Rogue asteroids have come crashing down to earth more gently than the Portland Trail Blazers did Tuesday night, when the San Antonio Spurs smarted and savvied their way to a 116-92 Game 1 stomping in the teams’ best-of-seven semifinals series.
Those Blazers had swagger, energy, confidence: a combination of superlatives essential to usurping a team like the Spurs, by now so battle-tested you wonder what adrenal glands could possibly remain.
Portland is far from fried, of course. But beating the Spurs is like building a castle on quicksand. To pull off the improbable, therefore, will require a very precise, particular blueprint.
Come Out With Energy
Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum both spoke to precisely this point during their off-day interviews Wednesday afternoon.
Portland didn’t score a single basket until the 8:10 mark of the first quarter Tuesday night, spotting the Spurs a quick 8-0 lead that eventually ballooned to 29-16 after the first frame.
For a team that already has a nail-biting six-game series under its belt, the Blazers looked positively shell shocked in the early moments of Game 1. Once you’ve conceded that kind of turf to Gregg Popovich—a basketball Patton through and through—any desperation adjustments you make are bound to be terminated with extreme prejudice.
Attendant to this point: Get the ball to LaMarcus Aldridge early and often. Not only does this help inspire early confidence within your team’s best player, but you also have a better chance of getting San Antonio’s relatively thin frontcourt into early foul trouble.
Just because it’s obvious doesn’t mean it’s bad advice.
The Blazers committed 20 no-nos Tuesday.
Granted, the Spurs finished the regular season ranked a middling 17th in the league in converting turnovers into points. The temptation, then, might be to discount their gravity—the idea being Portland shouldn’t hold back from its offensive instincts for the sake of preventing a few more giveaways.
This, to be put it bluntly, is a terrible idea.
You know that thing we always say about how, in the playoffs, every possession is important? The Spurs understand that, like they understand pretty much everything else.
The Blazers didn’t chart the league’s fourth-best team-turnover percentage (per NBA.com—subscription required) for nothing. It’s high time they start acting like it.
The Bench Needs to Step Up
From the Department of What Else is New: Portland’s bench got outscored to the tune of 50-18 Tuesday.
That, in two words, is not ideal.
Here’s the funny part: In each of their two regular-season wins over the Spurs, the Blazers boasted three starters with 20 or more points. Portland’s bench, meanwhile, tallied a combined 44 points in those outings.
Depending on three of your regulars to pull that kind of production is hardly a sound basketball strategy—if anything, it’s found money. To have any chance of upsetting the Spurs, Mo Williams and Co. must be able to spot their starters a solid 20 to 30 points.
At the very least, Portland must find a way to neutralize San Antonio’s reserves, which remains one of the league’s deepest, most experienced and—on certain night—one of its scariest.
Try Batum on Parker
Damian Lillard has many basketball talents. Defense just isn’t one of them—at least not yet.
Pitted against a point guard with as much grace and guile as Tony Parker, that spells certain doom. It certainly did Tuesday night, when Parker exploded for 33 points (on 13-of-24 shooting) and nine assists, running Lillard through a gauntlet of screens all the while.
The best way for head coach Terry Stotts to neutralize Parker—it’s the playoffs; stopping him isn’t an option—is to wield familiar foe: fellow Frenchman Nic Batum.
If anyone knows Parker’s game, it’s Portland’s lanky small forward, with whom Parker has suited up myriad times with the French national team. While no panacea, Batum’s length and athleticism can at least disrupt Parker—and thus the Spurs’ carefully crafted offense—in spurts.
By hiding Lillard on Danny Green, the Blazers will be sparing their point guard the energy-draining torture of chasing around one of the NBA’s premier points. Once Manu Ginobili enters, move Lillard down to whomever’s playing the 3.
He may be giving up some size, but if you’re forcing San Antonio to run its offense through its small forwards, it’s a risk you have to take.
Lillard and Aldridge Need to be Studs
Might as well save the most eye-rollingly obvious for last, right?
Save for the Dirk Nowitzki-led Dallas Mavericks or the gestalt-guided Detroit Pistons of 2004, recent NBA history has proved that, to be a serious title threat, you need two go-to gunners at your disposal.
Neither Aldridge nor Lillard played particularly well Tuesday. That’s the good news.
The Blazers are, at the end of the day, Aldridge’s team. He’s their best player and their spiritual leader, and he’s been there long enough to remember what it was like to play with Luke Schenscher.
Writing at Blazer's Edge, Chris Lucia hammers home the point that, for Portland to have any chance of stealing home-court advantage, it’ll need LMA to be in attack mode from the get-go:
Aldridge needs to carry over the kind of relentless attacking he did in the third and fourth quarters Tuesday night, as it forces the defense to adjust to him rather than the other way around. Splitter will almost certainly start Game 2 on Aldridge, but Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is a master at making adjustments and could throw different looks at him throughout the game. Aldridge needs to be aware of how San Antonio is defending him, because if he gets it going, Popovich probably won't go down without throwing out a countermove or two.
As the team’s unquestioned Robin arrived, Lillard’s play will be an equally telling bellwether as the series grinds on. We already talked about Stotts giving his second-year floor general a break on D by giving Batum more minutes on Parker—this, more than anything else, will assure Lillard has the energy to work his tough-minded magic at the other end of the floor.
Over the years, the Spurs have used premature post-mortems—by fans and media alike—to carve an identity as timeless tacticians. Sooner or later, however, the perils of time are bound to take their toll.
The Blazers might not have what it takes to win the NBA title. But if they can manage to rebound from their Game 1 drubbing, there’s no reason to believe they can’t be the ones to finally turn the page on the Popovich era.
Some NBA.com stats are subscription only. All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of May 8, unless otherwise noted.