Western Semi-Final vs. Portland: Spurs 116, Blazers 92 Series: 1-0 Spurs
Watching the Spurs opening game against Portland last night, I tried my best to ignore all the distractions and the noise and to really focus in on the match-ups and the schemes of the opposing teams. After 15 minutes, I figuratively threw my hands up and just took in the rest of the game in a state of bewildered semi-interest. I sort of disengaged, my mind moving on elsewhere with the Game 1 thesis already crystallized:
Is Terry Stotts for real?
Stotts, the head coach of the Trail Blazers, was a front-runner for Coach of the Year honors midway through the season, as his charges had surprisingly stormed to a conference-leading 31-9 record. That talk quickly died down, however, when Portland lost 18 of their next 32 games, and they were in mild danger of missing the playoffs entirely before rallying in April. In his previous five seasons, Stotts never coached a team to a .500 record -- not with Atlanta (2002-2004) or Milwaukee (2005-2007). The only noteworthy thing on his coaching resume is that he was the "offensive coordinator" of the Mavericks squad that won it all in 2011 under Rick Carlisle. Indeed, it's easy to see why the Blazers and Mavericks run similar offenses, though obviously having skilled stretch-fours in LaMarcus Aldridge and Dirk Nowitzki plays heavily into that.
Defensively though, Stotts may be in over his head. The organization's analytical bent benefits them in that the one thing they hang their hat on defensively is taking away three pointers, particularly from the corners, and they certainly have the athletes to do that. Apart from that, the defense is all-you-can-eat, especially for a skilled veteran point guard.
Against the Rockets, the Blazers were fortunate to draw an opponent with a similarly unsophisticated headman in Houston's Kevin McHale. It was the ultimate checkers vs. checkers match-up, albeit with world class athletes. There's nothing complicated with what either team does on either end of the floor. They just have the talent to overwhelm most opponents, especially with their starters, and their front offices are savvy enough to understand three pointers are worth more than two.
The Spurs are a different animal. Stotts tried to crib from Carlisle's notes, keeping his wing defenders closely attached to the shooters and making the Spurs play a two-man (really a one-man) game, but the thing he didn't account for was Game 7 vs. Dallas version of Tony Parker showing up for Game 1. He paid for that bit of miscalculation. Boy did he ever.
Parker is a mercurial, complex fellow, prone to laughing and yukking it up with reporters one second and grimly putting up his shield whenever an innocuous question like the time-of-birth of his baby is asked. He'll talk warmly and openly when he has good games and the Spurs win, but give you short, clipped, cliche non-answers after bad games.
If there's one thing we know about Parker after all these years, it's that he absolutely relishes the challenge of facing someone in the "star point guard" club, especially if it's a kid getting perhaps too much pub for too little accomplishment. Parker spent his prime destroying Steve Nash and later Chris Paul in their match-ups. After Mike Conley got the better of him in 2011, Tony carved him up in the Western Conference Finals last season. He routinely demolishes celebrated young pups like Kyrie Irving and John Wall. Stephen Curry put him on the canvas with a Game 1 uppercut in their semifinal last year, but by the end Parker had earned the TKO.
When I saw Damian Lillard hit the series-winner in Game 6 against the Rockets, I smiled to myself.
Frenchy's gonna love this.
Once Parker declared that Lillard was a "top-five" point guard, I was practically doing fist-pumps, confident that round two would go a little more smoothly than the Dallas series did.
Oh man, Lillard has no idea what he's in for.
Even if Lillard didn't know, Stotts should have. The only reason the Mavs defensive strategy worked for the first six games -- and even then the Spurs scored 108, 109 and 113 in three of those games -- was because Parker wasn't really himself. He had a bad back, then a wonky ankle, and his rhythm was just off. Also, you got the sense that he wasn't sufficiently inspired competing against the likes of Jose Calderon and Devin Harris.
It's true that he had an off-year thanks to a myriad of injuries, but it was only a handful of months ago when Parker was being discussed as the third-best player in the league, where he was singlehandedly carrying the Spurs without Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili. When Parker's right and his jumper is falling, he's still basically unguardable.
And here was Stotts putting waterbug-like Lillard, who weighs like 135 pounds soaking wet, on Tony. Did he lose a bet? Did the coaches have a handshake agreement before the series that they wouldn't cross-match and would just let the point guards check one another?
Gotta say, I like the Spurs' odds in that one. Parker's no defensive ace, but Lillard can get screened by a stiff breeze, let alone a seven-foot tall Brazilian.
What exactly is Stotts saving Nicolas Batum for? Heck, even Wesley Matthews did a better job on Parker in the second half than Lillard did. At least Matthews forced Parker into jumpers. He hit them, but they weren't layups.
Maybe Batum isn't quick enough to keep up with Parker, similar to Leonard not being quick enough to hang with Monta Ellis last series. But he's got to be better than Lillard, who simply wasn't even in the picture on half of Parker's buckets.
It wasn't just Lillard though. I was pretty disappointed by the greatly-hyped Aldridge as well. He played defense like a superstar forward who wants to make sure he won't be in any kind of foul trouble and that he can conserve all of his energy for raining buckets. Basically, he was Kevin Durant out there, but worse. Aldridge accomplished the rare bigman double of not boxing out and not challenging penetrators. No matter which Spur got to the rim, Aldridge refused to leave his man. He scored 32 points, but most of them in garbage time, and it took him 25 shots to get there. The Spurs will take that every time.
Tony Parker's pretty good.
If the Blazers were a little befuddled by Parker, they were completely flummoxed by the "foreign legion." Marco Belinelli scored 22 points, total in seven games against Dallas but had 19 Tuesday night, hitting 7-of-9 shots. He also had more open looks in the game than he had the entire series against the Mavs. (Remember, it's not like Belinelli shot poorly against Dallas, he made 4-of-7 threes, that's not why Pop benched him.) Rocky averaged 15.5 points against the Blazers this season so you'd think they'd be aware of him, but it's like Matthews had no idea who he was out there. Maybe the score was already so lopsided by the time he checked in late in the first quarter that they were already shell-shocked and too busy thinking about scoring points to catch up than locking him down.
Patty Mills had more freedom than last round as well, and he too seems to light up whenever he faces his old mates. Going against Mo Williams surely helps. For the first time all playoffs the scoring pressure was off Manu Ginobili and he could just be a passer again with that second unit.
Now, if he could just throw it into the ocean, we'll really have something.
Seriously though, Stotts might have to play his starters 48 minutes. That bench was abysmal.
Nothing makes you feel quite as useless as an "analyst" than Aron Baynes outplaying just about everybody but Parker in the first half of a Western Conference Semi-Final. Pop said that Baynes matched up better against them than Dallas, and while it's impossible to refute the results, I'm struggling to understand the reasoning. It's one thing for Baynes to be in there against the Aldridge-Robin Lopez tandem when Duncan got in foul trouble, but he even played in the second quarter when the Blazers went small with Aldridge out and Dorell Wright in there. Heck, he played minutes with Tiago Splitter.
Pop is the troll king.
I will not get over-confident about this win. Spurs history is littered with resounding Game 1 beat-downs at home that go pffft in Game 2 and abject humiliation on the road soon after. I want to see what happens when the Blazers make that inevitable adjustment with Batum on Parker, first. I also want to see if the bench can keep this up or if it was a one-game aberration.
I also want to see if the fellas can maintain their defensive intensity. Portland managed nine assists, to 20 turnovers. That's nuts. That's college stuff. It's also not who the Spurs are. They don't usually force that many turnovers. I will give our guys credit for defending the three well and for being physical and engaged with Aldridge, but a lot of what happened was straight from Outlier Land.
Probably don't want to give them 31 free throws again though.
Your three stars:
3) Aron Baynes (1 pt)
2) Kawhi Leonard (4 pts)
1) Tony Parker (17 pts)