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Spurs vs. Trail Blazers - Fraternizing with the Enemy: The Chess match

Dave Deckard of and J.R. Wilco of are conversing throughout the Spurs/Blazers 2nd round playoff series. With the Blazers making it 3-1, we discuss what brought about Portland's triumph on Monday,

Steve Dykes

Day 1 of the Epic and Ongoing Playoff version of the edition of Fraternizing with the Enemy is here. Day 2 of is here. Day 3 is here. Day 4 is here. Today's is below.

Dave Deckard:

Well, J.R., it looks like we get to chat again!  Not that I'm disappointed by that little turn of events.  The Blazers live to fight one more day.  Plenty good for me!

I am curious, though...what happened to the Spurs from your perspective?  Obviously we saw a different Blazers team in Game 4 than we've seen prior and we can talk all about that.  But we saw a different Spurs team as well.  It's almost like the franchises switched places for a game.  What did this look like from the point of view of a seasoned Spurs observer?  Why the sudden inversion?

J.R. Wilco

That was definitely a different Portland team. They competed with energy and heart. They refused to get down and fought for all 48 minutes. They hit their three-pointers in rhythm and once they got comfortable, their rushed ones dropped too. LaMarcus Aldridge shook off all of the hesitance which seemed to dog him through the first three games and just shot the ball. Damian Lillard attacked the lane, hit from long range and was generally a nuisance to the Spurs defense. Both Aldridge and Lillard made over 50% of their shots. The fact that's as big a deal as it is speaks to the kind of series this has been. But it is a big deal.

You asked me about the Spurs and all I've talked about is the Blazers because I wanted to give them the credit they're due. They made adjustments, and exerted the effort and won the game. They did much better on defense, but as you noted during the game on Twitter, the Spurs got and missed a lot of open jumpers and I expect a return to their home court will serve the Spurs in Game 5.

Of course there's more to it than that. The Spurs weren't just flat Monday night, they were often flatfooted. Every game this series has started with a Tony Parker barrage that's served as the San Antonio offense's left jab. Once Portland's defense was paying attention to that jab, the right cross would slip in and catch them off-balance and often send them to the canvas. Whether it was Tiago Splitter alone under the hoop, or Kawhi Leonard at the three point line, that cross would land and the Blazers would reel.

But it's been set up by the jab. In Game 4 Tony Parker couldn't reach Portland's jaw, and suddenly everything else came much harder for the Spurs. Part of it was Nic Batum guarding him, and part of it was Parker missing. Tony is so fast that it's rare to see him jitterbug his way through the defense, pull up to shoot and get blocked, but he was blocked on Monday. That's a testament to the defense the Blazers were playing. You have to cover the entire floor when you guard Parker, but it won't matter if his jumper is falling. Last night wasn't his best effort and a lot of that was because of what Portland's excellent work in their own end.

Still the Spurs were only down 4 with under five minutes left in the third. After a Batum three, Ginobili was joined by Diaw and Belinelli, and from the moment Splitter and Kawhi left the floor the Spurs were outscored by 10 points through the rest of the quarter. At one point, with the lead at 13, Manu had an open look at a corner three that missed badly. Had that fallen, with the lead back to 10, I think Popovich might have gone back to his closing unit in the fourth. But Manu's jumper was off all night (for most of the series, truth be told) the Trail Blazer lead ballooned to 17, and when San Antonio didn't take advantage of the home team's two and a half minute scoring drought to begin the fourth, it was over except for the confetti.


Yup!  For one night all of Portland's adjustments seemed to work.  But that's the way things have gone this season.  The Blazers are the most binary team I've seen in a long while.  Either they develop synergy or they fall flat, 1 or a 0, on or off.  The neat part about it is that when they're cooking it's easy to see why and it's nearly unstoppable.  As you described with the Spurs, pay attention to one thing and three others bite you in the butt.  The unfortunate part about it is that if you can stop one part of the process, everything else traffic jams behind it and gridlock ensues.  It was so nice to see the intersection clear for once and watch the Blazers take full advantage of their gifts.

On the other hand, this series is still 3-1, Spurs.  I expected some of these adjustments to come in Game 2.  For sure I expected radical changes in Game 3.  They didn't materialize until Game 4.  The unfortunate part about that is lack of time.  In the normal course of things the Spurs would now adjust, then the Blazers would regroup and counter in the following game if they couldn't cope.  There will be no following game now.  They have to cope immediately...not exactly their strong point so far this series.  Portland's workload will be oppressive in Game 5.  Not only do they have to play with the same energy and focus they brought on Monday, they must prevent the Spurs from adjusting to it.  They can't afford to see which sets the Spurs run against them to counter Batum on Parker, Lillard on Green, and Matthews on Leonard. The Blazers have to prevent San Antonio from getting into those sets comfortably in the first place.  They can't figure out how to deal with Parker coming off the screen.  They need to keep him from getting to that screen before it happens.  They have to disrupt even more, make the game even uglier down low, and run out even faster than they did in Game 4.  Otherwise the Spurs will be up 20 again before the Blazers solve whatever they're doing.  No more chess.  The game has to change for good--or at least until Game 6 to put doubt in the Spurs' minds--if the Blazers are to have a chance.

So, speaking of adjustments, how much do you think the Spurs will move to counter Portland's Game 4 attack?  What changes might they make?  Or is it just a matter of that night being an emotion-fueled aberration for Portland?  Will the Spurs figure the Blazers won't play that well again and they, themselves won't miss those jumpers you pointed out?  On one hand I agree but on the other if that set up a repeat performance and Portland won again?


If you're expecting a binary team to force the Spurs to stop playing chess, I don't know what to say to you. Pop forces his opponents to play chess, or lose. It's not that he wants to play chess, it's that every thing the Spurs do is designed to  you to make decisions. And what Pop does is think of every decision that he can see you making, and devising a counter to it. Then he drills the Spurs on those counters until they know them backwards and forward and start coming up with their own options. But there's an end to this trail because no one can foresee every possibility and so there's only so much he can prepare the team to deal with.

Sometimes a coach will devise (and a team will carry out) a set of schemes that it takes the team (Pop to devise and the team to learn) too long to react to. Western Conference Finals in 2012 was the last one. First round this year about the Mavericks was almost one. All of the rest of the teams they've faced have played chess with Pop out of necessity. A team may beat the spurs, but only by playing chess -- never by refusing to.

As for counters, Pop rarely turns things upside down as a response. He usually comes right back to the base, just in case no tweaks are really needed. Now that's not because he'd figure that the Blazers won't play that well twice in a row, it's just that he understands that overreacting is as big a sin as under-reacting, I wouldn't be surprised to see Tiago mirror Aldridge's minutes and perhaps Green matching Lillard. There will probably be a wrinkle or two to deal with Batum on Parker, but besides that I couldn't say. For all the San Antonio basketball I've watched, I'm no match for guessing Pop's adjustments and readily admit that I'm as surprised as anyone else at the things he decides to do, as well as the things we think would be great ideas that he never tries. As for what it'd be like for the Blazers to win a second straight, I'd rather not imagine that just yet.

Do you think Stotts has another set of adjustments for Game 6, or will he roll with what won them their first game of the series?


Clarification:  I don't expect anybody to force the Spurs to do anything.  That's hard.  But it's what the Blazers will need to try and do nonetheless.  When no promising options are available you take the best of the less-promising ones.

Clarification #2:  "Pop forces teams to play chess, or lose."  That's the goal, anyway.  The Blazers made like Tron and busted the Light Cycle off the gaming grid on Monday.  They'll be hoping to do that again, no doubt.

I'm not sure Stotts can afford to make many adjustments out of the gate.  Game 4 was the only thing that came close to working for the Blazers this series.  So if there's any early adjusting, it'll probably be on the Spurs.

What the Blazers will do if San Antonio starts hitting those threes, we'll have to see.  If Portland's offense remains not-entirely-broken (as in Games 1-3) the pressure to get every stop lessens.  At that point they can absorb a little San Antonio offense, even a few three-pointers hit.

The most encouraging part of Game 4 was that the Blazers played faster and more confidently on offense.  That needs to continue.  Smaller lineups and quicker hooks when things are going wrong should also be part of the equation.  Policing the boards is always critical, but that's less an adjustment than a commitment.  Mostly, the Blazers just can't get down by 20 early again.  No 70-point halves, no 17-point quarters.  If they can hang within 5-6 points of the Spurs in the fourth (as opposed to climbing Mt. Everest just to get back into single digits) this could go either way.  That's mostly what the Blazers want on the road down 1-3, I think...a chance.  The Rockets learned that if you give the Blazers that chance, they are more than capable of taking it.  The Spurs are far smarter, far better, and far more experienced than Houston.  But the Blazers have to hope that on this night, they don't show it to the fullest.

What do you expect to see in Game 5 in terms of game flow?  Are you looking for another early blowout and a slow parade to victory or do you expect more of a battle this time?


I do not expect to see another first half blowout. I think both teams will play well and the first two quarters will be neck and neck, just like on Monday. But I think the Spurs will be prepared for what worked for Portland, and the second half will see San Antonio pull away as the players get more and more comfortable with the changes that Pop's been feeding to them in their sleep.

I like to imagine that he records an hour of instruction for each player to listen to at night. And it's set to loop so that they hear it a good 8 or 9 times and by the time they wake up, they're fully programmed ready to implement their new schemes. It's not so far-fetched, is it?