Western Conference Semi-Finals: Keys to Victory


Mar 12, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Portland Trail Blazers forward Nicolas Batum (88) and San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker (9) during the second half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

2013 Western Conference Semi-Finals: The San Antonio Spurs are now officially set to clash with the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the NBA Playoffs.  Both teams had tough first-round bouts with their respective opponents and are now looking ahead to, what we hope, to be an exciting, high-scoring and drama-filled series.

Who wins the Spurs-Blazers series?

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**All stats from NBA.com

A Brief Overview on Both Teams’ First-Round Series

May 4, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili (20) drives against Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki (41) in game seven of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. San Antonio beat Dallas 119-96.Mandatory Credit: Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

The San Antonio Spurs just finished a grueling seven-round match up with their in-state rivals, the Dallas Mavericks.  The Mavs pushed the Spurs to the brink of elimination, but the Spurs were never in any real danger through Game 7 as they blew out the Mavs 119-96.  As seen throughout the series, Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle deployed a defensive scheme that forced Tony Parker and Tim Duncan to individually beat their defensive counterparts one on one.  By doing so, Carlisle decided that he was not going to allow any of the Spurs great three-point shooters–Danny Green, Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills–beat the Mavs off catch-and-shoot opportunities presented by both Parker and Ginobili’s dribble penetration.

In effect, the Spurs struggled with this strategy at the outset of the series.  Parker had trouble being aggressive consistently throughout each game and that affected the rest of the Spurs offense.  However, Manu really picked up his game versus the Mavs by picking up Parker’s “slack” and finished with one of his best series in recent memory.  As Game 7 came to a close, the Spurs finally resembled the team who had finished with the best record in regular season.

The Portland Trail Blazers barely escaped their series against the Houston Rockets, which was so evenly matched that the total-point differentiation of the entire series was a mere 26 points.  Although the Rockets were the higher seed, the Trail Blazers stole the first two games in Houston largely thanks to Herculean-efforts by LaMarcus Aldridge.  After the two teams split two games in Rip City and Houston finally won a game at the Toyota Center, the Rockets were only down 3-2 in a series that looked like a heavy-weight fight.  If it were not for Damian Lillard’s incredible three-point game winner, we may be looking at a Spurs-Rockets match up.

However, the Trail Blazers took care of business, in a large part due to their defensive efforts against James Harden.  It’s hard to imagine how the Trail Blazers defense led them to a series win considering they gave up 112 points per game, but in reality it could have been much worse.  The Trail Blazers did an excellent job defending James Harden with the under-appreciated Wesley Matthews, who defended Harden as best as one could ask.

Harden finished the series averaging 26.8 points per game, but it was at the expense of his efficiency.  He shot a putrid 38 percent from the floor, 30 percent from the three-point line and turned the ball over an average of 3.5 turnovers a game.  The Trail Blazers did an excellent job of siphoning Harden into the interior of their defense and allowing Robin Lopez to alter his shots and, ultimately, keep him out of the paint.  As a unit, the Trail Blazers are young, athletic and hungry for their tumble with the veteran Spurs.

Looking ahead, there are a few points of emphasis that will ultimately determine where will this series be won:

Three-Point Shooting

May 4, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Danny Green (4) and Dallas Mavericks guard Vince Carter (25) share a laugh in game seven of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

As noted by many, Blazers head coach Terry Stotts is part of the growing-Rick Carlisle coaching tree.  In effect, many people expect Stotts to stick to the same defensive game plan as his mentor, since it noticeably kept the Spurs nuclear offense at bay.  Statistically speaking, the Trail Blazers defense is actually slightly worse than the Mavs, allowing opposing teams to score an average of 102.8 points per game.  However, they finished 11th in the league by only allowing opposing teams to shoot 35.5 percent from behind the arc, just a spot behind San Antonio.

Typically, the Trail Blazers try to run teams off the three-point line and siphon them into their rim protector Robin Lopez.  If you can finish over Sideshow Bob, fine, but they aren’t going to allow teams to bury them from deep.  Against Houston, the Trail Blazers only allowed them to shoot 31.4 percent, four percentage points less than their regular season average.  The Spurs shot a league-leading 39.7 percent from behind the arc, in a large part due to Parker’s continual dribble penetration that led to the Spurs shooters getting the good looks they wanted.

If Terry Stotts does implement the same defensive scheme as Carlisle, the Spurs should now seemingly be equipped to handle it.  That doesn’t mean that they will, but at least they’ve had an entire round to figure it out.  The difference between the Mavs defense and the Trail Blazers defense, however, comes from the actual players.  I don’t think anybody in the entire league would take Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis and Shawn Marion over Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum on the defensive side of the ball.  That’s what makes this match up somewhat frightening.  If Calderon and Ellis can take away shots from guys like Green, Belinelli, Mills, Leonard, what do you expect the uber-athletes Batum and Lillard to do?

On the opposite side, the Spurs have to also defend the three-point line.  In the four games that these two teams played each other, the Trail Blazers shot an average 35.2 percent from three, which is a percentage that the Spurs can honestly live with.  However, Lillard, Matthews, Batum and Mo Williams are all above average three-point shooters and will be looking to hoist up a bunch of them if the Spurs are going to pay a large chunk of their attention to LaMarcus Aldridge.  This last sentence directly leads where else this series will be won.

Defending LaMarcus Aldridge

May 2, 2014; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) reacts after making a basket against the Houston Rockets during the second quarter in game six of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

I think this will be the deciding factor of this series and whether or not the Spurs advance to the Western Conference Finals.  Aldridge had his way with the Rockets early in the series, hitting jump shot after jump shot after jump shot.  Aldridge’s offensive game is noticeably modeled after Dirk Nowitzki’s, except Aldridge will actually post up in an attempt to get into the lane.

I expect the Spurs to call on Tiago Splitter’s number again to keep Aldridge at bay.  Tiago was arguably the most instrumental player in the Spurs-Mavs series due to his fantastic defense on Dirk and unexpected offense.  The Spurs would like to have Tiago on Aldridge most of the time, but Diaw will also get some minutes against him.

This match up isn’t the best for the Spurs.  Although Diaw is extremely versatile and can guard some posts due to his girth, if Aldridge gets anywhere near the paint he’s going to score due to his height advantage.  If the Spurs can keep Aldridge in check solely with Splitter guarding him, then the Spurs can stay at home on the Blazers shooters and prevent them from turning each game into a three-point contest.  The Spurs can live with Aldridge’s tough and contested jumpers, but they won’t be able to survive long if he’s finding open teammates for good looks.

Defending Tony Parker

May 4, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) talks with guard Tony Parker (9) in game seven of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs against the Dallas Mavericks at AT&T Center. The Spurs won 119-96. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

As I previously stated, Parker is the man that orchestrates the Spurs offensive machine.  When Parker is assertive and looking for his shot, the entire floor opens up for his teammates.  When he isn’t, the Spurs have a more difficult time getting the shots they want.  Throughout the Mavs series, the Mavs relied on guarding Parker with the longer and versatile Shawn Marion.  In recent years, other teams have deployed this strategy–the Oklahoma City Thunder with Thabo Sefolosha and the Miami Heat with LeBron James–in an attempt to keep the ball out of Tony’s hands and make him a second option.  It will be interesting to see if the Blazers attempt the same strategy.

Nicholas Batum is a very long and versatile small forward who can truly guard four positions.  I think this is the best option for the Blazers going forward.  Granted, Lillard is a supreme athlete who has the quickness to stay in front of Parker, but why would the Blazers want him to expend his energy chasing Parker around?  Instead, look for the Blazers to put Batum on Parker and shift Lillard over to Danny Green and Matthews on Kawhi.  Now, Matthews is a very good defender as I previously noted, but if this is the match up that is presented then the Spurs need to get the ball into Kawhi’s hands in the post.

On the flip side, who is Tony Parker going to guard?  If he is assigned with guarding Lillard, then he’s going to be the one chasing around the young dynamo.  That really is the only option though.  Parker isn’t big enough to guard Matthews, who has shown the ability to post up (ask James Harden), and he definitely won’t be guarding Batum.  Parker is really going to have to be the best player in this series in order for the Spurs to advance.  If the Spurs get the passive and inconsistent Parker, then the Blazers will make quick work of the Spurs.  The Spurs have to build off their Game 7 performance and come out of the gates swinging against a young team that is ready to prove to the rest of the NBA that they belong.