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Portland Trail Blazers vs. San Antonio Spurs Preview

The Portland Trail Blazers head to San Antonio to take on the Spurs.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Portland Trail Blazers (35-33) vs San Antonio Spurs (57-10)
Thursday, March 17
AT&T Center | 5:30 p.m. PDT | Local TV/Radio: KGW; 620 AM
Portland injury report
Meyers Leonard (Out - Shoulder) | San Antonio injury report: None
SBN Affiliate: Pounding the Rock

The Golden State Warriors have been a tidal wave all season. They may recede in a brief moment of calm, but eventually the full wave hits the beach and crushes everything in its path in a moment of punctuated fury. The San Antonio Spurs, by comparison, have been a slowly rising tide. They relentlessly move closer and closer to shore, until the approaching water subsumes the sand castles and forces the sunbathers to pack up their towels. Ultimately the result is the same: The water inevitably rises and the beach is deserted. Tonight in San Antonio, the Portland Trail Blazers will be the next team that tries to weather the Spurs' rising tide.

The Spurs have been historically great this season. They are one of only eight teams in league history to achieve a 57-10 record and if the season ended today their 12.4 point margin of victory would be the greatest of all time. Their 42 consecutive wins at the AT&T Center over the last 12 months is the third longest home winning streak in league history. Many of these wins have been convincing  - they lead the league this season 20+ point wins (20), and have earned 42 double-digit victories.

The Spurs dominance is built around near-flawless execution. Like the rising tide, they don't overwhelm opponents during any one stretch, but rather slowly build their lead by exploiting mistakes for marginal gains. Their point differential by quarter reflects the persistent effectiveness:

Q1: +2.7

Q2: +4.3

Q 3: +2.7

Q4: +2.7

Only six other teams in the league have a positive differential in every quarter and no other team has a differential greater than one point in every quarter. The Spurs are relentless.

This season the Spurs have built their success on one of the best defenses in the last 20 years. Their DRTG of 95.5 leads the league and is the third-most effective since 1996 (shorter bars = better defense):

This chart shows the percentage of points allowed per 100 possessions, relative to league average, by the team with the best defense in that season. For example, if the league average DRTG was 100, and the best team had a DRTG of 92, their bar would be at 0.92 on this graph. This method controls for era-specific changes in rules that impact overall DRTG.

During Tuesday night's 108-87 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich told the halftime reporter that his team had to "make Chris Paul play in a crowd" in the second half. "Make them play in a crowd" sums up the Spurs' base defensive philosophy this season. They collapse on any ball handler who makes a drive into the lane, with multiple players swiping at the ball as the player penetrates. This either disrupts the shot attempt or forces the player to pass out to the perimeter. Example of the former:

While hounding the penetrating player, the Spurs keep their hands active and take away the best passing angles to the perimeter, serving to prevent ball movement. At the same time, the help defenders avoid fully committing to covering the ballhandler, preferring to cut off a driving angle or momentarily distract the opponent. This gives them the flexibility to recover in time to challenge a perimeter shot if a pass does make its way out of the jumble of arms. The result is often a deflected pass or a contested jumper.

For example, in this play, several Spurs collapse into the lane to cut off the drive, while also taking away passing angles, which forces James Harden into an ill-advised pass:

The Spurs defense also operates by switching when possible on the perimeter to reduce opportunities for opponents. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard can guard almost anyone on the perimeter, and even Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge can survive briefly in a mismatch on the perimeter. For teams that base their offense on trying to create mismatches, the "switch everything" approach can be stifling and stagnating.

The underlying goal of these defensive strategies is to take away the most efficient shots (lay-ups and 3-pointers). So far the strategy has worked: Opponents shoot only 19.3 threes per game (No. 30 in the NBA), converting on 32.6 percent (No. 30) and attempt only 27.9 shots around the basket (No. 24), making only 55.2 perecent (No. 30).

To finish off the defensive possession, San Antonio places a heavy emphasis on preventing offensive rebounds. As such, they are second in the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage at 79.6, and give up the least second chance points per game (10.4) in the league. Over the course of a game, holding opponents to a single possession gives them more opportunities to slowly stretch their lead, and complements their stifling defense.

On the other side of the ball the Spurs have moved away from "The Beautiful Game" style that led them to the 2014 championship. The passing and movement heavy offense was born out of necessity because the team did not have any true go-to scorers on the roster at the time, but this season they have two bona fide first options in LaMarcus Aldridge and Leonard. Popovich has accordingly focused the primary offense around his two All-Stars.

For the last several seasons, Leonard has been known as a defensive force, even winning last year's NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award. This season, however, Leonard has also emerged as a legitimate offensive threat. He currently leads the Spurs with 21 points per game on 51 percent shooting. Leonard often initiates the offense and is not afraid to exploit a mismatch. His offensive arsenal is skill-based and diversified, allowing him to score from all over the court. Specifically, he shoots 46 percent from three, can beat most forwards off the dribble and has impeccable footwork around the basket (see video):

For fans who have not watched the Spurs since their Jan. 25 loss to the Warriors it may be surprising to hear that Aldridge has rebounded from his dismal five point showing and is playing some of the best ball of his career. Aldridge has found his niche in San Antonio and is averaging 24 points and nine rebounds on 57.3(!) percent shooting for the month of March.

Unlike in Portland, where the Blazers often relied on Aldridge for near-endless pick-and-pops and high post-ups, Popovich has found ways to vary Aldridge's scoring opportunities. Aldridge still regularly gets jumpers out of the pick-and-pop on the left side, but he's also used frequently on the right side of the court for the first time in years. The Spurs have integrated Aldridge into their traditional sets, as well, getting him scoring chances out of high-low post passes, and secondary pick-and-roll actions:

The Spurs, however, do not run their entire offense through Aldridge and Leonard. Notably, when the two All-Stars rest, the Spurs' bench, led by Manu Ginobili, "reverts" to the 2014 style of offense. Boris Diaw's passing ability out of the post, Patty Mills' activity, and Ginobili's playmaking still serve as major weapons for the reserve unit. They regularly run players off multiple screens and quickly whip passes around the perimeter in search of an open shot:

The overall result is the third most efficient offense in the NBA with a rating of 109. Paradoxically, however, the Spurs shot selection does not align with what is commonly considered "good offense." They get only 20.5 percent of their points from threes (No. 25), have a free throw rate of .238 (No. 29), and score 42 percent of their points in the paint (No. 15). Instead of trying to force threes and lay-ups against defenses designed to stop them, Popovich has tailored his offense toward taking advantage of gaps in the defense. For now, that means more midrange jumpers and fewer 3-pointers.

Popovich leans on his bench more than any other coach in the NBA, and the backups have served him well. In addition to Spurs' mainstays Mills, Diaw and Ginobili, the bench has been joined by David West and recently signed Kevin Martin. Even second-year forward Kyle Anderson has been impressive.

The Spurs bench plays more minutes than any other playoff team, and has the top net rating (13.7) by 5.7 points. While many teams hope that their bench can maintain a lead gained by the starters, the Spurs rely on their bench to stretch the lead in the early second and fourth quarters. In their victory over the Clippers on Tuesday, the reserve unit did just that, putting together major runs in the second and fourth that ultimately propelled the Spurs to an easy victory.

Keys to winning

Don't Give the Spurs Extra Possessions: As mentioned above, the Spurs minimize extra scoring opportunities for the opponent by taking care of the ball and grabbing defensive rebounds. Over time the extra possessions add up and help build a lead. The Blazers need to limit mistakes and crash the defensive glass hard tonight in order to keep the number of possessions even.

Minimize bench disadvantage: San Antonio has an elite bench, and their superiority was a key to the Spurs' victory in the last games against Portland in November. The Blazers will need solid reserve play when the Spurs backups check in late in the first quarter or early in the second. This may have been made more difficult by yesterday's news that Meyers Leonard is out with a dislocated shoulder.

Staying with your man: The Blazers guard/wing defenders (C.J. McCollum, Gerald Henderson, and Allen Crabbe) have had trouble sticking to their defensive assignments through multiple off-ball screens. Klay Thompson, for example, has torched the Blazers on several occasions this season. The Spurs run their guards, especially Mills and Ginobili, through a lot of off-ball screens. The Blazers need to find a way to prevent these from turning into open shots.

Bottom line:

Asking the Blazers to pick up a win tonight is likely going to be a bit of a stretch. Nobody has beaten the Spurs at home this season for a reason - they're one of the top 10 teams of all time. It will take flawless execution, an exceptional shooting night (similar to Portland's victory over the Warriors) and uncharacteristically lax play from San Antonio if the Blazers have any hope of weathering the Spurs' rising tide.