In a postseason defined by one-two punches like Durant-Westbrook, Griffin-Paul and James-Wade, the San Antonio Spurs are doing things differently.
They're winning as a team.
And they've won their third straight postseason game by a double-digit margin, taking Game 2 from the Portland Trail Blazers 114-97 and moving within just two more wins of a third straight trip to the Western Conference Finals.
For the record, the Trail Blazers have a pretty devastating one-two punch of their own. But Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge were held to just 14-of-43 shooting from the field Thursday night. Aldridge, who twice dropped over 40 points in the first round against the Houston Rockets, was missing in action, scoring just 16 points.
He failed to develop any rhythm until the fourth quarter—when the contest was all but out of reach.
Meanwhile, the Spurs were on fire. All of them. At one point they scored on 12 straight possessions, eventually putting up 41 points in the second quarter. By halftime San Antonio led 70-51.
After scoring 116 points in Game 1, it's fair to say that San Antonio's offense is clicking as well as it has since the team's 19-game winning streak during the regular season.
The really distinguishing feature of the Spurs' success has been their balance. It's the trademark of San Antonio's much-discussed system.
Don't settle for good shots. Move the ball until you find a great one.
The Spurs moved the ball early and often in Game 2, eventually racking up 27 assists (compared to Portland's 15). Before it was all said and done, seven Spurs were in double figures.
These aren't Tim Duncan's Spurs anymore. They're a different beast entirely, fueled by an ensemble attack predicated on the movement of the ball on personnel alike. Duncan finished Game 2 with just 10 points.
If there were a star to point to, it would be 22-year-old Kawhi Leonard. He scored 20 points, making all four of his three-point attempts—including one late in the fourth that finally put the game out of Portland's reach. Leonard had 16 points in Game 1 and is establishing himself as one of the league's most promising two-way players.
San Antonio's unselfishness led to open looks all night long. The team was 12-of-20 from beyond the three-point arc, over 53 percent from the field overall. Even after a slow third quarter in which the Spurs scored just 17 points, head coach Gregg Popovich's club still got good looks down the stretch.
The Trail Blazers are trying everything.
After putting shooting guard Wesley Matthews on Tony Parker during the fourth quarter in Game 1, head coach Terry Stotts again went to the matchup early in Game 2. It seemed to work at first, with Parker getting off to a slow 1-for-6 start.
But even as Parker struggled from the field, he was piling up the assists, finishing the game with 10 of them (and just two turnovers).
After the game, Popovich praised his all-around contributions (per NBA.com):
That's his job, and he did it well. He directs things for us out there, just like any point guard is supposed to. And even though his shot wasn't falling, he stayed aggressive, he stayed in the game, he found teammates and did a good job defensively.
This is what makes the Spurs so dangerous. Even if you shut down one of their scoring threats, there are plenty of others to pick up the slack. Tonight Leonard took the lead, but we've also seen Manu Ginobili play the role. Even Danny Green has had his moments.
In Games 1 and 2, reserve swingman Marco Belinelli has combined for 32 points in just 50 minutes of action. That pretty much says it all.
The Spurs are deep, one of the few teams who can still get meaningful contributions from the second unit even as rotations are shortened for the postseason. San Antonio's bench led the league in scoring and assists during the regular season. On Thursday night it outscored Portland's bench by a 50-to-19 margin.
San Antonio's balance has also given it the fortitude to withstand Portland's runs. Game 2 might very well have been a closer game were it not for late three-pointers from Leonard and Ginobili.
Every time the Trail Blazers gain some ground, the Spurs have an answer.
It hasn't always been this way during San Antonio's postseason run. The first-round matchup against the Dallas Mavericks was a wake-up call. The Spurs looked like a good team, but not a great team—at least until they broke things wide open in a 119-96 romp over the Mavs in Game 7.
It's hard to say what had gone wrong for the Spurs—perhaps even presumptuous to assume it was something they could control. Maybe this was just a case of the Mavericks being better than advertised, a well-coached team with some hungry veterans.
But perhaps San Antonio's roster didn't quite have its head in the game just yet. This is a system with a thin margin of error. If things like timing and rhythm are off, a machine that usually hums can start chugging.
When it works, this is what the shot chart looks like. Note San Antonio's perimeter success in Game 2.
When it doesn't work, the three-pointers aren't there to build the big lead. The Mavericks threw just enough of a wrench in San Antonio's gears to discombobulate their otherwise sound ball movement. The Trail Blazers haven't been able to do the same.
To be fair, San Antonio is a difficult team to defend. Its offense empowers players to react to what the defense gives them. It's inherently flexible. Go under the screen, and Parker will beat you with a jumper. Fight over the screen, and he'll penetrate to the basket.
Either way, the Spurs' weapons know their jobs and perform them admirably. Much of that has to do with their pedigree and collective experience. Aldridge recognized as much after Game 1, according to CBSSports.com:
They did what championship teams do. They came out and set the tone early. Most of the guys on (Portland's) team haven't even been in the second round and they've won championships. They've been here. I think they definitely came out and they let us know how it's going to be.
There's no hero-ball, but on any given night there are plenty of heroes.
San Antonio will need the democratized heroics to continue going forward. The road ahead will be more difficult, including in Portland.
The Spurs are an exceptional road team, but you have to believe things will even out in this series. Aldridge will rediscover some of the magic that made him so formidable in the first round. He may look to get the ball in some different areas rather than backing down in the post and settling for turnaround jumpers.
Blazer's Edge's Dave Deckard wanted to see some different looks from Aldridge after Game 1:
The one guy I could stand to see a little more lane aggression from is Aldridge. He didn't seem to test Splitter's speed or willpower much on Tuesday night. Mostly he shot over him. Splitter did get a hand on a ball or two but LaMarcus can't be dissuaded and can't settle. He either needs to try and spin around Tiago or go old-school and back him down farther to get better position from which to take the shot.
Lillard is probably due another explosion of his own.
And at some point, Portland may learn some lessons from the Mavericks' first-round success against Popovich's club. It's not just about adjusting matchups—it's about playing passing lanes, using length to harass the Spurs' passers and doing all the little things San Antonio sometimes overlooks (e.g. rebounding).
But Portland will have to figure things out quickly. The Spurs aren't going to give any games away—not the way they're playing at the moment.
At the moment, this machine is fully operational. You may not recognize all the names who have gotten it thus far, but you'll certainly recognize the results. Now the only question is how far those results will take this team.
Another trip to the NBA Finals suddenly looks entirely within reach.
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