In the middle of Game 1 between San Antonio and Portland, I was ready for Ashton Kutcher to pop up in my TV and explain how he and the Spurs had partnered in an elaborate prank to make us think the Spurs actually struggled against the Mavericks, which led to everyone underrating San Antonio. Although that exact sequence of events did not happen, we were hustled yet again by the San Antonio Spurs.
I’m not going to say Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich instructed his team to play poorly in the first round to trick everyone into thinking they weren’t as good as they are. But, I’m definitely not saying he didn’t do that. Popovich is all about two things: not tipping his hand, and making sure his players are well rested. The Spurs looked desperate at times defending Monta Ellis and Devin Harris. It was a sure thing that Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum, and Wesley Matthews could carve up the Spurs the same way Harris and Ellis did, right? Wrong, and just like that, in what has become the biggest tradition of the NBA playoffs, I, like fans everywhere, have underestimated the San Antonio Spurs once again. AGAIN.
I know I’m overreacting to one game, and the Trail Blazers still have at least three games to figure out how to stop the Spurs, but Tuesday night, Portland looked nervous and skittish from the tip. San Antonio felt Portland’s nervous energy and proceeded to punch them in the face over and over again for the full 48 minutes.
Unlike the first round against Houston where LaMarcus Aldridge scored 46 points, nothing came easy for Portland in Game 1. Throughout the entire game, the Trail Blazers combined for nine assists and 20 turnovers. The Spurs stopped everything Portland wanted to do offensively by bottling up Lillard in the pick-and-roll and heavily denying entry passes to the wings, Batum and Matthews.
The Trail Blazers didn’t help themselves either. After starting the game by missing their first five shots, Portland shot just 37 percent from the field. Lillard, Batum, Matthews, and the rest of the Blazers not named “Will Barton” combined to shoot 1-of-13 from 3-point range. During the regular season, Portland averaged more than nine 3-pointers per game. So, yeah, it was “one of those nights.”
On defense, Portland had no answer for Tony Parker, who put on a point-GOD clinic with 33 points and nine assists. In the pick-and-roll, Lillard fought over screen after screen and forced Robin Lopez and LaMarcus Aldridge to stop Parker heading to the basket. If they stepped over to cut him off, Parker had an easy pass to Duncan or Splitter rolling to the basket. Eventually, Portland’s help defense began to rotate over to take the screener away, and that’s when the 3-pointers started to fall.
As bad as it was, there were a few bright spots for Portland, though. Aldridge got hot in the second half and finished with 32 points and 14 rebounds. Barton came off the bench in the fourth quarter and made all three of his 3-point attempts to help make the score somewhat respectable. We’ll see if Terry Stotts goes to Barton off the bench in Game 2 if the Blazers are still struggling offensively.
Even though it was incredibly painful and hard to watch, all hope is not lost, Blazer fans. There’s a reason the NBA playoffs are a best-of-seven series and not single elimination like the NCAA tournament. Teams have the ability to try different things, see what works, and make the necessary adjustments to win the series. Let’s take a look at some of those adjustments Portland has to make if want to win this series:
Adjustment One: Whoever is guarding Parker has to go under the on-ball screen. This could be problematic because going over the top of the screen is basically how Portland has guarded the pick-and-roll all year, but going over against the Spurs is leaving Lopez and Aldridge in terrible defensive position. They have to choose between flying out at Parker, staying back and making him shoot, or taking away the roller every time. When Aldridge and Lopez have to think that much, Parker has already won, and he ripped Portland limb-from-limb in these situations.
Yes, going under the screen does leave Parker open to shoot a 3-pointer. At this point, it’s basically “pick your poison” against the Spurs anyway. I’d rather die by a barrage of Parker’s 3-pointers, instead of giving up uncontested lay-ins or midrange jumpers.
Adjustment Two: Batum or Matthews has to guard Parker. Lillard is a great point guard, but he’s not good enough defensively to keep Parker out of the lane. It’s going to be especially difficult to stop the Spurs because Popovich is so good at getting the matchup he wants and attacking it relentlessly throughout a series. Batum and Matthews have the length and physicality to bother Parker, and, at the very least, Parker won’t be able to get such easy buckets like he did in Game 1.
Adjustment Three: Lillard must attack the basket and break down the Spurs off the dribble. Lillard has been so good this season in the pick-and-roll, but the Spurs are basically double teaming him and leaving Lopez alone on a run to the rim. Duncan and Splitter do such a good job closing off passing lanes and corralling Lillard to one side of the court that he runs out of space and options. Lillard, then, has no choice but to try to shoot over the bigger defenders or kick the ball back out and start the offense over.
I suggest the Blazers stop using the pick-and-roll so much and basically clear the court for Lillard. Parker isn’t a great defender, and Lillard doesn’t need a screen to get around him. Once Lillard is in the heart of San Antonio’s defense, he has to make good decisions and find the open man. Hopefully, San Antonio’s defense will collapse on him and Lillard will be able to kick the ball out for open 3s.
Adjustment Four: The Trail Blazers need to move the ball better. The Spurs did everything they could to stop Batum and Matthews from getting touches. Popovich knows Lillard and Aldridge will, most likely, get their touches and points regardless of what the Spurs do. If the Spurs can slow down Batum and Matthews, who are such integral pieces in Portland’s offense, San Antonio will be able to slow down Portland.
If Portland makes those four adjustments, hopefully, Game 2 will have a slightly better outcome than a 24-point loss.