The Blazers look to avoid playoff elimination tonight when they take on the San Antonio Spurs at the Moda Center.
Throughout this best-of-seven series, Portland and its coaching staff have tried countless strategies to counter the Spurs' dominance. San Antonio point guard Tony Parker -- who's averaging 26 points a night while shooting 52.4 percent from the floor and 50 percent from beyond the arc through three second-round games -- has been unstoppable.
Blazers coach Terry Stotts started the series with guard Damian Lillard assigned to Parker, who immediately took advantage of the sophomore's defensive struggles en route to a 33-point Game 1. Since then, Stotts has put guard Wesley Matthews and wing Nicolas Batum -- both much more accomplished defenders than Lillard, Matthews with his physicality and motor and Batum with his length -- on the six-time All-Star point guard, to similar results.
Parker has canned his mid-range jumpers, easily finished in the lane and found open teammates to the tune of 8.3 assists a game. Quite simply, there doesn't seem to be any specific game plan the Blazers could employ to slow Parker down this series; he's locked-in, able to pick apart Portland's defense regardless of its strategies and adjustments.
Lillard, Parker's Portland counterpart, has struggled to make the impact this series many fans expected from him after tearing through the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs. After a 7-for-21 performance from the floor in Game 3 -- which included zero converted three-pointers and six misses -- Lillard is now shooting 37.5 percent on his field-goals in the West semis and an astonishing 7.7 percent from long-range.
Blazers All-Star big man LaMarcus Aldridge has had similar struggles, averaging 23 points a night but needing almost 24 shots to get there. He's made just 38 percent of his shots through the first three games against San Antonio.
After some Game 1 difficulties, Matthews and Batum have come alive, averaging 14.7 and 16 points a game while shooting 43.8 percent and 52.6 percent, respectively, from the field. Batum has made over 47 percent of his threes since the series started, Matthews 35.3 percent. Their contributions, however, have been rendered moot as Lillard and Aldridge have failed to gain much traction offensively.
Center Robin Lopez is averaging over 10 points a game so far, but is doing so while shooting 45 percent from the floor. Wing Will Barton leads the reserves with 7.3 points a game while making three-quarters of his shots. Outside of him, though, Portland's bench has completely failed to show up as big man Thomas Robinson is averaging 1.3 points and forward Dorell Wright is contributing only 1.5 points per game this series.
The Spurs role players and reserves, on the other hand, have been incredibly productive. Center Tiago Splitter -- who's gotten plenty of credit for his defense on Aldridge -- only had to play 26 minutes in Game 3. Forward Kawhi Leonard is averaging over 17 points a game and making 56.3 percent of his shot attempts, including over 54 percent of his threes. Guard Marco Belinelli has cruised to just over a dozen points a night while converting 68.4 percent of his field-goals and 54.5 percent of his three-pointers.
Forward Boris Diaw has made almost three-quarters of his shots against the Blazers in three games, while point guard Patty Mills and center Aron Baynes have been good for 62.5 percent from the field each. Guards Manu Ginobili and Danny Green are both below 30 percent shooting so far this series, but their efforts have been counterbalanced heavily by the performances from the rest of the supporting cast.
When the Spurs are playing the way they are -- Stotts and many of his players have referred to them as "champions" to the media throughout the series -- it's nearly impossible to gain an advantage over them on either end of the court. On Saturday night, in a 15-point loss, Portland was able to go on three separate scoring runs of eight points or more. Each time the Blazers got within striking distance, San Antonio calmly answered with routine baskets, going on runs of its own and eventually ballooning the leads back out to at least a dozen points.
On Saturday night, Portland picked up as many assists (23) as the Spurs, limited them to just 8 offensive rebounds, held them to 33.3 percent shooting from deep and kept them to a dozen fast break points. The result? A 118-103 beating that left the Blazers on the brink of elimination heading into tonight's game.
Portland might be out of adjustments, at least defensively. Every time the Blazers have tried a new game plan against Parker, he's found a way to help his team win. Leonard, Diaw, Belinelli, Mills and Splitter are all shooting the lights out. Forward Tim Duncan -- at age 38 -- has made over 45 percent of his shots this series. Playing straight-up, single-coverage defense hasn't worked for Portland. Sending double-teams or too much help on defense against the Spurs practically gift-wraps them an open shot, as their token ball movement almost always delivers the ball to the open man for a good look.
Stotts will probably stick with Matthews and Batum on Parker tonight. The Blazers have tried switching on screens, going over picks and going under picks. Not any one defensive game plan has worked in three games so far. Parker is going to find a way to contribute, but that can be tempered if the Spurs' secondary scorers are slowed down. That's easier said than done, though, as Popovich has a deep well of fresh reserves to throw at Portland while Stotts tries to manage his fatigued starters' minutes while hoping to tread water with an overmatched bench unit. With guard Mo Williams likely out again tonight, the talent disparity between the two teams' reserves is magnified even further.
Of course, the Blazers could help themselves tremendously by executing solidly from the opening tip. They've been outscored in every first quarter these playoffs and have ceded second quarters of 41, 36 and 32 points in three games so far against San Antonio. A double-digit halftime deficit can be overcome against an undisciplined Houston defense, but climbing out of a 20-point hole after two periods against the Spurs is next to impossible as they've proven three straight times.
Isolation plays aren't the best way to attack San Antonio's defense, but it seems like Portland is forcing the issue, largely ending possessions with unfavorable attempts. If Lillard and Aldridge are sinking their shots, then the Blazers should let their All-Stars carry the offense. Otherwise -- as has been the case the majority of the series -- Portland needs to rediscover the ball movement that got them to 54 regular season wins and a date with the Spurs in the second round of the playoffs. Open shots may not come with regularity against San Antonio, but moving the ball around well at least provides an opportunity to find a good look, whereas attacking individually plays right into the Spurs' hands; Popovich will take his chances defending a contested floater, mid-range jumper or step-back three.
Though a solid effort on the boards wasn't rewarded with the win on Saturday night, the Blazers have to stick with it. To his credit, Aldridge has done well rebounding the ball this series. Batum, Matthews, Lillard and Lopez have all played their part on the glass as well, for the most part. Duncan and Splitter have been allowed to secure too many offensive rebounds at times this series, and tonight Portland should replicate its Game 3 effort that limited them to just three combined rebounds under their own basket.
The Blazers need to come out and play like they have nothing to lose tonight and execute the offense that got them to the West semis in the first place. Stotts promised a better effort, Lillard guaranteed more of a fight and Matthews claimed the team owed it to itself and its fans to not get swept. Portland is virtually assured of losing this series -- no team in NBA history has ever come back from an 0-3 deficit to win a playoff matchup -- but a win tonight would likely inject some confidence into a team that has been picked apart in three straight games by the defending Western Conference champions.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter