The Portland Trail Blazers weren't fazed when the entire West wanted to play them in the first round of the NBA playoffs, which means they probably won't be concerned about matching up with the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the second.
The Blazers are confident. Not just because every team in the playoffs believes it can win, and not just because they're a couple of days removed from knocking off the favored Houston Rockets in six thrilling, character-building contests.
Portland is feeling good because it knows there are a couple of key advantages it can exploit against the Spurs.
The Lillard Conundrum
San Antonio didn't become the NBA's paragon of sustainable success through gimmicks. Balance is the buzzword for the Spurs, and they have the personnel, schemes and experience to deal with just about anything an opponent can throw their way.
But athleticism—especially in the backcourt—has always been difficult for them to stop. Even San Antonio's finely tuned structure blows apart when somebody like Russell Westbrook is barreling into it. That's why the Spurs have repeatedly struggled against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and that's why the Blazers present a worrisome matchup.
To be clear, Damian Lillard is not Westbrook—especially in terms of raw athleticism. But he's a similarly problematic figure because he blends his slightly sub-Westbrookian speed and quickness with a much better outside shot.
Lillard is a serious threat off the dribble from as far out as 27 feet. He scored 480 points on pull-up shots this past season, good enough to rank in the league's top 10, per SportVU data provided to NBA.com.
He also has the strength and handle to navigate the pick-and-roll in ways similar to Westbrook. And he's got a deadly partner in those types of sets.
Containing Lillard on that pick/roll is going to take absolutely everything the Spurs have. Huge, huge challenge.— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) May 4, 2014
Against the Spurs this year, Lillard averaged 25 points, 6.3 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game. He didn't shoot the ball well from distance but still scored efficiently, needing just 18.8 shots per game to get his points, per NBA.com.
Tony Parker works effectively as a system defender, but if he's the man tabbed to chase Lillard, things could get ugly. He'll have to work extremely hard to navigate picks and stay glued to Portland's point guard a mile away from the bucket.
Going under screens is an option, but it's an awfully dangerous one.
Cross-matching issues abound here, and we might see Kawhi Leonard or Danny Green move onto Lillard if Parker can't handle the task. But that would leave Parker on an equally vulnerable matchup like Wesley Matthews, a brutal cover on the block, or Nicolas Batum, who could easily pass over or back down the Spurs point guard.
Whatever the Spurs do to counter Lillard, there will be ripple effects that affect other matchups all over the floor.
And we have to toss in Lillard's rapidly growing confidence. He's not remotely satisfied with what the Blazers have done to this point, so there's no guarantee his solid regular-season numbers against the Spurs represent his ceiling in the series.
"If what you did yesterday still looks big, then you haven't done much today "— Damian Lillard (@Dame_Lillard) May 3, 2014
He might do a whole lot more damage on a bigger stage.
The Aldridge Problem: Dirk 2.0
LaMarcus Aldridge torched every smaller defender the Rockets threw at him in the first round, forcing Omer Asik into the starting lineup as a last resort.
San Antonio will have the size in their first unit between Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter to bother Aldridge, but the Spurs certainly won't want to rely on Boris Diaw to handle him when one of their starting bigs takes a break. Diaw is an oddly effective defender on mobile forwards because of his length and smarts, but he's just not rangy enough to bother Aldridge.
During the regular season, Aldridge shot 56 percent from the field against San Antonio, leading the Blazers to two wins in the three contests he played, per NBA.com.
And during the 2012-13 campaign, he averaged 25.7 points per game on similarly accurate shooting as Portland took two out of three games from the Spurs.
Lillard career against Spurs (7 games): 26.3 pts, 49.6 FG pct. Aldridge career against the Spurs (25 games): 19.8 pts, 55.7 FG pct.— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) May 4, 2014
Broadly speaking, it's just not ideal to have one of the Spurs' starting bigs covering Aldridge in the mid-range area because it subjects either Duncan or Splitter to foul trouble. Aldridge is more mobile than both, and he's not afraid to put the ball on the floor when faced with too much pressure or an overly aggressive closeout.
Plus, Aldridge's game opens up the rest of the floor, creating the kind of space in which the Blazers thrive. We saw the Dallas Mavericks use Dirk Nowitzki to do something similar, engineering lanes for the rest of the team and drawing help so guys like Vince Carter and Jose Calderon could get open looks.
Aldridge functions the same way, using a sort of gravity that sucks in defenders, thereby creating opportunities for Blazers slashers and perimeter shooters to work.
The Spurs are going to have their hands full with Aldridge.
Yeah, But Still...
We should have learned our lesson in the first round: The Blazers aren't some happy-to-be-here, walkover opponent. They're tough to beat, especially in front of their rabid home crowd. And it would be foolish to ignore the very real matchup issues they present, many of which resemble the ones Dallas posed in stretching the Spurs to a seventh game in the first round.
But these are the Spurs.
There's no matchup issue they haven't faced before, no adjustment Gregg Popovich hasn't already thought of and put into practice a dozen times.
All those similarities to the Mavs? Rest assured, the Spurs are apprised of the issues.
"I think LaMarcus is a younger Dirk who can shoot and drive, play in the post (and do) a lot of things, so it's not going to be easy," Splitter said Monday, per The Associated Press (via USA Today). "We know that. I think all the team is aware of that; everybody is going to help a little bit."
It's also important to remember the Spurs have some advantages of their own, not the least of which is a comically massive edge in experience.
Portland as a franchise has played in 218 playoff games. Tim Duncan has played in 218 playoff games by himself. Thats nuts.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) May 5, 2014
More specifically, Lillard is going to have to defend somebody. And Parker will pose a much greater challenge than either Jeremy Lin or Patrick Beverley did in the first round. Sure, we could see Lillard hidden on a less threatening opponent, but it's difficult to imagine any of Portland's bigger wings handling Parker's quickness on the perimeter.
Lillard is a very poor defender, and the Spurs will be ruthless in attacking him—wherever he is.
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
Throw in San Antonio's home-court advantage and its vastly superior defense, and it gets really hard to envision a second straight series upset for the Blazers.
Of course, the Blazers won't care about being counted out again. The one matchup they've completely dominated this postseason is the one between their own expectations and everyone else's. So far, the confident Blazers have had a big advantage there.
They'll look to continue building that edge in what should be a thoroughly entertaining second round.