The Dallas series, epic as it was, is over. So let's see how the Spurs and Blazers measure up against one another and try to determine who has the upper hand.
Spurs (1st in the West, 62-20) vs. Trail Blazers (5th in the West, 54-28)
Trail Blazers' strengths and weaknesses
The Blazers shocked the NBA world by starting out strong and leading the Western Conference for a couple of months. Portland's offense was a beauty to behold, with off-ball movement that rivaled the Spurs' and two stars that took a leap in production. LaMarcus Aldridge was the hub, scoring inside and out, while Lillard led a perimeter attack that was as deadly as any other in the league. Rounding up the starters was their big off-season acquisition, Robin Lopez, who shored up their interior defense and gobbled up offensive boards.
But the Blazers couldn't sustain that level of success for two reasons: the gap between the starters and the bench was too big and their defense was porous.
That still holds true today. Portland finished 16th in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions and beat the Rockets in the previous round courtesy of their offense. The Blazers continue to be supremely dependent on their starters as well. In the Rockets series, not one of their bench players had a positive net rating and their starters played heavy minutes, ranging from 33 per game for Robin Lopez to 44.7 for Damian Lillard.
LaMarcus Aldridge is extremely hard to defend thanks to his combination of shooting prowess and post ability. Lillard has also emerged as an elite shot creator thanks to his ability to shoot off the dribble from anywhere on the floor and a much improved finishing rate on drives. They make up for their lack of legitimate third option by running clever plays that get their role players open looks off ball and player movement.
What makes the Blazers' offense dangerous is that it's hard to help off anyone. As mentioned, they have great shooters that won't hesitate to pull the trigger. And their role playing bigs relentlessly attack the offensive glass if their defenders leave them open under the rim to help.
They also don't turn over the ball much, make the most of their trips to the line and excel at winning close games. There's really not much to dislike about the Blazers' offense. Even their predilection for long jumpers is understandable given their personnel.
As for the other end of the court, the Blazers don't have elite defenders but Batum, Matthews and Lopez are all above average. Aldridge is decent as long as he is not counted on to be the anchor. Unfortunately for them, Lillard is a sieve and their bench players are all decidedly below average. They simply don't seem to have the tools to be elite on that end.
Their defensive scheme is a mirror image of the Spurs'. They don't gamble for steals, are happy to allow mid-range jumpers, contest everything at the rim and chase people off the three point line. As a result, they were the worst team in the league at creating turnovers and allowed a very high percentage on in-between shots. But they allowed the fewest total three point attempts in the league, with a special emphasis in deterring corner threes. Where they are a mixed bag is inside. They allow a ton of close shots but contest them greatly, mostly thanks to Lopez's elite rim protection.
How the Spurs match up with them
It all starts with how the Spurs defend LaMarcus Aldridge. Diaw, Splitter and Duncan will all take turns defending LMA with Splitter probably getting the lion's share of the assignment. If he can stay with Aldridge and contest his outside shots without needing help, that's a win for the Spurs even if LaMarcus goes off. We've seen Splitter do a fantastic job on Dirk in that area. The key will be how Tiago balances staying close enough to contest but not too close to allow Aldridge to drive past him. During the season series, Aldridge scored efficiently from the floor but barely got to the line and took only 12 shots in the paint compared to 38 from outside of it. The goal should be to keep that trend going.
If the Spurs are going to help, they need to wait until Aldridge makes a move. He sometimes struggles passing out of double teams in those situations. If they make their move too soon, Aldridge will pass outside to the open man, the ball will move and the Spurs' wings don't have the quickness to recover. Expect a lot more threats of double teams than actual committal by the Spurs' wings.
It will be interesting to see how the Spurs defend Lillard. The Spurs did a good job of preventing Dame from heating up from three in the regular season and I'm assuming that will be the focus: take away the three, contest at the rim and let him feast on mid-range jumpers. It's not ideal but it's the best bet to prevent him from taking over the series. Spurs Killer Mo Williams should get the same treatment: go over the screen or fight through it on high P&Rs, ICE side P&Rs.
If the Spurs can turn Lillard and Aldridge into mid-range shooters only, the Blazers' ball movement will stop and that's the best way to stop their offense. Those two guys will hit shot after shot but if they are not hitting threes, getting to the line or creating easy shots for others, the Spurs defense will have succeeded.
Limiting the amount of extra possessions the Blazers get should obviously also be a priority. Portland doesn't cause a ton of turnovers but they do attack the offensive glass, with Lopez being particularly effective at getting the offense second chances. I'd normally wouldn't be too concerned about it but Duncan hasn't looked like himself in the rebounding department so far and Diaw is atrocious on the boards. A return to form by Big Fun should be enough to keep the Blazers from dominating the glass.
On offense, the Spurs should have more freedom than they had against the Mavs because I don't expect Stotts to deploy as many unconventional tactics.
Still, whoever defends Parker will sag off and go under screens to deter penetration and make him a jump shooter. Tony will need to remain aggressive and take the shot when it's there but also look to drive whenever possible. Getting a Blazer big in foul trouble would be huge for the Spurs, considering their lack of depth.
If the Blazers try to hide Lillard on Danny Green, the Spurs will need Danny to move without the ball and to shoot over him every time he has a sliver of space. The same applies to Leonard. If anyone other than Batum is on him, post him up. The Spurs should avoid exploiting mismatches at the expense of ball movement but occasionally they need to remind the Blazers that cross matching has its downsides.
If Tim Duncan has his jumper going - a huge if, considering he went 8-22 in round one - it could tilt the balance of the series. Duncan connecting on pick-and-pops would open up a ton of space for Parker, as Lopez would have to stay closer to Timmy, negating his fantastic rim protection.
Finally, the Spurs' bench should be a huge factor. Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland are decent players but the drop-off between them and the starters or even the Spurs' bench is gigantic. San Antonio needs to take advantage of the rare times in which at least two of those guys are on the court together.
Because Portland plays its starters so much, the subs will need to hold their own against them. But more importantly, they need to force them into in-game adjustments. The Spurs' bench can run plays the starters can't and the personnel's strengths are different, which means the way they need to be defended is different. Forcing the Portland starters to prepare to defend two offenses could frustrate them to the point of causing breakdowns. Manu Ginobli could be huge in this series if he can help do that.
The Blazers are a team without big weaknesses. Just like the Mavs, they rely a little too heavily on outside shots but have an uncanny ability to convert them. Their stars are as hard to stop as anyone and the rest of the starters are solid two-way players. They have a weak bench but can play their starters heavy minutes. Defensively they know their limitations and, just like the Spurs, are smart in terms of what shots they allow. They don't make mistakes with the ball and they don't foul. They make you beat them by hitting shots.
The onus, then, will be on the Spurs to do just that. The Blazers should be able to put up enough points to keep games close because their stars feast on mid-range looks and they can space the floor well to take advantage of the Spurs lack of quickness on the perimeter. San Antonio will probably limit their inside scoring and hopefully their three point shooting, which should be enough to prevent the Blazer offense from becoming too much to handle.
How much damage the Spurs' offense can cause to an iffy Portland defense, then, could be the key to determining the winner.
I expect all games to be close. The Spurs will have to get stops and buckets at the right times if they want to advance and I think they have the discipline to execute and do just that. My prediction is the Spurs will win four of five very tightly fought games to advance. If the series stretches past that, it probably means Portland's defense has figured out the Spurs' offense. And if that happens, I don't like San Antonio's chances.