The Trail Blazers have dominated the Spurs in recent years, and for good reason
The last time Portland played in San Antonio it nearly set the AT&T Center a(Trail)Blaze. (I’ll show myself out, but let me just finish this preview first.)
The Trail Blazers set an opponent scoring record in the AT&T Center with a 136-106 win over the Spurs on March 8, 2013, in a game that was tied, 57-57, at halftime. (The mathematics department here at 48 Minutes of Hell informs us that means Portland dropped 79 points in the second half. That’s always fun.) Damian Lillard went for 35, LaMarcus Aldridge for 26, J.J. Hickson 23 and Eric Maynor put in 20 points off the bench as the Blazers handed Gregg Popovich his worst home loss ever. Furthermore, it was the second-highest total an opponent had ever put up on a Pop-coached team. What was the highest total, you ask? Why, that would be the 137 points dropped on the Spurs on Feb. 21, 2012, in … you guessed it … Portland.
If it feels like this team kind of owns the Spurs, it’s because it basically does. Portland is 13-5 against San Antonio over the last five seasons, including the 115-105 win up in the Northwest a couple of months ago. No team in the NBA has a higher winning percentage against the Spurs during that span than the Blazers, and only one team in the league is even over .500 against San Antonio during that timeframe (Miami is 9-7, playoffs included.)
It gets better, too. LaMarcus Aldridge is 10-9 all time against Tim Duncan, averaging 21 points per game on 57 percent shooting in those 19 games against the greatest power forward to ever play. So, what gives? Why does a team that’s only made the playoffs three times in Aldridge’s previous seven years as a pro give San Antonio fits? At the most simple level, unlike any other team in the league, they’ve had the personnel to cruelly exploit many of the Spurs’ weaknesses. And it starts with Aldridge.
The eighth-year pro out of Texas is a nightmare matchup for an aging Duncan and, when he’s healthy, a not-so-rangy Tiago Splitter. Stretch ‘fours’ have given the Spurs problems for years now, but Aldridge is unique in that he doesn’t rely on others to set up all his jumpers. He can create them on his own, unlike many of the other big men around the league who have become spot-up threats. That means the offense can go through him 18-plus feet from the basket, minimizing his dependency on a teammate to set him up for his shot and making it difficult for the defense to dictate how and when he gets his opportunities. And we know Duncan and Splitter are uncomfortable on the perimeter; they’re both fish out of water as it is when they have to rush out and contest, but it’s even worse when they have to defend on an island out there.
Aldridge is only being assisted on 62 percent of his field goals, and nearly 50 percent of his points are coming from mid-range where he’s shooting 44 percent, per NBA.com/Stats. That’s very Dirk-ian in both regards. And again, this isn’t your typical spot-up stretch ‘four.’ Of his 376 made field goals, only 58 of them have been of the spot-up variety, per Synergy, and nearly 57 percent of his baskets have come via post-up or pick-and-roll. But he’s not normally posting up or rolling in a traditional manner; this guy has no qualms putting his back to the basket from 18 feet away and shooting fade-aways. And he hits them with regularity. He’s tall and very long, he’s got good athleticism and the release on his shot is practically impossible to block. He’s just a nightmare for San Antonio.
Less than 30 percent of Aldridge’s field-goal attempts come from within eight feet of the basket with just 22 percent coming from inside the restricted area. For comparison’s sake, Duncan takes more than 50 percent of his shots from within eight feet of the hoop. In an era where the strictly analytics-driven teams are going “3-point line or rim or bust,” Portland is practically running away from the rim and still right down other teams’ throats.
Aldridge and the Blazers are maintaining a league-best 110.3 offensive-efficiency rating with a mid-range heavy attack. They still shoot a ton of threes (second only to Phoenix in 3-point attempts per game (pace-adjusted)), but only three teams in the league have taken fewer shots at the rim. Instead, they’ve supplemented their 3-point barrage by taking the most mid-range jumpers per game of any team in the NBA. Aldridge alone has taken 515 of his 795 field-goal attempts from this dreaded area; the Rockets — a very statistically aware group — have taken 369 as a team. Think about that.
What makes matters worse for San Antonio now is that the Blazers have acquired and developed some explosive pieces around Aldridge over the years that only exacerbate the problem. Portland has two players (Lillard and Wesley Matthews) shooting well over 40 percent from the 3-point line; still three more (Nic Batum, Mo Williams and Dorell Wright) are shooting better than 35 percent from the arc, and all of them, ESPECIALLY the phenomenal Lillard, are dynamic offensive players capable of doing much more than just shoot the ball. And they’re not just jacking crap up. They’re converting.
Look at the two shot charts from the teams’ recent meeting in Portland (first shot distribution, then shot performance).
Portland shoots a league-best 43 percent from mid-range and converts at a 39.7-percent clip from three, which is second only to … the Spurs at 39.9 percent. But the problem for San Antonio lies in its game-plan. This team invites the mid-range jumper, partially because it’s considered inefficient but mostly because they just don’t have the kind of personnel that defends it well. Still the bigger concern might be the Spurs’ defense of the 3-pointer. They’re allowing opponents to shoot 37.2 percent from deep this season, which is fifth worst in the league.
So, to recap: opponents are killing the Spurs from the 3-point line and taking a million mid-range jumpers against them, and now the Blazers, possibly the league’s best-shooting team, is coming to town. Super.
Yet, it’s interesting. While San Antonio is giving up a terrible percentage on opponents’ 3-point shooting, they’re also allowing the sixth fewest attempts from deep in the NBA. So, for the most part, they’re among the best in the league in preventing threes from going up, they just happen to be going in a lot. Ironically, the inverse was the case last season, when the Spurs gave up a ton of attempts but boasted one of the best 3-point-percentage defenses in the league. Weird.
And still another issue that faces San Antonio, the Blazers defend the arc brilliantly, giving up the fewest attempts per game while allowing teams to shoot just 34 percent. This team’s defense is weird, though. Portland ranks 21st in the league, giving up 104.8 points per 100 possessions, but they don’t appear to have any glaring weaknesses from an execution standpoint; it’s only been a matter of a couple of factors.
The Trail Blazers are dead-last in the NBA in forcing turnovers and they allow 11.5 offensive rebounds per game, which is the ninth-worst mark in the league. Both of these things contribute to the opposition getting up a ton of shots every night, which in turn generally leads to points. They allow the fourth-most attempts per game at a middle-of-the-pack percentage, but when you combine that with the fact they don’t take the ball away and they give up too many second chances, it’s certainly not a recipe for success. Luckily for them, the Spurs basically ignore the offensive glass, especially without Splitter in tow.
When San Antonio takes care of the ball it generally translates to success, and as you’ve just read, Portland doesn’t do a ton to force turnovers. But that’s one of the only things the Spurs have going for themselves. Still, an interesting thing to watch tonight will be the impact of Jeff Ayres. I know we’ve been writing about this guy a ton, but there’s good reason for it. I’m going to assume he starts tonight, which could be a good thing against the Blazers.
Ayres isn’t an interior defender, but Portland doesn’t score inside. They hardly even try, especially with their big men. Ayres’ range and his overall athleticism has made him a valuable commodity for the Spurs as a defender, and when he’s been on the floor this season, San Antonio is holding opponents to just 29 percent from three and 39 percent from mid-range. He’s also contributing to an uptick in offensive-rebounding percentage, which could be a nice thing against the Blazers. But he’s only 6’9 and has little chance to contest those Aldridge jumpers. But if Ayres can crowd him and use his speed to track him in transition and off the pick-and-pops more effectively than the other Spurs bigs have in the past, then he might have a chance to disrupt Aldridge’s flow.
All in all, it’s just a difficult matchup for San Antonio, and now Tony Parker is listed as questionable after being kicked in the right shin during the Jazz game. But if you’ve been confused as to why Portland has been so dominant in this matchup over the last several years, hopefully this has shed a little bit of light on the situation.
It’s certainly cause for concern. Since Aldridge’s arrival in the league, Portland hasn’t been considered anything close to a title contender. But here they sit, second in the Western Conference and only one game back of the Spurs in the loss column. Now, a future playoff date with the Trail Blazers is a real possibility, and one that should scare the pants off fans in San Antonio.
The Spurs have been rolling along through their current six-game win streak, but this will once again provide a midseason test and another opportunity at the ever-elusive ‘statement win.’