The Portland Trail Blazers have only led for 33 seconds of the Western Conference Semifinals.
They'll have one more chance Monday to change that, but things aren't looking bright. The San Antonio Spurs took their third straight game against the Blazers (and fourth overall), this time by a final score of 118-103.
The series has been one-sided in every sense. Portland gave it a run in the third quarter of Game 3, led by Nicolas Batum's three-point onslaught. The Blazers made another push in the fourth, collectively battling with their playoff lives on the line.
It wasn't enough. And it won't be enough. The Spurs responded to every run, led by Tim Duncan's sheer determination early in the fourth quarter. They're locked in, playing at a level that they haven't matched since their 19-game regular-season winning streak.
We all know how this series is going to end.
The question now turns to the Western Conference Finals.
The fate of the other series out West is less certain. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers both pose similar challenges. They score in bunches, much like the Spurs. They have experienced playoff talent, teams led by superstars.
But the Spurs offense has been clicking too. Head coach Gregg Popovich even admitted as much after Game 3, saying, per NBA.com, "For the most part, we've taken good shots. We haven't turned it over inordinately. ...Overall the offense has been pretty good."
He later said he "couldn't tell you where momentum starts or where it ends."
Let's just say the Spurs' momentum hasn't stopped. But could it continue against the Thunder or Clippers?
An Emerging Star
The rest of the country is finally getting a look at San Antonio's secret weapon, a guy Spurs fans have been supremely excited about for a while now. Kawhi Leonard is an All-Star in the making. He will inherit this team one day, and he's looking poised to do just that. He's combined for 52 points through his first three games against Portland, leading the Spurs with 20 in Game 2.
He also hit timely fourth-quarter triples in Games 2 and 3, putting both games out of reach at critical junctures.
Leonard impacts the game even when he's not scoring at a high rate. In fact, that may be his principal value going forward—especially should the Spurs face Oklahoma City. The 22-year-old is an extremely effective perimeter defender, the team's best hope against Kevin Durant and—at times—possibly Russell Westbrook.
He plays passing lanes, runs the break and rebounds everything within his long reach. While he has untapped offensive potential he's beginning to display, his defense has always been there.
The pressure doesn't fall on Leonard exclusively. Shooting guard Danny Green is a fine defender in his own right, and the Spurs' team defense can be one of the best in the league at times. It won't be able to let up in the next round.
There's no way to shut down someone like Durant, but the Spurs have one of the league's best options to slow him down. Just as Tiago Splitter has limited Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge in these playoffs, Leonard and Co. may be called upon to do the same against Durant. That will be the matchup to watch.
The Big Names
Tony Parker is playing some of the best basketball of his career, ultimately finishing with 29 points and six assists Saturday night. This may be more of a necessity than a luxury going forward. Durant is certainly playing the best basketball of his young career, and Westbrook isn't far behind him. The same goes for Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.
Paul made his first eight three-pointers in Game 1 against the Thunder and dished 16 assists in Game 3. Griffin exploded for 34 points in Game 3. Durant has combined for 68 points over the last two games, looking every bit as valuable as he's cracked up to be. Westbrook notched a triple-double in Game 2.
Parker can't afford to take a step back with scorers of that caliber on the other side. The Spurs are deep, but depth alone is of little consolation when facing the likes of Durant or Paul. The Frenchman is averaging 26 points and 8.3 assists in the series and confounding Terry Stotts' defenders. Damian Lillard didn't work. Wes Matthews hasn't worked. Nicolas Batum was an improvement, but too little and too late.
Don't underestimate the impact Tim Duncan is making. He went for 19 points, seven rebounds and four assists in Game 3, and he's been consistently contributing vital rim protection. He looked like he wanted this badly Saturday night, like the memories of the 2013 NBA Finals were driving him every step of the way.
That won't change a series from now.
San Antonio's bench has been dominant of late. On Saturday night, it outscored the Blazers' second unit 40-6. Though rotations typically shorten in the postseason, Popovich has resisted the impulse to some degree, getting important contributions from the likes of Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli.
You expect Manu Ginobili to make an impact, but the Spurs have been getting contributions from eight or nine guys, much as they've done all season long. Duncan, Parker and Leonard are all playing increased minutes, but they haven't crowded out the bench.
Oklahoma City and Los Angeles aren't having quite the same luck on the bench, though there have been some strong nights for Jamal Crawford and Caron Butler. If the Spurs have a unique advantage against either team, it may have more to do with depth than it does experience or cohesion. All of these teams are playing at a high level. The Spurs just might be a little fresher on some nights.
The other big variable is on the inside. DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin have the potential to dominate almost any team in the paint. They haven't been able to do it consistently against Oklahoma City, but the potential is always there. They will challenge Duncan and Splitter in unique ways with their size and athleticism. Whereas Nowitzki and Aldridge were primarily mid-range threats, the Clippers' bigs play above the rim.
That could give San Antonio some trouble, but Splitter is better than advertised. Things could get interesting down in the paint.
Last, but not least, don't forget about Serge Ibaka. He made nine of 10 field-goal attempts in Game 3 and was similarly pivotal against the Spurs in the 2012 WCF.
Either of these series would be amazing and almost certainly destined for six or seven games. Good as the Spurs are playing right now, the Thunder and Clippers have had their moments. If you thought the first round of these playoffs was entertaining, just wait.
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