Portland Trail Blazers vs. San Antonio Spurs: Breaking Down the Series

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Breaking down the Portland Trail Blazers-San Antonio Spurs second-round series by matchups, numbers, intangibles, and more!

The Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs will face off in Round 2 of the Western Conference playoff bracket tomorrow night.  In preparation for the series, here's a breakdown of the two teams

Matchups

The Main Men

Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili are no longer mentioned among the league's glittering stars.  They've been supplanted in Western Conference headlines by the likes of Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, and recently Damian Lillard.  You know how that story ends.  More often than not the three Spurs are left standing after the bold-headline guys have packed up for vacation.

Though San Antonio's supporting cast has evolved over the years--from David Robinson and Bruce Bowen through Michael Finley and Brent Barry to today's bunch of Marco Belinelli, Boris Diaw, and Kawhi Leonard.--at no point has this trio won fewer than 50 games in a season.  They've never missed the playoffs and they've been bounced in the first round only one time.  Together they've netted four NBA Finals appearances, three NBA titles, and a league-leading 62 wins this season in their supposed dotage.

If you're not mentioning that pedigree, you're not being honest about the Spurs.  If you think these three players are one bit less dangerous because they're averaging 17 points per game instead of 22, you're fooling yourself.

That said, playoff series are not won through pedigrees and accolades any more than they're won through hype.

The performance of the Big Three in San Antonio's just-completed first-round matchup with Dallas was a mixed bag.  Duncan excelled, carrying his team at certain points like he did a decade ago.  Parker shot poorly but managed to lead the team in scoring anyway, upping his shot attempts considerably.  Ginobili did the same, increasing his three-point attempts in particular.  In aggregate this created more of a focus on "star" play than was customary for the Spurs during the season coupled with slightly less efficiency.  It worked for them, which is all they care about, but outside of the deciding 7th game it was hardly the finest demonstration of Spurs basketball.

This was also true when the Spurs played the Blazers during the 2013-14 regular season.  The three stars carried a larger percentage of their team's offense than usual and the overall results ended up mixed.

Parker averaged a horrific 35.6% shooting rate against Portland this year, down from 49.9% overall.  Duncan scored his 15-16 ppg average against the Blazers but couldn't draw foul shots to save his life, settling for semi-contested jumpers.  Only Ginobili excelled, upping his scoring average from 12.3 to 17.3 ppg and shooting 46.2% from the three-point arc, well over his 34.9% season average.

Switching to Portland's side of the ledger, LaMarcus Aldridge fired 56% over three games against the Spurs this year, feasting on jumpers over occasionally-plodding defenders.  Aldridge's perimeter focus brought him plenty of open looks but cost him offensive rebounding and free throw attempts, muting his contributions somewhat.

Damian Lillard lit San Antonio's barn on fire, burning the Spurs for 25 points per game on 47% shooting while.  Assists and free throws remained strong, defense passable.  The only place Lillard suffered was beyond the arc, shooting 30% instead of his customary 39% rate.  That quirk did little to dim his blaze.

Two of three San Antonio stars have issues matching up with Portland...good news at the outset of this series.  Duncan can't evade Aldridge for good looks nor can he contain him on the other end.  LaMarcus has become one of the few players in the league who makes Duncan look his age on a consistent basis.  Meanwhile Portland's defensive chicanery, including large doses of Nicolas Batum assignment switching, has foiled Parker...a favor Parker and company have been unable to return to Lillard.

Portland's big issue has been containing San Antonio's second-unit depth, of which Ginobili is the prime example.  Once Manu gets a head of steam, the Blazers have trouble stopping his multi-threat offensive attack.  This will be mitigated by the Blazers playing their starters more minutes, but they can't disguise their weak bench forever.  Ginobili will get a chance to prove his worth.  The big question is, will Duncan and Parker come with him?  If not, the rest of San Antonio's supporting cast better be darn effective.

Supporting Starters

The Spurs stack Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and Tiago Splitter against Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, and Robin Lopez for Portland.  Roles dovetail all over the place.  Leonard and Batum are Swiss Army Knife forwards, Matthews and Green defensive-minded shooters, Lopez and Splitter lumbering bigs.  The two groups did a fairly good job of neutralizing each other in the regular season.

Leonard shot an impressive 62% against the Blazers this year but remained in the shadows offensively, scoring well off his season average, content with rebounding and defending.  Batum's shooting percentages plummeted against San Antonio and his scoring was off in proportion to Leonard's.  Batum did excel in rebounding, averaging a prodigious 10 boards a game against the Spurs, 4 above his average.  His opportunism on the glass was balanced by a corresponding dip in rebounding from Aldridge.

Matthews and Green also paralleled in head-to-head performances.  Green's scoring and overall shooting remained fairly steady against the Blazers but his three-point percentage rose from 42% to 47%.  Matthews registered more of a scoring increase (2.5 points to 1 for Green) and his shooting percentages skyrocketed: 50% from the field, 52% from the arc.  If he's shooting that well in this series, San Antonio's defense will get pushed to their limit.

The center matchup between Splitter and Lopez is fascinating.  Splitter averaged 9 points against the Blazers, slightly over his 8.2 average.  But much of that came from foul shots.  Averaging 3 per game during the season, Splitter attempted 7 free throws per game versus the Blazers.  (Note: This did not correspond to a huge increase in fouls from Lopez.  There's no Dwight Howard situation here.)  When he wasn't being hacked, Splitter had a rough time from the field against Portland, shooting 41% instead of his usual 52%.  Lopez suffered similarly against the Spurs, shooting 46% instead of 55%.  Splitter's rebounding remained fairly level against the Blazers while Lopez's suffered.

The matchup between these two bulls could be a hidden key to the series.  Though both are slow, Lopez is bigger and more athletic.  At times he makes Splitter look second-class.  If Lopez performs well, cows Splitter, and can grab rebounds for put-backs against San Antonio's smaller lineup, he could become a potent weapon.

The Deeper Bench

The Spurs have the obvious 6th-man advantage with Ginobili over Mo Williams, though it should be noted that Williams fared well against San Antonio this year, shooting 50% from the field, 40% from the arc, and scoring 15 points per game.  Those aren't far off of Ginobili's inflated numbers against the Blazers.  Consistency and track record both go to Manu, obviously.

Portland's bigger issue may be the rest of San Antonio's reserves.  Though all of the Blazer bench players had moments this year, none of them were particularly striking overall.  The Spurs group of Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills, and Boris Diaw may not cause heart palpitations but they all know how to play.  What's more, all of them can shoot.  Belinelli shot 56% from distance against Portland this year, Diaw 43%.  Mills suffered against the Blazers with a 35% clip but he fires 43% from distance overall.  The Spurs bench will space the floor and make you pay if you don't follow.

.

Matchup-wise, the Blazers have more potential cracks to pry open against San Antonio than they did against Houston.  An old playoff maxim says that the team with the best player on the floor usually wins.  The Blazers may have two.  Then again, if that maxim held true in the first round Portland might be watching this series from home instead of playing in it.  Still, the outlook here is far more sunny than would be usual for a 5-seed facing the best team in the conference.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Here's a chart of rankings for both sides, the number indicating their position among the league's 30 teams in a given category:

OFF SAS

OFF POR

DEF SAS

DEF POR

PPG

7

3

6

22

OFF/DEF EFF

6

4

3

16

PTS in Paint

7

28

13

28

FastBRK PTS

14

22

12

17

FG%

2

14

8

11

3PT%

1

9

13

14

FTA/Game

30

13

3

9

FT%

6

1

-

-

OffREB%

24

3

4

14

DefREB%

4

14

24

3

TotREB%

16

7

-

-

Block%

10

20

14

5

AST per Poss

1

10

4

3

TO per Poss

10

4

24

30

San Antonio's offense is high-powered, but for different reasons than the daunting offense the Rockets presented in Portland's last matchup.  The Spurs' attack is less about raw power than distribution and efficiency.  They rank 2nd in field goal percentage, 1st in three-point percentage.  An  ultra-high assist rate and good care for the ball are also San Antonio hallmarks. The Spurs will not give you the ball and they will not miss the open man.  The onus is on Portland to stay with them and make them miss.  Being able to single-cover Duncan and Parker would be a boon, allowing Portland to keep track of those deadly shooters.  The minute the Spurs break down the defense and mandate help, the Blazers become vulnerable.

The Blazers can breathe a sigh of relief in a couple areas.  San Antonio does not draw many fouls.  Nor do they focus on offensive rebounds.  If the Blazers want to keep the tempo high they should be able to push more easily against the Spurs than they did against the Rockets.

Running whenever possible wouldn't be the worst game plan, since the Spurs also feature an efficient defense.  They're good, not great, measured by shooting percentage but they deny opportunities Portland likes to feast on.  They don't allow extra points off of free throws, they don't allow offensive rebounds, and even though they don't force turnovers, they stick with their men and don't allow passes for open shots.  Getting down the floor first could allow easy points that the Blazers will have trouble getting elsewhere.

If the Blazers can open up the offensive rebound floodgate for second-chance points, however, watch out.

Few statistical oddities stick out in the comparison between these two teams.  The Blazers will have to earn what they get on offense.  They'll have to make the Spurs do the same on the other end.  If Portland can work their individual mismatches and preserve defensive integrity for most of the game, there's no reason they can't stay with San Antonio.

Intangibles

When you start weighing the less-tangible elements of the game, the pendulum swings hard towards the Spurs.  The Blazers have momentum and exuberance on their side.  They had a more thrilling, less-expected path to victory in the first round while the Spurs slogged through a tough 1-8 matchup with the Mavericks.  Confidence has never been higher for this young Portland squad.

But momentum tends to be a fickle mistress over the course of seven games.  What she gives you, she soon takes back.  And make no mistake, the Spurs don't care.  They see a team banking on momentum as a bounding puppy: adorable in its way, but easy to cage if it piddles on your floor.  Never underestimate the cachet of those World Titles, nor the battle scars taken to earn them.  Tim Duncan has started 217 playoff games, the equivalent of almost three entire NBA seasons...in playoff games. He's seen it all and he'll rattle about the same time as your Pet Rock does.  His teammates will follow suit.

Neither will chemistry and coaching be issues for the Spurs.  They're the measuring stick for those categories.  The current World Champions would kill for San Antonio's predictability.  Every team in the league besides their fellow ultra-elite cohorts would instantly adopt the Spurs system if they could.

The Blazers didn't win against the Rockets because they were more talented, nor even because they had better matchups.  Portland's stars excelled but that was only good enough to take games right down to the wire.  The Blazers won at the wire because their poise, smarts, and team play outclassed the Rockets.  They're going to have to find a different edge against the Spurs.  Those categories just aren't available for taking.

The Blazers do have a couple outs even in this Spurs-heavy area, though.  They're not going to be intimidated by San Antonio's name or history.  They're too young to care.  Plus they've played the Spurs quite well over the last few years.  They'll respect the opponent but they won't feel they're giving up much to them until proven different.

Historically the Spurs have proven vulnerable to a couple different types of teams.  They don't like opponents who can score over their defense.  They don't like physical, defensive-minded teams either.  Successful opponents treat the Spurs like a shark: watch them every single second and keep hitting them in the nose over and over.  Eventually they're going to go away and leave you alone.

The Blazers have the potential to score incessantly due to the matchups.   If they were hard-nosed, filthy, physical defenders as well we'd be talking about a serious advantage in this series.  That's not Portland's M.O.. but they might be able to fake it for a quarter or three.  All of the energy and frustration released by Rockets--tossing elbows and smashing bodies underneath, jamming defenders trying to get past your screens, wanting to rip your opponent's head off--needs to carry over in this series.  Throwing down with the Spurs won't guarantee victory, but you'll be closer to it than if you show up for a polite chess match.

If the Blazers want to repeat their Round 1 success they need to approach the first two games of this series just like they did against Houston, not just hoping to put in a good showing but loaded for bear and ready to win.  They cannot assume that the joyful momentum of Game 6 will carry over to a new Game 1.  Last Friday may have been the greatest experience of their young playoff lives but to the rest of the league--including and especially the Spurs--it was just a fancy way of getting to Round 2...not that big of a deal.

Nobody on Tuesday will give a half-baked fig what happened last Friday.  The Blazers can't either, nor can they get caught looking backwards, letting the Spurs off the hook for the first two games and expecting to turn it around later in the series.  The Spurs don't care if they win in 5, 6, or 7 as long as they win.  Portland needs to plant the idea early that the San Antonio is over-matched, that they can't handle Portland's athleticism and physicality, and that the Blazers are every bit as determined to make this series a chaotic war as the Spurs are to make it predictable and easy.  Portland's first-round performance should give them confidence that they can emerge victorious in even the craziest situations, but that won't do them any good if they don't create some crazy in the first place.

Conclusion

Despite the regular-season records, the experience gap, and the Spurs mystique, the Blazers look better on paper in this series than they did in the last.  The advantages that Houston had against them, they now have against San Antonio.  On the other hand, San Antonio now holds the advantages that the Blazers once held against the Rockets...the same advantages that ended up deciding that series.  It's an interesting switch and a great test of Portland's ability to adapt...or not.

The Blazers will need to combine talent, poise, athleticism, determination, a little bit of craziness, and a dash of devil-may-care brashness to win Round 2.  They've shown all of those qualities at one time or another during the season and during the first round.  If they've got some kind of alchemy that combines them all together in an easily-consumable, mass-produced package, now would be a good time to bring it out.  There's no way the Spurs will give them this series, not even half...not even a quarter as much as the Rockets were willing to.  The brain-dead spacing and loopy Lin drives are history.  But with enough of their good attributes showing forth enough of the time, the Blazers just might be able to take what San Antonio is unwilling to give.

Don't forget that your chance to chat live with a Spurs expert, asking any questions you wish, comes today at 11:30 a.m. Pacific here on Blazer's Edge.  Join us for that and all our coverage of Portland's amazing journey through Round 2!

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com and @DaveDeckard

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