The San Antonio Spurs were a shoo-in to get here, back on the doorstep of the Western Conference Finals for what feels like the 30th straight season.
The Portland Trail Blazers? Their first-round series with the Houston Rockets played out how most predicted: a coin-flip that spun on its side as long as possible before finally falling in the Blazers' favor.
The Spurs, it seems, have taken due notice:
Manu on Portland: As tough a team we can face. They were a five seed that played most of the season as a three.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) May 5, 2014
Manu Ginobili is referring to their regular-season slate, which the teams split two games apiece (San Antonio, it should be noted, took the latter pair).
But there's a gentle coyness at play here as well: Of course Portland is "as good a team" as you can face right now. It's the second round of the playoffs!
Meanwhile, a teammate of Ginobili's sounded much more nuanced an alarm:
Tim Duncan admits Portland not a great matchup for Spurs. "But they've got to match up with us too "— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) May 5, 2014
If I may: Ginobili and Duncan are both wrong. This is a great matchup, flat out. We're talking about two teams that finished the regular season ranked No. 5 and No. 6 in overall offensive efficiency and No. 10 and No. 12 in pace.
It's not that Portland is a bad draw for San Antonio. They're both tricky draws for one another.
Which team wins this series?
That's bad for Terry Stotts and Gregg Popovich's sleep habits. It's also awesome for all of us.
If the West's slate to date is any indication, expect the unexpected. Both teams had to win at least one game on their first-round opponent's home floor just to reach the semis—twice, in the case of the Blazers.
[Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick] Carlisle knew he didn’t have the more talented team and needed to devise different approaches in an attempt to temporarily, if not longer, discombobulate the Spurs machine. Dallas practically begged Parker and Tim Duncan to do the damage while they sold out to cut off everybody else best they could. It worked on Danny Green until the final two games. Marco Belinelli was never a factor and Patty Mills shot 26.1 percent from beyond the arc. All-in-all, Dallas made 10 more 3s in the series than San Antonio, whose 49 3-pointers were just seven more than the Spurs made in their four-game regular-season sweep of the Mavs.
To pull off the improbable, Portland's strategy must be similar: Give San Antonio what it wants inside the arc, but to not, under any circumstances, let the Spurs light it up from deep.
In just his second season, Blazers head coach Terry Stotts—buttressed by a steadfast belief in advanced statistics—has proven himself a worthy peer to Popovich, Carlisle and the NBA's other high-minded skippers.
Now we'll see if the apprentice has the wherewithal to outwit the wizard.