The (oh my god another blowout) Margin: Perhaps the Blazers aren’t exactly a ‘bad matchup’
Editor’s note: We’re doing The Margin for each of the playoff games during the Spurs’ second-round series against the Trail Blazers; and for those readers not familiar with this format, let me get you up to speed. Stolen blatantly from our friend Rob Mahoney, The Margin is a bullet point for each point in the difference in the final score. Whew! Only 17 points this time…
- I’m beginning to think the whole “Portland is a bad matchup for San Antonio” narrative wasn’t quite as accurate as we all liked to believe. On paper, it seemed to be the case, given the Trail Blazers’ record against the Spurs during the LaMarcus Aldridge era is the best for any team in the league during that time. But that’s a bit misleading when you dig a little deeper. Over the course of the last two regular seasons (since Damian Lillard entered the league), these two teams have squared off with full-strength starting lineups exactly one time, and even that was on the second night of a back-to-back for San Antonio in the Spurs’ third game of this season. And I’m not talking about a random rotation player missing, I’m talking starters. It really has been strange, as one side or the other or both has been missing a major component of its starting lineup in all but one regular-season game over the last two years. But there’s more…
- The Spurs have been finding ways to pull away from the Blazers early in the first two games of this series, making for second halves that, aside from a few inevitable Portland runs, haven’t been all that close. And it’s really no wonder. When the Spurs’ starting five was on the court together against the Blazers during the regular season – that’s Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter – they outscored Portland by 20.1 points per 100 possessions, notched a true-shooting mark of 60.9 percent and ran at a pace of 100.86 possessions per 48 minutes, a number that would rival the league-high mark. And it’s only gotten worse (or better, I guess) in the postseason. The Spurs have outscored the Blazers by 33.2 points per 100 possessions when those starters are on the floor, holding Portland, one of the league’s best offensive teams, to a 68.6 offensive-efficiency rating in 21 total minutes of court time through two games. This group for San Antonio has blown the Blazers off the floor this season, and Spurs Bot 2014 doesn’t stop throwing the punches there.
- The Foreign Legion wasn’t exactly magnifique during the team’s first-round series against the Mavs. When Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw were on the court together during those seven games, San Antonio was outscored by a freaking staggering 47.9 points per 100 possessions. That number has changed considerably in the second round. Yes, this is still a defensively challenged group, and that’s not going to change, but the offensive numbers are back to a scorching level of efficiency: 155.1 points per 100 possessions in what has amounted to a full quarter together through the first two games. It’s a small sample size, but Popovich’s rotations don’t exactly allow for large samples. Besides, the Spurs outscored the Blazers by more than 10 points per 100 possessions when these four were on the court during the regular season, but we already knew which bench was better.
- Tiago Splitter has become the topic of the day, and for good reason. The guy is defending the crap out of LaMarcus Aldridge, and he’s only getting better at it by the game. LMA was 5-of-12 from the floor on shots directly affected by Splitter’s defense in Game 1, per Synergy video; in Game 2, he managed to shoot just 1-of-12 on shots contested by Splitter. That doesn’t even account for the 1-of-4 performance when Tiago was the main defender but was separated from Aldridge via screen. That means when anyone not named Tiago was defending Aldridge on Thursday night, he hit on four of his seven attempts. And get this: In the 59 minutes Splitter and Aldridge have been on the floor together during this series, the Spurs are outscoring the Blazers by 38.2 points per 100 possessions; in the other 24 minutes LMA has been on the court without Splitter bugging him, Portland has outscored San Antonio by six points.
- While Splitter deserves all the praise he’s getting – and it’s about time by the way; he’s been a damn good defender for a while and worth every penny of his contract, but it’s taking this performance for people to finally realize it; better late than never I guess – the rim protection from Tim Duncan has allowed him to play out on that island. Duncan’s been low-key unbelievable. The Blazers have attacked the rim when Duncan is its direct defender 24 times in the series and scored only seven buckets. Again, Portland is just 7-of-24 at the rim when Duncan is defending it through two games. Unreal.
- So why is this potent Portland team suddenly stagnant? Besides the defense of Splitter, the Spurs are forcing these guys out of their comfort zones. The Blazers were in the middle of the NBA pack in terms of points per possession between pick-and-roll ball-handlers and roll men, but they were lethal as spot-up shooters (3rd) and scorers off screens (1st). But the Spurs are killing Portland’s offense from the outside. Portland – a team that attempts 25.3 3-pointers per game at a 37.2-percent clip during the regular season – is only 11-of-34 from deep through two games. Through the entirety of the season, 17.6 percent of Portland’s possessions ended in a spot-up opportunity; in these semifinals, that number has dropped to 11 percent, and the Blazers are only 7-of-23 from the floor on all such looks. Portland is still running initial pick-and-rolls, but with everyone covered up, Lillard and other ball-handlers are forced into pull-up jumpers and rim-attacks that haven’t been very fruitful at all, as I outlined earlier with Duncan’s rim-protections stats. When that doesn’t work, they’re isolating Aldridge a ton. Again, that’s not working either.
- I thought this was interesting: During the regular season, 60 percent of Aldridge’s field goals came via assist, with him doing the work on his own for the other 40 percent. Against San Antonio in this series, that unassisted-field-goal number has spiked to 66.7 percent. That’s a major swing, and a glaring sign that the flow of this offense is all out of whack. If Portland can’t figure out a way to get him loose of Tiago Splitter – more pick-and-pops, perhaps – the Spurs are going to run away with this series.
- OK, now for some smaller bullet-points the rest of the way. Damian Lillard and Aldridge combined to go 14-of-43 from the floor. That ain’t gonna cut it, especially with the Blazers’ general lack of depth beyond those two as initiators of the offense.
- Poor Lillard is being picked on relentlessly in this series. I’d imagine Portland is going to try and stick with Wes Matthews on Parker, but the Spurs are seeking out the Blazers’ weakest link as often as possible, even running guard-guard and guard-forward pick-and-rolls to switch Lillard onto Parker or Leonard in the post. It’s ugly, and I’m not sure there’s much they’ll be able to do about it.
- Kawhi has been a beast. He’s starting to show a plethora of moves we’ve only seen toward the end of closed practices with the coaching staff. Off-the-dribble moves, post-up techniques, step-back jumpers – it’s been fun watching the building blocks put in place before the final product manifests itself.
- Marco Belinelli is 11-of-14 from the floor in this series, and it’s because he has freedom now. It’s good to see this resurgence.
- The Baynes thing from Game 1 so funny now. Pop didn’t play him until garbage time of Game 2 after throwing him out there early in the opening game. That was just one of those “they won’t expect this bull in a china shop this early in the series,” and it worked. The Blazers were likely prepared for him in Game 2, so Pop held him back. Just a guess, though.
- The Spurs have busted out small-ball recently with some fantastic results. First, in Game 7 against the Mavericks, the move flipped the momentum Dallas had built in the third quarter and sparked a San Antonio run that finished the game. On Thursday, the Spurs went small, de facto center Boris Diaw went on a 7-0 run of his own and the lead ballooned for good.
- Portland has led for 16 seconds in this series.
- There were reports that a rattlesnake was found in Portland’s locker room prior to Game 2, but Spurs folks are adamant it was not a rattler, but a king snake or something. I saw the picture and it didn’t look like a rattlesnake. Also, there’s a big difference between the two: One can kill you, the other could damn near be a pet.
- We head to Portland for Games 3 and 4 now, and the Spurs are looking like the superior team. If they can keep up this effort defensively, they’ll have a great chance to win both in Rip City. Remember, San Antonio set a franchise record with 30 road wins; playing out of town does not bother this team.
- Spurs wins are good, but I’d like to see a couple of battles in what should still be called the Rose Garden. This Blazers team is so much fun, and I don’t want to see the story turn from “The Blazers are super talented and a really difficult matchup for San Antonio” to “Oh man, Portland and Houston must have really actually sucked.” Bleh. Either way, the Spurs are rolling right now, looking like every bit the title contender we thought they were.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com and mySynergySports