Tuesday, May 6, 2014

West Round 2 Preview: (1) San Antonio Spurs vs. (5) Portland Trail Blazers

Terry Stotts isn't a household name like Gregg Popovich, but that could change if the Blazers advance.
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

By The Numbers

San Antonio:
62-20 (32-9 Home, 30-11 Road)
PPG: 105.4 (6th); PPG Allowed: 97.6 (6th)
+7.7 Average Scoring Margin (1st)
Off Rating: 108.2 (6th); Def Rating: 100.1 (4th)
+8.1 Net Efficiency Rating (1st)

54-28 (31-10 Home; 23-18 Road)
PPG: 106.7 (4th); PPG Allowed: 102.8 (22nd)
+4.0 Average Scoring Margin (8th)
Off Rating: 108.2 (6th); Def Rating: 104.7 (16th)
+3.5 Net Efficiency Margin (T-8th)

Season Series: Tied 2-2
Portland 115, San Antonio 105 (November 2)
Portland 109, San Antonio 100 (January 17)
San Antonio 111, Portland 109 (February 19)
San Antonio 103, Portland 90 (March 12)

Players To Watch

Tiago Splitter

In all likelihood, the task of guarding LaMarcus Aldridge will fall on Tiago Splitter's shoulders. The Spurs won't want Tim Duncan to get into foul trouble, and Boris Diaw lacks the requisite speed and length to deal with Aldridge when he turns and faces the basket (that's the nice way of saying Diaw is too fat to play good defense on Aldridge).

In not-so-insignificant ways, Splitter's occasional defensive foibles have cost San Antonio in the last two postseasons. Miami abused him in space to the degree that he was nearly unplayable by the end of the series (he played just 12 minutes combined in Games 6 and 7 - and the Spurs were outscored by 19 points in those 12 minutes). The same thing happened in 2012 against Oklahoma City (just 15 minutes combined in the last three games - Spurs outscored by 18 points in those 15 minutes). Most of those issues were when he was put into pick-and-rolls over and over and over again. He's improved as a pick-and-roll defender, and also in his favor is that guarding Aldridge is more of an isolation defense than one where he's constantly required to move laterally, rotate, and hedge. Most of his worry with Aldridge will be standing strong in the post and contesting his patented fallaway jump shots. If he defends Aldridge like Terrence Jones did in Games 1 and 2 of the first round, the Spurs will lose in embarrassing fashion. If he defends Aldridge like Asik did in Games 3 through 6 of the first round, the Spurs will probably win.

Damian Lillard

As we saw a bit in the first round, the Spurs are a bit susceptible to quick guards attacking off the dribble. Monta Ellis had three really productive games in an offensive system that's not so different from Portland's (Blazers head coach Terry Stotts was Dallas' offensive coordinator during their 2011 title run, and Dallas still runs Stotts' system).

Lillard doesn't have the explosive first step that Ellis does, and he's nowhere near the finisher around the basket, but he's a wildly better jump-shooter, both standing still and off the dribble. That means that San Antonio's guards will have to fight over screens, instead of going under them like they did with Ellis to invite him into ill-advised jump shots. If Ellis still got to the rim regularly despite the Spurs going underneath screens, Lillard should be able to put San Antonio's defense into compromising positions if he can get that first step off the screen and turn the corner. San Antonio could try to trap, but Portland has so much shooting that a quick ball-reversal would likely mean an open three on the weak side. There's no right answer here, and San Antonio's personnel isn't perfect for defending Lillard - neither Tony Parker and Patty Mills are plus defenders, and as mentioned above, Tiago Splitter has a history of being abused in the pick-and-roll. If Portland comes out with Lillard-Aldridge pick-and-rolls from the opening tip of Game 1, it could be a very long series for San Antonio's defense.

The Case For San Antonio

Sure, they struggled in Round 1 at times, but this is the same team that won 19 straight games and went undefeated in March. In a series that will likely be a shootout, it's the Spurs that have the higher ranked defense and are more likely to be able to string together multiple stops in a row when they need to. Houston played Portland very closely, and really only lost the series because their fourth quarter offense (even more so inside the last four minutes) was a vast departure from everything that came before it. San Antonio won't have those late-game hiccups because their system is so ingrained into everything they do that there will be no reason to deviate from it. A more efficient late-game offense from Houston might have resulted in a five-game series in Houston's favor. Add in the fact that San Antonio is better defensively than Houston, and there's a reason San Antonio is the favorite.

Best-Case Scenario: Splitter matures on defense, Popovich finds a scheme to contain Lillard, and Portland's mediocre defense can't hold up against San Antonio's offensive machine. Parker lives in the paint and the Spurs' shooters make the Blazers pay every time they collapse. The Spurs breeze through the series with a "been there, done that" professionalism, winning in five.

The Case For Portland

Well, if pretty much everything I wrote in the Splitter and Lillard sections fall in Portland's favor.

If Splitter can't defend in space, and can't adequately check Aldridge, then Portland will just run high screen-rolls with Lillard and Aldridge over and over again until there's nothing left of Splitter except a bloody mess at the end of the Spurs' bench. The Spurs won 19 straight games from Februray through April, but don't forget that Portland started the season 22-4 and had the league's No. 1 offense for a good portion of the season. If the series is as geared offensively as I think it will be, it might make sense to roll with the better offensive team. That's Portland. Lillard had a dynamite offensive series with Patrick Beverley, a decidedly plus defender, checking him for most of the series. Imagine what he'll do against Tony Parker. And again, Portland is just a better version of the Dallas team that just took San Antonio to seven games.

Best-Case Scenario: Splitter doesn't mature on defense, Popovich can't find a scheme to contain Lillard, and Robin Lopez's size throws a monkey wrench into San Antonio's movement offense. It's tough to create movement when everyone who comes into the paint is sent back with a welt across their forehead (just ask anyone who played the Grizzlies over the last three years). Lillard outplays Parker, Aldridge outplays Duncan, and Stotts continues in Carlisle's footsteps and Portland pulls a stunning upset, stealing a deciding Game 5 in San Antonio.

The Pick

Blazers in 6.

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