Thursday, May 8
Fresh off a 24-point drubbing Tuesday night in Game 1, the Blazers square off with the Spurs on Thursday night in San Antonio for Game 2 of their Western Conference semifinals matchup.
The first game of this series was a disaster for Portland, when it seemed like everything that could go wrong for the Blazers did, while the Spurs were a model of execution on both ends of the floor.
Portland power forward LaMarcus Aldridge was mainly guarded in single-coverage by San Antonio center Tiago Splitter, who held the All-Star to just 5-of-12 shooting while guarding him. Aldridge seemed uncomfortable in the first half of the game, never really establishing himself until the third quarter, finishing with 32 points and making 12 of his 25 shots. He was particularly aggressive getting into the paint and drawing free throws in the second half, leading to nine attempts at the line.
Aldridge needs to carry over the kind of relentless attacking he did in the third and fourth quarters Tuesday night, as it forces the defense to adjust to him rather than the other way around. Splitter will almost certainly start Game 2 on Aldridge, but Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is a master at making adjustments and could throw different looks at him throughout the game. Aldridge needs to be aware of how San Antonio is defending him, because if he gets it going, Popovich probably won't go down without throwing out a countermove or two.
Blazers guard Damian Lillard had an uncharacteristically passive night for most of Game 1, which could be attributed partially to Spurs guard Tony Parker, who's not usually recognized as a great defender. He went over screens, stayed in front of Lillard and generally made life difficult for the young All-Star point guard, who only attempted one three-pointer all night.
One of Lillard's most potent weapons in his offensive arsenal is his ability to pull up and hit outside shots, not requiring much separation from his defender. That kind of attacking must be there tonight for Lillard, because when he's controlling the ball and scoring in a variety of ways, his whole team benefits, as SBNation's Mike Prada pointed out in an article yesterday:
But most fundamentally, Lillard himself must be aggressive, even if it means taking some difficult shots. He must activate himself as a threat. He can make those pull-up threes and jumpers often enough to cause doubt to creep into San Antonio's head, and that in turn will create opportunities for others. Now the Spurs need to inch a step or two up on those plays, which in turn yields drives and spot-up opportunities for the dangerous [Wesley] Matthews and Nicolas Batum.
Speaking of Portland's wings, they were nowhere to be found on offense Tuesday night: Matthews was 2-of-6 from the field, Batum 3-for-12, both combining to go 1-of-8 from deep. Matthews told The Oregonian the Blazers rushed their plays and didn't allow them to develop, while Batum was complimentary of San Antonio's defense, saying his freedom offensively was taken away. No matter how you slice it, though, Portland is going to struggle if it gets just 15 combined points from Matthews and Batum.
Blazers coach Terry Stotts' offense works so well partially because of the spacing afforded to secondary scorers -- Matthews, Batum, center Robin Lopez, etc. -- when his two All-Stars are demanding focus from the opposing defense. If that's not happening (see: first half of Game 1), Portland's ancillary offensive players don't have the space they're accustomed to and often force contested shots or worse, turn the ball over, which the Blazers did 20 times on Tuesday night.
Portland's bench also needs to show up for tonight's game, because nine total points -- this excludes the nine points scored by seldom-used guard Will Barton in the fourth quarter well after the game was decided -- will not get the job done against the most productive reserve unit in the NBA. Guard Mo Williams can't shoot 3-for-11 and turn the ball over four times as Stotts' sixth man, as his scoring off the bench is essential for his team to succeed. Forwards Thomas Robinson and Dorell Wright totaled three points together off the bench, neither scoring from anywhere but the foul line. Robinson should at least get a few hustle points a night, while Wright needs to find his outside shooting stroke again. Remember his 15-point, 3-of-4 from deep performance in Game 2 against the Rockets in the first round? That was pivotal. Wright doesn't need to look for his shot that much against the Spurs, but he could at least make his presence known.
As bad as the Blazers' offense was in Game 1, their defense was just as difficult to watch. Parker -- guarded by Lillard for most of the first half -- sliced his way to the hoop, easily scoring inside. His mid-range game was effective, but not as solid as when he took it all the way to the middle. Matthews was switched onto Parker in the second half, which hampered his ability to score. Batum also could see some time tonight guarding the French point guard.
The problem with cross-matching, though, is that the weakest defender the team is trying to hide -- in this case, Lillard -- has to guard somebody if he's not on Parker. This leaves, mostly, guards Danny Green, Manu Ginobili, Marco Belinelli or forward Kawhi Leonard for him to be responsible for. Green and Ginobili both struggled in Game 1, but they're bound to lift their production. Green is a deadeye three-point shooter, and Ginobili can get to the rim at will and has a solid pull-up jumper. Belinelli nailed three of his five long-range shots on Tuesday night, ending with his playoff-high of 19 points, while Leonard picked up 16.
No matter who draws the defensive assignment on Parker, Lillard's going to have to step up his defense. The athleticism, desire and effort is usually there and it now comes down to execution. Stotts is willing to live with Parker's jumpshots, but it's his shots near the rim that break an opposing defense down most. The Blazers will certainly reconsider how they guard him in pick-and-roll situations, because fighting over the screens in Game 1 was largely unsuccessful. Though Stotts didn't reveal any change in gameplan, Batum, Matthews and Lillard all preached more defensive physicality toward Parker going forward.
San Antonio forward Tim Duncan had 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting, while Splitter finished with five points after going 2-of-6 from the field. Those are not devastating numbers in isolation, nor are the 16 points from Leonard, 10 points from backup point guard Patty Mills and six points from Boris Diaw. When Popovich can get that kind of production from that group all on the same night, however, it spells bad news for the opposition. Throw in Belinelli's 19 points and center Aron Baynes' 10 points (after playing just six minutes in all of Round 1), and there's no recovering.
A lot of the secondary scoring for the Spurs did come due to Parker's effectiveness; if he wasn't able to find a good shot for himself, he had no problem finding one for a teammate, finishing with nine assists. Assuming Stotts' gameplan to defend Parker for Game 2 is executed properly, Portland still has to do a better job of slowing down his supporting cast. Baynes and Belinelli may not reproduce their unexpected Game 1 magic, but don't expect Green or Ginobili to score zero combined points the rest of the series, either.
The point is that Parker is the spearhead for the Spurs' offensive attack. Making life hard for him to penetrate, score and pass to open teammates at will is by no means a guaranteed path to victory, but it would sure do a lot to prevent San Antonio from shooting 50.6 percent from the floor and 43.8 percent from deep like it did on Tuesday night.
Rebounding the ball should also be a point of focus for Portland tonight. Though the Blazers did out-rebound the Spurs 47-45 in Game 1, they also gave up 13 offensive rebounds and way too many second-chance points to a team that places relatively low emphasis on both areas offensively. Aldridge and Lopez did their parts on the glass, reeling in over half of their team's total rebounds. After rebounding the ball well against the Rockets in the first round, Lillard and Batum need to try and recapture that effort tonight and also going forward in this series.
Splitter, Duncan and Baynes (!) all had at least three offensive rebounds Tuesday night. If the Spurs aren't going to be forced into missing many shots, it's imperative that defensive rebounds are collected and possessions are ended, which wasn't done nearly enough in Game 1. Don't be surprised to see a refocused Blazers group on the boards tonight.
Portland isn't likely to repeat such poor performances on either end of the court in Game 2, at least not if Stotts' coaching adjustments in the first round against the Rockets were any indication. Expect to see a different defense against Parker tonight, one which emphasizes a lack of penetration and encourages mid-range shooting. This likely means handling screens differently, throwing different defenders his direction and making him work hard on the defensive end.
If the Blazers can prevent another MVP-like performance from Parker, get an offensively aggressive Lillard -- more than one three-pointer attempted, at least -- and see Aldridge as hungry for four quarters as he was in the second half, they can dictate the tempo of the game easier and force the Spurs to adjust to them occasionally. Matthews and Batum have to find a way to score more, too, because the reserves behind them are likely to continue struggling against San Antonio's suffocating defense.
Portland has shown poise and mental toughness throughout the year, proven when the Blazers won 54 games in the regular season when no one expected them to and again when they took out the favored Rockets in six games to advance to the West semis. Portland has demonstrated the last several months it has the talent to match up with any team, even when counted out. It's now up to the Blazers to put Tuesday night's debacle behind them, make the necessary adjustments -- of which there are plenty -- and execute Stotts' gameplan on both ends of the court to make this a competitive series.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter