Against the Dallas Mavericks, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and co. struggled more than expected against a team that featured a high-powered offense built around the legendary shooting of Dirk Nowitzki, a big who can operate efficiently from the high post to spread out the defense and open room for driving guards, cutters, and 3-point shooters. On defense, the Mavs, a mediocre at best defensive squad in the regular season, stayed at home on the pick and roll to try to keep the Spurs’ shooters in check and limit the damage to the main action itself. This isn’t exactly the best option with Parker and Manu Ginobili handling the ball, but it kept Dallas in the series until the Spurs blew them out in Game 7.
Portland is easily the most similar team to Dallas left in the playoffs. LaMarcus Aldridge has been playing the Nowitzki role (minus the threes) spectacularly well over the last few seasons, and the Blazers use his gravity to initiate a series of pick and rolls with Damian Lillard and off-ball cutting that yields easy layups and open threes. Defensively, they were actually a little better than the Mavs in the regular season, but the Dallas strategy of staying home on the perimeter around pick and rolls fits perfectly with the core principles of the Portland D.
While it seems that Portland has a strong blueprint for how to take down the defending Western Conference champs, it’s worth noting that by the end of the series the Spurs had started to poke some big holes in the Dallas schemes. Given enough time, Gregg Popovich was going to find a way to tweak his schemes to get his team an advantage, and they may now be immune to the Portland-friendly tactics used by the Mavs.
An increased dose of Ginobili was one of the big keys to unlocking the San Antonio offense in the 1st round, and he will again see more time with the starters than he did during the regular season. The Blazers will counter with Wes Matthews, who did a great job against James Harden last round. He can pester opposing shooting guards effectively, and should be able to stick with Ginobili and at least slow him down.
The real problem for the Blazers’ defense is Lillard. Against the starters he can be hidden on Danny Green if need be, but when Ginobili replaces Green there will be nowhere for him to hide. Trying to play him on Kawhi Leonard would be a disaster, so he will be forced into a matchup with Parker. The Spurs will attempt to attack Lillard as often as possible to wear him down, and Portland coach Terry Stotts will either need to take his lumps with Parker getting into the paint or get creative with his approach to defending the pick and roll.
It won’t help matters that a lot of those pick and rolls will feature Duncan as the screener. He is just as comfortable flaring out to shoot a midrange jumper as he is rolling to the rim. The extra options make the play a lot harder to defend.
On the other end, the Spurs should be able to keep their preferred frontcourt pairing of Tiago Splitter and Duncan in the game as long as they want. Portland went small against the Rockets to create more space, but San Antonio should be able to dictate the matchups here. Expect more of Thomas Robinson off the bench and less of Dorell Wright for the Blazers.
Splitter played very well in the 1st round, his only real flaw being an uncharacteristically high foul rate that kept him from playing as much as he could have. Splitter will draw the Aldridge assignment at least some of the time, leaving Duncan free to control the paint while guarding Robin Lopez.
The Portland offense vs. San Antonio defense matchup will define this series. The Blazers can hope to contain some of the Spurs’ offensive firepower, but it all comes down to how easily Aldridge and Lillard (as well as some of the shooters like Matthews and Nicolas Batum) can put up points. If they both play well this could be a very close series. San Antonio is the favorite, and with good reason, but with Lillard and Aldridge rolling the Blazers definitely have a shot of pulling the upset.