are crazy good at closing teams out. Second, there's the weight of 0-3 that just crushes a team, and not just the Blazers either. Any team that loses the first three of a best of seven series is essentially playing on the surface of Neptune for Game 4; the gravity has got to be suffocating. Every mistake is magnified and every obstacle looms like Everest. Finally, the way the Spurs are playing right now makes any loss seem as foreign as playing with a purple pyramid-shaped basketball.
And the way you talk about Portland's inability to adjust makes me remember something I noticed in the 3rd quarter of Game 1 when TNT did a "mike'd up" segment on Terry Stotts as he encouraged the Blazers with something like, "Focus on this quarter. Where are we? We're up for for the quarter. Just keep chipping away. Chipping away."
More than what he said, it was the way he said it. I can't pretend that I've been following him for long, so it's possible that he just talks like that. But to me, it really seemed like he didn't even believe what he was saying. There was just no passion in his words or manner.
That can be ok, if he's able to get his point across in other ways. It's not like every coach has to have the same style or mannerisms. But it was quite striking and it made me really interested in your take on him. As well as the lack of adjustments, do you see Stotts as part of the problem? Or do you think that if the Blazers had more pieces, that he could get them to the next level?
If you give a guy creamy peanut butter, crunchy peanut butter, and Wonder Bread what's he going to make besides a sandwich? At the point you're citing, down big with no signs of life, I could see nobody in the huddle believing it, or at least needing a miracle to make it come true. But even a miracle (see also: last shot, Houston) wouldn't change the rut the Blazers are locked into.
Stotts would love more options, more wrinkles. How do you make that happen? Blazer fans have been asking, "Why don't the Blazers hedge screens or get out and cover instead of sagging back into the lane?" Good idea! With whom? The Spurs are smart enough to know Robin Lopez is the key to Portland's interior defense. Without him, there is none. As we've discussed before, the price of admission for Lopez's best game is keeping him in or near the lane at all times. They have not hedged or switched with Lopez all year. They cannot do it. Witness the ridiculous Parker v. Lopez mismatch in Game 3 the couple times they tried. Extending the screen defense just isn't an option with him in there. But who replaces him?
Thomas Robinson? OK, done. But he's messing up offensive sets and fouling like crazy.
Victor Claver? Great. Mobile enough anyway. But he's undersized on the boards and has the offense of your average warty newt. He went 0-5 on 4 free throws in Game 3.
Joel Freeland? Been injured and wouldn't necessarily be more able to contain outside than Lopez.
Every guy you put in creates problems elsewhere in the chain. San Antonio just switches to exploiting those. Plus none of those guys really solve Portland's own problems.
So now...is this a coaching issue?
The one thing I will say is that the Blazers didn't respond at all in Game 3 outside of that one, up-tempo, devil-may-care run. I wasn't looking for major adjustments, but I was looking for them to do the things they're good at with more passion, poise, and power. None of that happened. They got more timid, more rattled. I don't think they understand how to break out of the submission hold the Spurs have them in right now. That's not just affecting one game, it's carrying through.
This, I think, is a combination coaching staff and personnel issue. Neither the Blazers nor Stotts have been deep in the playoffs. They understand in theory what post-season basketball is about but I'm not sure they have the collective resources to get back up when the Spurs knock them down so hard, to start kicking to the groin when the left jab isn't working. Among the other needs, a player with playoff experience who doesn't care about anything else besides coming out ahead would do wonders for this team. I think of what Ron Artest did to the young Brandon Roy in Houston-Portland '09 (though Roy was a far superior player by then) and I want somebody to even the odds for Portland in these situations. Not that the analogy holds for the 2014 Spurs. They'd probably cope, though the fight would be fairer. But as I said, the 2014 Spurs aren't the issue. The Blazers also have to overcome what they represent...every future team with decent talent and enough smarts to figure out how the Blazers like to play.
Of all things missing for Portland in Game 3, the lack of fight was the worst in my mind.
So let's assume the Spurs are going to win this series. You opened the frat with a statement about the sleeping giant being awake. Do you think that's the story here or do you think San Antonio just met a team they could exploit an a fairly unique way and they'll drift back towards the "vs. Dallas" end of the spectrum in the next round? I'm not sure the Spurs are sputtering as much as they showed against the Mavs but I'm not sure they're as good as they look against Portland either.
There's no doubt that the Spurs were a regular season behemoth -- best record in the league, etc. And they certainly didn't blaze through the first round, so the sleeping giant metaphor works at least that far. But there were extenuating circumstances in the transition between the 1st and 2nd round.
First, Tony Parker's sore back (one of the main "variety of maladies" for which Popovich rested Parker in February) cropped up at the end of the regular season and the beginning of the playoffs. It limited his effectiveness and although he still had big first halves, he was a shell of himself in the 3rd and 4th quarters. That seems to have been dealt with.
Second, Rick Carlisle made adjustments every bit as quickly as Popovich did. I know you wrote something on BlazersEdge about how good coaches make adjustments at halftime but the Spurs consider it a failure if they can't fix issues halfway through the first timeout. Well, that wasn't just happening on the San Antonio bench in the opening round. It was truly a case of the seven-game chess match, only the adjustments were happening multiple times a quarter between squads who share a division and know each other intimately. Everyone else may have already known how good Carlisle was, but those 7 games against Dallas really opened my eyes. He was a HUGE part of why that series went the distance. Well, that and Vince Carter's buzzer-beater.
Third, the dominance the Trail Blazers have executed over the Spurs over the past four seasons plus and the utter demolition of Portland in the Western Semifinals may be the best argument yet that you can throw out regular season matchup numbers when two teams meet in the playoffs. (The Mavericks/Spurs series -- San Antonio winning 10 straight games -- might be a close second.) Then there's the long-held belief most Pounders have in CIA Pop, the imaginary alter ego of Popovich that's planning, scheming, plotting and seeing every eventuality before the rest of the world knows there's an issue to discuss. CIA Pop would have thrown all of those games against Portland just to make it all the easier to crush the Blazers once the teams met with playoff advancement on the line.
And that wraps up the extenuating circumstances which leaves me free to discuss the Spurs as a narcoleptic colossus. I'd have to say that the jury is still out because while they've a couple of the league's best offenses, they haven't faced a particularly good defense yet. Until they do, I have to reserve judgment and try to temper my optimism. After the way last season ended, I think most Spurs fans are still proceeding with caution. Like you said, sometimes it difficult to tell whether the team is just that good, or whether they're just yet to meet their match.
What's left to say as we head in to a potential elimination game?
Ummm... Yo mama so ugly she makes Victor Claver's free throws look good?
Sorry, we ARE still locked in battle, technically. It just slipped out.
You come at me with a yo mama joke on Mother's Day? How .. how dare you?
I'm not going to even dignify that with a response. I'm going to leave that to my faithful readers. C'mon, £ers. Help me out here. Take to the comments and hit Dave with your favorite classic yo mama joke. My only request is that you keep it clever and semi-basketball related, and avoid anything flat out demeaning to moms.
Fair enough? Let him have it!
...said Portland's defense when asked about Tony Parker's jumper. Wait, what? Ummm...I mean...
Oh no you DIDN'T. You want to start something? Unlike the Trail Blazers, I fight back! With teeth!
Like J.R., I'd prefer to keep it somewhat classy though...more clever than mean. After all, we don't want to pay any fines for flagrant fouls. In any case, it's GOT to be more entertaining than this series has turned out to be, right?
--Dave firstname.lastname@example.org / @DaveDeckard