Trail Blazers, Spurs: Different Strategy, Same Result in Game 2


May 8, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili (20) passes the ball under the basket against Portland Trail Blazers center Robin Lopez (42) in game two of the second round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. The Spurs won 114-97. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

In the first few minutes of Game 2, Portland looked good. It appeared they made the necessary adjustments to be more competitive than in Game 1. Wesley Matthews matched up with Tony Parker on the first possession and held Parker down for the first quarter. Portland’s first few offensive possessions had great movement off the ball – much better than Game 2 – and featured Damian Lillard running off ball screens and Nicolas Batum in the pick-and-roll with LaMarcus Aldridge. Batum is bigger and can see over the top of defenders better than Lillard can. It just made sense to make that adjustment.

At the end of the first quarter, I wasn’t overly impressed with Portland, but I was impressed with the new game plan and how they were trying to execute it. Then, in the second quarter, everything went to hell. The Spurs turned the intensity up a notch with swarming defense and ball movement that led to wide-open looks for 3-point range. In the second quarter, the Spurs outscored Portland 41-25 and took a 19-point lead at the half.

It’s obvious what Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich is trying to do, and so far, Terry Stotts and the Trail Blazers seem like they have no idea what to do about it.

San Antonio has played this up-tempo, fast break style all season, and they have the guys to do it. Realistically, San Antonio could play all of their bench players every game. Their bench is that good. The Spurs use fresh legs to their advantage by running, running, and running some more. San Antonio is making Portland work for everything, offensively, and they are beating the Trail Blazers up the court in transition for open looks and lay-ups.

Also, I have to mention how Kawhi Leonard has been a beast in the first two games of the series. He’s only scraping the surface for how good he can be. For the next ten years, he will be the anchor of everything San Antonio does. Right now, Portland has no answer for his physicality on defense, and he’s a huge matchup problem for anyone other than Batum.

At first glance, it’s hard to imagine how playing at hyper-speed works against Portland when they have such athletic players, like Lillard, Matthews, Batum, Aldridge, and Robin Lopez. Those five are equally athletic as any starting five in the whole league, but that’s exactly the problem. Portland’s starters are so much better than their bench players, Stotts has to play them 35-40 minutes per game to be able to compete with a team as good as the Spurs.

To make it worse, the Blazers are pushing the ball, or trying to push the ball, on every San Antonio miss. That’s how the Blazers have played all season, but against the Spurs, Portland is falling right into the trap. Six minutes into the game, the score was tied at 12, and Lillard was waiting for the inbound pass. He looked as tired as I’ve seen him all season. It’s tough to shoot and score on tired legs.

The Dallas Mavericks are basically a “poor man’s” version of the San Antonio Spurs. Dallas had the depth to run-and-gun with Spurs for seven games. Right now, Portland doesn’t have that depth.

Maybe I’m being too critical of Portland. I mean, they are playing against one of the best teams in the league. Game 2 was not as bad as Game 1, and the Blazers did cut the deficit to single digits in the fourth quarter. I guess that’s the reason I’m being so critical. Portland has the tools to make this a competitive series, but it isn’t happening.

So far, San Antonio has been the aggressor. The Spurs have been overactive on defense, forcing Portland to play out of control. Offensively, the Spurs are a machine. There’s little Portland can do to stop them. I thought for a while about what adjustments the Blazers could make on defense to make it tougher on the Spurs, but there’s really no way to do it when the Blazers only play seven guys. To bother the Spurs, you have to put pressure on their wing players, make them pass up 3-pointers, and force them to making bad decisions, which has happened at times throughout the season. Teams with length at almost every position like the Oklahoma City Thunder and Memphis Grizzlies can do that to the Spurs.

Heading into Game 3, Portland needs a huge boost from the Moda-Rose Center-Garden crowd to create enough energy for the Blazers to run with the Spurs for four quarters. At this point, the Blazers are going to have to beat the Spurs at their own game, and it’s going to be incredibly difficult, especially considering the Blazers haven’t scored more than 27 points in a quarter in the first two games of the series.

From a tactical perspective, the Blazers have to run the Spurs’ shooters off the 3-point line and force them to make plays in the lane. In the first two games, San Antonio has made 19-of-36 (53%) of their 3-point attempts. That’s a huge problem. If the Blazers can clear that up, they’ll have a much better chance to win.

Offensively, Lillard and Aldridge must carry the load. They need to combine for about 50 points or more per game for Portland to have a chance. I’d still love to see Portland go away from the Lillard pick-and-roll and give Lillard ISOs to allow him to break Parker down off the dribble. When Lillard gets by Parker, San Antonio’s wing defenders have to help off Batum and Matthews, which gives Portland opportunities for open looks from the 3-point line. By running the pick-and-roll, it brings another defender to Lillard and forces him to go wide instead of driving into the lane. Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter, and Boris Diaw are so good at guarding the pick-and-roll, and they give Parker enough time to recover.

Game 3 is a must win for Portland. Remember; two years ago, the Spurs went up 2-0 against the Thunder and lost four straight games, so, technically speaking, Portland still has a chance, but the Blazers have to win Game 3. No NBA team has ever come back and won a series after falling behind 3-0. The pressure is on.

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