The Blazers get their first taste of the second round since the Spring of 2000 when they meet up with the Spurs in San Antonio tonight for Game 1 of their best-of-seven, Western Conference semifinal series.
Portland previously took out the Houston Rockets, 4-2, in six first-round games. In a series that was much closer than many experts predicted, Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge averaged almost 30 points a night, 47.9 percent shooting and over 11 rebounds. Point guard Damian Lillard -- who averaged 25.5 points, 6.7 assists and 6.3 rebounds to go along with 46.8 percent shooting from the floor and 48.9 percent shooting from deep against the Rockets in Round 1 -- sent Portland to the second round by hitting a go-ahead three-pointer with .9 seconds left on the clock last Friday in Game 6.
The No. 1 seeded Spurs got all they could handle the first round of the playoffs, requiring seven games to eliminate the eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks.
Following a regular season in which San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich famously played no man on his roster more than 30 minutes a night, he shortened his rotation to nine players against the Mavs, with big man Tim Duncan, guard Tony Parker and forward Kawhi Leonard averaging 34.9, 33 and 32.7 minutes a night, respectively. Citing the extra rest received by the players during the regular season, Parker told reporters yesterday he didn't think the extra minutes in the first round would play a factor against the Blazers.
San Antonio met up with Portland four times in the regular season, splitting the season series at two games a piece. Duncan, Parker, Leonard, Spurs center Tiago Splitter and Aldridge all sat out at least one of those four meetings. The one game both teams were at full strength -- a 103-90 home win for San Antonio -- Aldridge left early in the third quarter with a back injury and didn't return. Dave Deckard detailed the regular season matchups in a piece published on Blazer's Edge yesterday.
The offense run by Popovich and the Spurs was one of the most efficient in the league this year. San Antonio was no worse than No. 7 in the NBA this season in points per game, average scoring margin, points in the paint, assists, free throw percentage, three-point shooting percentage and field-goal percentage.
The Spurs' "Big Three" -- Duncan, Parker and sixth-man extraordinaire Manu Ginobili -- all averaged at least 17.3 points a game in the first-round matchup with Dallas. Ginobili hit 45 percent of his shots, Parker 47.2 percent of his and Duncan converted on 58 percent of his field-goals.
Parker attempted fewer than 10 three-pointers all series, relying mostly on mid-range jumpers and his ability to penetrate and get to the rim, where he made over 68 percent of his shots. He presents a glaring issue for Portland's defense, as Lillard and backup point guard Mo Williams have struggled to defend penetrating point guards all season. Parker is able to collapse a defense by driving the ball, and has multiple perimeter threats to kick it out to if he can't take it all the way to the rim.
Blazers coach Terry Stotts could try to "hide" Lillard or Williams on defense by putting guard Wesley Matthews -- a much more effective perimeter defender -- on Parker and leaving them on San Antonio's offguards, mostly Danny Green, Marco Belinelli or Ginobili. One hang-up with that strategy is that the former two shooting guards are snipers from outside: Green hit 55 percent of his threes in Round 1 against the Mavs, while Belinelli sank 57 percent of his. Ginobili is also effective at driving the ball and could take similar advantages as Parker over Lillard and Williams.
The Spurs are well-known for their proficient ball movement, and the penetration of Parker perpetuates that as it sags opposing defenses in and opens up the perimeter. While Matthews is a physical and intense defender, he also gives up plenty of quickness to Parker. In short, Stotts will have to be creative in order to slow down San Antonio's All-Star point guard, as it seems by plugging one leak, another opens.
Ginobili spread his shot attempts out somewhat evenly in the first round against Dallas, shooting a ton of threes while occasionally going all the way to the rim or pulling up for mid-range jumpers. He was 37.8 percent from beyond the arc, also hitting about two-thirds of his shots in the paint. Ginobili's shooting suffered most from 10-20 feet, where the Blazers would probably prefer him to shoot. He led the Spurs with 6.7 free throws attempted per contest, converting about 81 percent of them.
Duncan took three-quarters of his shots in the first-round inside the paint, making his attempts under the basket at a 74 percent clip while putting up over a dozen shots a game. Aldridge should be able to control his one-on-one matchups with Duncan, a huge load off Portland's back after the Blazers struggled to keep Houston center Dwight Howard in check defensively in the first round.
Leonard hit almost half his shots against the Mavs and averaged about a dozen points a night. Center Tiago Splitter attempted six shots a game, making 61.9 percent of them en route to 10.7 points per contest.
The Spurs have a clear advantage over Portland in bench production. The aforementioned Ginobili is the first man off the bench. Point guard Patty Mills -- who struggled shooting the ball against Dallas -- is a quick, scoring guard who can get hot at any time, especially against a defender like Williams. Belinelli is a three-point marksman, and do-it-all forward Boris Diaw is a huge spark off the bench for Popovich, as he canned over 53 percent of his shots and almost 42 percent of his threes in seven games against the Mavericks.
San Antonio's defense is set up to shut down the paint and three-point line. They're average at stopping the fast break, allow opponents to get up a lot of shots and put teams at the free throw line fairly regularly. The Blazers will need to capitalize on easy points against the Spurs, pushing the ball and getting into their offense before San Antonio has an opportunity to fully set its excellent team defense. Just as Parker and Mills will likely get past their Portland point guard counterparts often, so too will Lillard and Williams against them.
To demonstrate the Spurs' defensive discipline, consider the Mavericks -- a high-scoring team during the regular season -- saw drop-offs in field-goal percentage, three-point shooting percentage, free throws attempted, assists and points per game in their first-round meeting with San Antonio.
The Blazers are far from overmatched in the Western Conference semifinals, however. Portland put up 111.7 points per game in Round 1 against the Rockets, led by its two All-Stars.
Lillard played almost 45 minutes a night and averaged almost 26 points. As previously mentioned, he hit almost half of all his shots, including threes. Parker probably cannot stay in front of Lillard consistently, nor can Mills. Leonard probably has the versatility to slow him down, but does Popovich want to hide his point guard on shooting guard Wesley Matthews -- who punishes smaller defenders by taking them in the post -- or on wing Nicolas Batum, who can take over a game offensively when aggressive? Lillard probably presents as big an issue for the Spurs' defense as Parker does for Portland's.
Aldridge will likely have less pressure this series from San Antonio's defense than he did from Houston's, which put center Omer Asik on him and doubled often with Howard. The Spurs might go single-coverage on him with Duncan, Splitter or Diaw, and Aldridge should be able to find ways to score on all three. He did struggle with double-teams at times in the first round, but should be able to adjust and kick it out with more efficiency this time around after having the kitchen sink thrown at him by Rockets coach Kevin McHale. No matter how Popovich opts to defend Aldridge, though, he needs to be the focal point of Portland's offense, as the attention he gets from opposing defenses opens things up for his teammates.
The Blazers need to rediscover their outside shooting in this series, as all but Lillard struggled shooting the ball from deep against Houston. Matthews was just 30 percent from beyond the arc in the first round, Batum 30.3 percent, Williams 27.8 percent and backup forward Dorell Wright made just a third of his three-pointers.
Rebounding -- particularly under Portland's hoop -- will be a huge factor in the semifinals. In the first round, the Blazers often got dismantled on the glass, limiting their own ability to extend plays while allowing the Rockets plenty of extra possessions.
Portland is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the NBA, with second-chance points an important aspect of its ability to score so many points. Big men Robin Lopez, Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland need to hit the offensive glass hard, as many of their points come on hustle plays. Standing in the way of second-chance points for the Blazers, though, is San Antonio's frontcourt. Splitter, Duncan and Leonard are all good individual rebounders, and the Spurs are one of the league's better defensive rebounding teams.
Execution on both sides of the ball is of the utmost importance this series, as Portland will try to corral Parker and Ginobili and prevent San Antonio's ball movement from providing open shots while dealing with a huge disadvantage in overall depth. The Blazers, meanwhile, counter with the offensive firepower of Lillard and Aldridge, while the role players -- Matthews, Batum, Williams, Lopez, etc. -- should help fill in the cracks when the two All-Stars garner the defense's attention.
Expect a hard-fought battle on the glass, as Portland excels at rebounding offensively while the Spurs take pride in limiting second-chance points for opponents. This is a matchup of one of the most potent offenses in the league against one of the most well-coached, balanced rosters. The Blazers haven't been to the second round of the playoffs in 14 years, while San Antonio has gone on to at least the Western Conference semifinals 14 of the last 17 seasons.
This is a matchup of youth vs. experience; one franchise and its fanbase excited just to move past the first round while it's business as usual for the other. The second-round victory will likely come down to whichever team can exploit the other's weaknesses while masking its own well enough. Don't be surprised to see another long series as Portland counters San Antonio's discipline, experience and depth with confidence, energy and the momentum gained from taking out a favored team in the first round.