How to Attempt to Stop San Antonio Spurs' Tony Parker

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How to Attempt to Stop San Antonio Spurs' Tony Parker
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If it was easy to slow down San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker, the Portland Trail Blazers would have done it by now.

It isn't, of course, and Portland is now just the latest team to occupy a role that crops up on an annual basis in the NBA playoffs. The Blazers are the next in a long line of clubs that Parker uses to remind everyone of something they inexplicably forget: He's an elite point guard who belongs on anybody's very short list of the NBA's best.

As hopeless as the task of overcoming a 3-0 deficit against the Spurs is, the Blazers probably have even less of a chance of stopping Parker.

He's averaging 26 points and 8.3 assists per game on 52.4 percent shooting in the series while functioning (as usual) as the Spurs' offensive maestro. Everything starts with him getting to the middle or bending Portland's defense into awkward positions with his various probes and attacks, and the Spurs have capitalized on seemingly every chance to punish the Blazers when their rotations get out of whack.

It's what they do.

That's not to say the Blazers haven't tried to change things up.

They've altered their approach to the pick-and-roll, giving Parker various looks that have included going under screens, going over them, dropping the big man toward the foul line and sending as much action away from the middle of the floor as possible.

There are a handful of basic ways to defend the pick-and-roll, and Portland has experimented with just about all of them. Damian Lillard, noted atrocious defender, has even invented his own tactic, as noted here by Nate Duncan of BasketballInsiders.com:

It'll shock you to learn it hasn't worked.

The Blazers have thrown different matchups at Parker, trying Wesley Matthews and even Nicolas Batum in spurts, all in an effort to hide Lillard and give the Spurs point guard a rangier, more disruptive matchup.

It's all been for naught, though, and Parker is killing the Blazers no matter what they do.

Portland is running out of time. It cannot win this series, but it can save a little face by guarding Parker a bit more effectively than it has to this point.

 

Go Small and Hope

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We may as well get the obligatory suggestions out of the way first. So let's all agree the Blazers need to start fast and come out with better intensity so Parker can't play with the comfort of an immediate and substantial lead. Yes, this suggestion falls squarely into the "blatantly obvious" category, but it's true that the Spurs have enjoyed the freedom of early advantages all series long, while the Blazers have fallen behind and tightened up.

Over three games, San Antonio has outscored Portland 195-130 in first halves.

So, the advice here is: don't fall behind.

Brilliant, right?

More helpfully, Portland must go small.

The Blazers need to take Robin Lopez off the floor so they can switch on as many picks as possible. That's a dangerous way to play, but we know conventional approaches aren't bothering Parker or the Spurs. So, it's worth a shot.

The danger in liberal switching is clear: it presents mismatches the cutthroat Spurs could easily target. That could mean situations arise where LaMarcus Aldridge has to handle Parker in isolation, or Boris Diaw catches the ball on the block with Lillard on him.

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But at least when the Spurs attack a mismatch, they're deviating ever so slightly from the flow of their offense. When teams focus on exploiting a one-on-one situation, things can bog down and the ball tends to stop moving. Since the Spurs are the Spurs, they maximize mismatch opportunities better than most with decisive action and a better-than-average retention of off-ball movement.

Nobody ever just stands and watches when San Antonio is on offense, so there's no guarantee switching will be an effective tactic. But we know the Blazers are getting crushed when they play Parker on the pick-and-roll more honestly. Portland has nothing to lose at this point.

 

Go Under and Pray

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Go under the high screen, Blazers. Just do it. We all know it's scary because Parker's mid-range jumper has felled more than a few playoff teams in the past, but just do it. It's your only real hope.

Sure such a strategy would go against Portland's season-long philosophy of limiting open threes and sending ball-handlers toward Lopez in the middle.

Big deal.

That hasn't been working against the Spurs, so why stick to the program?

Tempting Parker to shoot by giving him space might seem like a fool's errand, but we've watched the Spurs employ a somewhat similar tactic to great effect in this very series. By refusing to double Aldridge, San Antonio is daring him to shoot, enticing him to exploit a one-on-one situation at the expense of the offense as a whole.

Portland must do the same. By going under the pick up top and on the wing, the Blazers can keep Parker out of the middle more effectively while presenting him with an open low-percentage shot. There's a real danger of Parker simply burying jumper after jumper (we've seen him do exactly that plenty of times), but at least in the process of taking lots of shots, his teammates will get fewer touches, and the Spurs' regular offense won't hum quite as effectively.

We know for a certainty that San Antonio's team offense is too much for anyone to handle. Perhaps daring Parker to be an offense unto himself is a smarter way to go.

If nothing else, going under the screen and daring Parker to shoot to his heart's content will keep Portland from getting destroyed in its other pick-and-roll coverages. As was mentioned earlier, the Blazers have tried just about everything against San Antonio's brilliant and relentless screen game.

But even when adopting the most basic, tried-and-true approach of sending the ball-handler away from the middle, known as "downing," Parker and the Spurs have had a ready answer. That's because they're the Spurs, and they're smarter than you and me and everyone.

To the Blazers' credit, they sound like a team willing to fight on—even if pride is the only thing left for them to salvage.

"Our sole focus is on [Game 4]," Matthews said, per Ben Golliver of SB Nation's Blazers Edge. "Forget everything else, forget Game 1, forget Game 2, forget tonight. We've got to get Monday. We're a prideful bunch, and we've been through a lot together. We owe it to ourselves, to our fans to not go out like this."

Make no mistake: The Blazers are going down. But at least they can still go down fighting.

 

Changes Ahead?

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Looking ahead, the Spurs' future opponents should have more luck against Parker. As a starting point, no individual defender will be as inept as Lillard, so whether it's Chris Paul's Los Angeles Clippers or Russell Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder that emerges from the other series out West, the Spurs will have a more capable defender on their hands.

Westbrook won't die on screens like Lillard, and Paul has been around long enough to know all of San Antonio's various tricks and wrinkles.

Both the Clippers and Thunder should remain terrified, though, because Parker's regular-season splits indicate he's still a nightmare matchup.

Parker's Regular Season Splits
PPG APG FG%
vs. OKC 20.5 5.5 .468
vs. LAC 12.5 7.5 .647
vs. POR 12.7 6.0 .356

NBA.com

The Blazers defended Parker as well as anybody in the league during the regular season, but he's torching them right now. Based on his his regular-season success against Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers, who knows how much damage he might do in a playoff series?

In any event, the basic recipe for slowing Parker down is the same: Let him try to beat you by scoring and stay as disciplined as possible as the Spurs initiate second and third actions on offense. That's pretty much it.

Other than that, I guess all we can do is say "good luck" to either the Clips or Thunder.

 

A Paradox: Parker is More Than Parker 

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Parker does this every year. He sneaks up on the league in the playoffs after a typically excellent (but quiet) regular season. How is it possible that after a dozen years in the NBA, he still manages to surprise?

That's easy. He plays for the Spurs.

Parker functions as part of a system that hides his brilliance during the regular season, but his dominant play is magnified in a series when opponents can't figure out how to adjust to him over the span of multiple games.

And it's not just Parker; it's the entire Spurs offense—loaded with vets, steeped in winning tradition and always better prepared than their opponents. Trying to stop Parker is about much more than slowing down an individual player.

It's about running up against the monolithic greatness of the entire Spurs organization. It's about stopping Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, R.C. Buford and everybody else who's responsible for putting together a dynasty that has lasted nearly two decades.

So when Parker hides behind a screen or barrels into the lane, it's not just him teams are trying to stop. It's years and years of ruthless execution, meticulous planning and perfectly harnessed natural talent.

Maybe that's why it seems so hard.

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