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NBA Playoff Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Portland Trail Blazers

May 6, 2014, 2:59 PM EDT

Damian Lillard, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan Damian Lillard, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan

SEASON RECORDS

San Antonio Spurs: 62-20

Portland Trail Blazers: 54-28

KEY INJURIES

San Antonio Spurs: none

Portland Trail Blazers: none

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

San Antonio Spurs: Offense 108.1 (7th in NBA), Defense 100.1 (4th in NBA)

Portland Trail Blazers: Offense 108.3 (5th in NBA), Defense 104.7 (16th in NBA)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) How much does experience matter?

The attention increases, the lights brighten and the pressure mounts. Relative to the second round of the NBA playoffs, the first round is practically an extension of the regular season. The difference between the first two rounds, especially if you haven’t experienced it before is, stark.

From a purely mathematical standpoint, this makes sense. Going from 16 to 8 teams is a greater drop by magnitude than going from 30 to 16 teams.

If experiencing this level of the playoffs matters, San Antonio has a huge advantage.

Five Spurs – Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner – have each played more games beyond the first round than all the Trail Blazers combined.

Just three Trail Blazers have played in the second round to 13 Spurs.

image

2) How much do benches matter?

The Spurs’ reserves combined for 30.5 win shares this season. Give them a little more playing time, and maybe they could have competed for a playoff spot in the East.

The Trail Blazers’ reserves… well, they’re no longer historically bad, like they were last season. Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Thomas have helped, but Portland still ranked last in bench scoring.

In the playoffs, benches matter less. There are no back-to-backs, so teams can more easily depend on their top players rather than their depth.

However, that’s less true in this series than most. Games 1 to 6 feature only one day off between each, and Game 7 would follow just a two-day break.

Still, that sure beats the regular-season pace of games.

If the teams’ benches will matter, it’s based mostly on what’s already happened.

Throughout the season, the Trail Blazers’ starters have carried a much bigger load than the Spurs’. Here are the 120 leaders in total minutes this season, including the playoffs:

image

Portland is the only team with two players in the top nine, three in the top 23, four in the top 31 and five in the top 56. No Spur ranks higher than No. 78.

San Antonio, despite needing a game longer to win its first-round series, should be better-rested than the Trail Blazers. Considering the age gap, the Spurs might need to be.

3) How much can LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard do?

As noted in the previous two keys, the Spurs have some decided advantages. The main question is how much they matter.

But the Trail Blazers might have the series’ two best players in LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, and that definitely matters.

Aldridge and Lillard were both All-Stars, and Aldridge finished 10th in MVP voting. Although Tim Duncan and Tony Parker both received MVP votes – Lillard didn’t – Lillard is just 23. He’s better today than he was in October, and an award that considers an entire season’s body of work doesn’t necessarily reflect Lillard’s current ability.

Lillard (25.5 points on 47 percent shooting and 49 percent 3-point shooting, 6.7 assists, 6.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game) excelled against the Rockets, and so did Aldridge (29.8 points on 48 percent shooting, 11.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game). These are stars playing their best at the exact right moment.

It won’t get any easier against the Spurs, though.

Lillard didn’t have to extend much energy defending Patrick Beverley, and Jeremy Lin gave him issues at times. The margin for error is greatly reduced against Parker. Can Lillard provide at least tolerable defense and still bring it offensively?

Aldridge has generally fared well against Tim Duncan, but Houston provided a model for slowing him. Aldridge didn’t fare as well against the Rockets’ jumbo power-forward-center combo, Dwight Howard and Omer Asik, and San Antonio the size to at least try replicating that strategy.

Plus, the Spurs are one of the NBA’s top defensive-rebounding teams, which could neutralize Portland’s excellent offensive rebounding. If Robin Lopez and Thomas Robinson need help creating second-chance opportunities, something the Trail Blazers depend on, Aldridge might have to move out of his preferred mid-range spots and work closer to the rim.

Lillard and Aldridge are true stars. San Antonio might prevent them from looking like it, though.

PREDICTION

While debating the importance of experience and benches in the playoffs, I’ve ignored one key factor that definitely impacts postseason series: coaching. Terry Stotts has improved a great deal since coaching the Hawks and Bucks, and he has Rick Carlisle’s indirect help. With Nicolas Batum in the Shawn Marion role, the Trail Blazers’ can replicate the switching, mismatching defensive strategy that gummed up San Antonio’s offense in the last round. However, the Spurs adjusted then, and two good coaches might still not equal Gregg Popovich.

Spurs in 7

  1. lowercasejay - May 6, 2014 at 3:10 PM

    Everyone’s been doubting the Blazers all year long and they keep silencing the naysayers. There is something magical about this team so I could see them winning this in 7.

    • spursareold - May 6, 2014 at 3:16 PM

      There is no magic. It’s basketball. You either outscore and out D the other team or you go home.

  2. spursareold - May 6, 2014 at 3:15 PM

    I think the worst thing Portland could do would be to try the same defense that Dallas did. The Spurs solved that by putting Dallas’ bigs into the pick and roll over and over and over, and having both the guard and the big attack the rim. Portland, like Dallas, doesn’t really have a rim protector, especially if you put Lopez into the pick and roll.

    • blazenhawks - May 6, 2014 at 3:55 PM

      You really don’t know what Lopez can do. he is a really good rebounder and a above avarge shot blocker and but I do agree than Portland can’t do what Dallas did. I see them right out of the gate attacting Duncun to try and get in into foul trouble like they did with Harden. I think Spurs will pull this out in 6. Portland is just not ready they are 1 peice away unless Batum gets going he is the key to this series

  3. kanemoney - May 6, 2014 at 3:51 PM

    I LOVED Portland in Round 1. I’ll admit that, despite living in Seattle, I didn’t watch the Blazers this season. LA was unbelievable in games 1 and 2 and Lillard has the killer instinct that made Dwayne Wade such a great player early in his career.

    The problem is that the Rockets were a jump shooting team that played inconsistent defense. Portland was able to beat them by playing Houston’s game better than they did. They also had the intangibles needed to win OT games. I was impressed.

    The problem they face is that the Spurs are a basketball clinic of efficiency, ball movement, defense, and every other fundamental you can think of. I worry that Portland will fall in love with the long-range jumper, have too many turnovers and wear themselves out (the Spurs averaged ~30 minute per starter in the regular season).

    That being said, the Spurs have historically struggled against athletic jump shooting teams in the playoffs. They are certainly old. As long as their young bench steps up, the Spurs could easily win in 6.

    Portland kept Houston in many games in the first round, which you just can’t get away with over the long run. I expect the Spurs to capitalize.

  4. redbaronx - May 6, 2014 at 3:53 PM

    This is a tough one! As much as I think the Spurs have the experience advantage, Portland has the one thing that most deep playoff runs and NBA finalists have: Five bigs that can play the 4/5 and soak up fouls and block the lane. I’m looking forward to watching this series. I have a gut feeling that the next NBA Champion is the winner of this series.

    • savvybynature - May 6, 2014 at 5:09 PM

      Portland has 5 bigs they can play?
      They have Aldridge and Lopez, and Robinson can put in some spot minutes, and that’s about it. Depth is not a strength of Portland. If any bigs are seeing time behind Robinson then that probably means either the game is a blowout or Portland is desperate.

      • redbaronx - May 6, 2014 at 11:19 PM

        Portland may not have overall depth, but Batum can play in the 4 spot as well. He is 6’8 but has the wingspan of a much taller guy, and they have others who can fill in at the 3 instead of Batum.

        Portland may need additions, but I like their current roster enough. Like I said in my post, Portland may not be ready this year, but another year and some roster additions, this team can be scary.

  5. taktrevor - May 6, 2014 at 4:07 PM

    So you’re taking all four series to go 7 games? Is that prediction, or wishful thinking?

    • antistratfordian - May 6, 2014 at 4:23 PM

      That’s just a way of saying that they don’t have any idea.

  6. jattsoorma - May 6, 2014 at 4:33 PM

    spurs in 5.

  7. unxpexted1 - May 6, 2014 at 4:38 PM

    I’ll be rooting for Porltand, but I don’t think they have the defense to win this series. Spurs in 6.

  8. the1nonlyk - May 6, 2014 at 7:45 PM

    go spurs!!!

  9. haaaaasoooooo - May 6, 2014 at 9:39 PM

    I’ll take Rip City. I might lose this bet, but I believe they have the horses, and the memory of early season success to help them beat the spurs. Portland also has young legs. That can’t hurt.
    This series could boil down to Mo. If he can put up quality stats and keep Parker out of the lane while coming off the bench, then Portland can do it!
    On a unrelated note, when did Indiana turn into a bunch of D bags?

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