Way back in January, I wrote about how the Trail Blazers were dramatically better in the third quarter than in any other. The trend held up for the rest of the regular season, though not to the extreme extent that it did in the first few months of the season.
This is relevant now because, in case you hadn’t heard, Portland’s second-round series is going poorly. The Spurs are calmly and professionally vivisecting the Trail Blazers, and might very well finish the series tonight. But the third quarter mysteriously remains. Here is a quarter-by-quarter, net rating breakdown of the Trail Blazers’ performance in this playoff series, per NBA.com:
First Quarter: -42.9
Second Quarter: -57.4 (!!)
Third Quarter: +6.2
Fourth Quarter -3.8
*Net rating is the difference between offensive and defensive rating, calculated as points scored per 100 possessions minus points allowed per 100 possessions*
There is a lot going on here. For one thing, Portland might as well run out the Syracuse Orange baseball team in the first half. The first two quarters are each a dumpster fire on both ends. Things get much more normal in the second half, almost as if two well-matched teams are playing basketball together.
So what is Portland doing differently? And can it provide a ray of hope for Portland in game 4?
For one thing, they guard Tony Parker almost exclusively with Wesley Matthews. Before the series I thought that Batum was the best option for Parker, because while Matthews had the smarts and tenacity to stay with James Harden, Parker represents a totally different challenge. Harden is slow (actually the slowest regular this season on average, but that probably has more to do with lackadaisical effort on defense), while Parker is absurdly quick when healthy. Batum might not be more than a step quicker than Matthews, but his length lets him make up for the quickness disparity.
That theory seems to be wrong. Parker has killed Portland in every quarter but the third, in which he’s shot 7-16 with no threes, seen his assists go down and seen his turnovers rise. I watched every third-quarter shot attempt for Parker this series, and when broken plays and transition buckets are excluded, Portland guarded Parker with Matthews on 10 of 14 possessions. It turns out Matthews’ ability and willingness to fight around screens is super helpful on Parker, who regularly gets screens from two brilliant pick-setters in Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter. (Incidentally, I think screen-setting might be the most underrated of Duncan’s many underrated skills. He’s about as slender as big men come in the NBA, but every screen stalls the defender by half a second at least.)
The third quarter also seems to be when the Trail Blazers acknowledge that Damian Lillard can’t guard Parker. He was assigned to cover Parker on exactly one possession resulting in a Parker shot, and Portland is probably much better for it.
Ordinarily when you stick your best defender on one guy, another guy will step up. The obvious candidate would be Manu Ginobili, who has been a flukily bad 1-11 in the third quarter this series. Guarded primarily by Batum and Lillard, he hasn’t capitalized on the slightly or much worse defense. That won’t continue, but there is something to be said for taking any step necessary to neutralize the biggest threat and let the other threats beat you if they can.
All across the board, Portland’s defense manages to make the Spurs slightly more uncomfortable in the third and the second half in general. San Antonio’s points in the paint, fastbreak points, and their points off of turnovers all drop by a few percentage points each.
While the gains in the third quarter are primarily defensive, Portland keeps pace in the fourth by taking a quantum leap offensively. They have scored 118.4 points/100 possessions in the fourth, as opposed to a pathetic 95.5 overall. The jump comes mostly from better shooting, which is strange because it isn’t accompanied by a change in shot distribution. Shots assisted on, percentage of shots that come from three, fastbreak points and so on stay basically static. Their three-point shooting goes from the high twenties to the low forties, for no immediately evident reason. They just shoot better.
So it appears Portland’s quarter splits don’t have some magic solution hidden in them. Matthews on Parker is a good idea, but we already knew that. Ginobili is shooting poorly in the third, which is likely thanks to small-sample nonsense. The best solution for the Trail Blazers is to play better than the Spurs.
Well, I guess I could use some free time.