Are the Spurs this good or are the Blazers just overrated?

Steve Dykes

Oddly enough, the Spurs fare much better against these guys when they game plan, when all their good players are suited up and when it's not the second night of a back-to-back.

Western Semi-Final Game 3 @Portland: Spurs 118, Blazers 103    Series: 3-0

Here's how I know the Blazers aren't well coached.

On the Spurs' second possession of Game 3, Tony Parker ran a pick-and-roll, got Blazers caveman-styled Robin Lopez to commit to him, and fed Tim Duncan for the layup. On the next series he curled around the elbow, where Duncan picked off defender Wesley Matthews, found himself open at the free throw line with Lopez not willing to commit this time, and he canned the 15-footer.

And then he did it again.

And again.

And again.

Four straight short jumpers for Parker, all on the identical play.

I don't want to be mean but...

It's clear to me that the Blazers established a few team rules and principles about the Spurs going into the series. Borrowing heavily from Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, who Blazers skipper Terry Stotts worked under before getting this gig, Portland decided that they were going to let Parker decide this series one way or the other. They keep dropping their bigs near to the rim, and refuse to close down on Parker with a third defender, which would invite the corner three. The Spurs have attempted very few corner threes all series.

They've also made it clear that when Manu Ginobili checks in to gum up the works that they're going to be physical with him in the lane. Maybe they've surmised that Ginobili hasn't quite gotten the benefit of the whistle the same way these past couple years as he has in the past. He hasn't really had one clean drive to the basket all series without being bumped or hacked in any of the first three games. In the first two games he didn't get any calls at all. In Game 3, his fortunes turned. To his credit, he's continued to be aggressive (the jumper being wonky might have encouraged the driving too).

The combination of Parker and Ginobili together has been particularly devastating for the Blazers. For one, it makes it impossible for Stotts to hide Damian Lillard defensively with Danny Green off the floor. For another, it gives the Spurs two ball-handlers to run pick-and-rolls on opposite sides of the floor in the same 24-second shot clock and to exploit mismatches and switches as they see fit. If the Blazers want to experiment with throwing Nicolas Batum at Parker? Fine, he just kicks it out to Ginobili and lets him run the offense, as we saw.

In Game 1 Ginobili finished plus-8 and was plus-7 with Parker.

In Game 2 he was plus-11, and plus-8 with Parker.

In Game 3 he was plus-24, and plus-12 with Parker.

Ginobili has fared much better with his "foreign legion" bench-mates this series than last, but for the most part he's made his bones with the starters since they can, you know, guard people.

To be fair to Patty Mills, Boris Diaw and Marco Belinelli, at least they give you something on one end of the floor. The Blazers bench, meanwhile, has been straight garbage all the way around. The Spurs' reserves have outscored the Blazers 140-39 so far and the margin was 40-2 in Game 3.

Stotts tried to minimize their impact on the game, but the numbers don't lie.

Thomas Robinson: minus-6 in 8:47.

Will Barton: minus-12 in 10:42.

Earl Watson: minus-5 in 5:01.

Dorrell Wright: minus-9 in 3:46.

The Blazers' starters all finished between minus-7 and minus-12 as well, but it at least took them considerably longer to get there. Lopez played the fewest of any of them, and that was for only 36:50. Batum played 44 while Lillard played 43.

Pop, going for the kill, had Duncan drag his 38-year-old self up and down the floor for 39:40, but no other starter played nearly as much as Portland's guys.

My working theory is that maybe the Blazers just aren't all that good.

Remember, after they blitzed the league, starting 31-9, they fell back to Earth hard, going 14-18 over the next 32 games and nearly fell out of the playoffs in the deep Western Conference, finally righting themselves in April against a soft schedule. Stotts leaned on his starters, and played them together as a unit for 1,373 minutes over the regular season, second in the league behind Indiana's starters (had LaMarcus Aldridge not missed 13 games due to injury, they'd have blown away everyone in this dubious stat). In the playoffs they lead everyone, with the starters averaging 22.1 minutes together through nine games. Individually Aldridge, Lillard and Batum were all in the top 20 in the league in minutes per game, while Matthews was 44th, and he only slid that far down because Portland's one serviceable reserve, Mo Williams, plays some with Lillard in two point guard lineups.

That the Blazers beat the Rockets in round one was mostly due to some good fortune and the right match-ups. It took Rockets coach Kevin McHale three games to figure out that Omer Asik was the best guy to guard Aldridge, and by then he had already gone nuts in Games 1 and 2, destroying Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones in the process. Even then, the Rockets had to choke away Game 1, blowing an 11-point lead with four minutes to go.

From Game 3 on though, it was pretty much luck. The teams traded overtime wins in Games 3 and 4, Houston won at home convincingly in Game 5 and were the better team most of Game 6 on the road, in position to win until Lillard's miracle three at the buzzer. Had he missed that shot do you think the Blazers would've gotten off the mat to win a Game 7 on the road?

It helped the Blazers to draw another bench-deficient and relatively inexperienced squad in the Rockets. McHale is just as clueless and Houston's reserves don't scare anyone. Asik can guard people, but he's no offensive threat. Jeremy Lin often does his team more harm than good. Howard's offense is entirely at the rim, which suits the immobile Lopez to a tee. Lillard got to guard a mediocre offensive talent in Patrick Beverley with a bad knee. The Rockets mostly ran ISOs with James Harden or post-ups for Howard instead of that deadly pick-and-roll, and even then almost beat the Blazers.

Compare that transition, going from that stone age offense and rudimentary coaching to the Spurs with their multi-faceted offense and their ability to exploit a mismatch ten different ways?

Meanwhile, the Spurs got the perfect team in Dallas to prepare for the Blazers. Aldridge is more athletic than Dirk Nowitzki, a bit less savvy, but relatively a wash. Monta Ellis can't shoot the three like Lillard, but they have similar size and speed. Shawn Marion, Samuel Dalembert and Vince Carter compare to Batum, Lopez and Matthews.

If the Spurs drew the Blazers in round one, maybe that would've been interesting. But getting them right after Dallas was perfect. They got a live scrimmage to figure out what works, what doesn't and at what level they had to play from an intensity standpoint. Now they're in vampire mode: ageless, much quicker than expected and sucking the life out of everyone in site and making it look beautiful all the while.

Now, if Ginobili could only make a shot...

Your three stars:

3) Manu Ginobili (15 pts)

2) Tim Duncan (10 pts)

1) Tony Parker (22 pts)

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