The San Antonio Spurs survived Round 1 by figuring out just in time how to deal with a roster laden with offensive skill players starring a sweet-shooting, All-Star power forward. Faced with a similar predicament in Round 2, Gregg Popovich's boys played like they cracked the code.
Tony Parker scored 33 points, Tim Duncan had a double-double and the Spurs defense curtailed the Portland Trail Blazers' high-octane offense for a 116-92 beatdown in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinals series.
The upstart Blazers, playing in the franchise's first second-round series since 2000, looked every bit like a young team overwhelmed by the moment. They allowed San Antonio to start the game on an 8-0 run and never again came closer than a five-point deficit.
Looking to steal a game in San Antonio after a couple of days of extra rest, Portland will go into Thursday night's Game 2 looking for ways to pick up the pieces on both ends of the floor. The Blazers shot a team-playoff-low 37.8 percent from the floor. Portland averaged 111.7 points in its six-game series against the Houston Rockets and was the third-most efficient playoff offense coming into Tuesday night.
Expected to push the pace to turn this series into a track meet, Portland fell victim to a masterclass in Popovichian tactics. The Spurs worked hard around pick-and-rolls to suffocate Blazers players on the perimeter and forced a series of missed mid-range jumpers. Portland failed to make a three-pointer for the first three quarters and attempted 16 total, by far its lowest total of the postseason.
Damian Lillard, so active beyond the three-point arc and so clutch against Houston, was held to 17 points on 6-of-15 shooting. He was arguably the player most affected by the Spurs' defensive strategy, as he attempted only one shot from deep. Lillard shot 48.9 percent on nearly eight three-point attempts per game against Houston, up one from his regular-season averages.
Defense was also an issue for Lillard, who was torched so badly by Parker that coach Terry Stotts had to make a switch. Parker scored 13 of his 33 points during the first quarter, with most of those buckets coming against Lillard. Other Blazers didn't fare much better and Parker was aggressive throughout, finishing with 24 shot attempts.
“He’s persistent, he’s clever, he gets to the rim, he can finish, he can find the pass, he keeps his dribble alive, he keeps you on your toes,” Stotts told reporters of Parker, according to The Associated Press (via The Oregonian). “He’s been doing that for a long time. The approach is do the best job you can, no matter who’s on him. It’s a five-man defense."
The Spurs shot 50.6 percent as a team. Duncan's 12 points and 11 rebounds gave him his third double-double of the postseason, while Kawhi Leonard scored 16 and grabbed nine boards. Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills and Aron Baynes each scored in double figures off the bench.
While San Antonio's offensive explosion was impressive, it was largely expected. The Blazers are the second-worst regular-season defensive team remaining in this postseason, behind only a Brooklyn Nets team that spent half its campaign fighting for a playoff spot.
Although the Spurs boast arguably the league's most fluid and cohesive offense, leaky performances were bound to happen across a seven-game series.
What made the Spurs' performance so impressive was their defensive tenacity pre-garbage time. LaMarcus Aldridge finished with 32 points and 14 rebounds, but little of that came with the game actually in question. Aldridge shot 6-of-17 in the first half as the Spurs jumped out to a 26-point lead at the break. He had a particularly difficult time finishing at the rim against Tiago Splitter, who, along with Baynes and Duncan, helped hold Portland to 47.4 percent in the restricted area.
"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 told reporters Monday, according to the AP (via the Boston Hearld). "We know that. I think all the team is aware of that; everybody is going to help a little bit."
Splitter scored only five points and grabbed five rebounds, and is often the forgotten piece of the San Antonio puzzle. But he was Dirk Nowitzki's primary defender in Round 1, holding the future Hall of Famer well below his season averages in points and field-goal percentage.
The Blazers gained some traction with Aldridge forcing the action in the second half and Splitter in foul trouble. If Splitter stays out of foul trouble and replicates a facsimile of his first-half performance, though, Aldridge could have a tougher-than-expected series. It will be interesting to see if Aldridge's second-half explosion was a sign of things to come in Game 2 or merely a case of San Antonio taking its foot off the gas.
Either way, there's not going to be a lot of sleep for Stotts and his staff these next 48 hours. The Spurs scored like clockwork despite Manu Ginobili missing all six of his field-goal attempts. They also got nothing from Danny Green, who had come up so huge for San Antonio in Games 6 and 7 against Dallas. Had either of their shots been falling, it could have been a lot worse.
The Blazers should at least take some solace in knowing their own wings could not possibly be worse Thursday night. Nicolas Batum was 3-of-12 from the field for seven points and Wesley Matthews scored just eight. Portland's oft-maligned bench also failed to come through, scoring 18 points—half of which came courtesy of seldom-used reserve Will Barton.
Simple positive regression assumes the Blazers will get better performances from Lillard, Batum, et al. in Game 2. We'll have to see whether that's good enough to tie the series going back to the Rose City. What's clear is that this team has a lot of work to do and not a whole lot of time to do it.