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Ball Don't Lie

Ball Don't Lie's 2014 NBA Playoff Previews, featuring the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers

The NBA’s Greatest First Round Ever has ended, which is a bit of a shame, but the idea that half the participants in the Greatest First Round Ever are still active should keep you keen on taking in the second round of the 2014 NBA playoffs. This is where the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie prepare you for what you’re about to see.

Kelly Dwyer’s Old Grey Whistle Test

In 2004-05, after a year spent licking its wounds following a second-round ouster from the playoffs, the San Antonio Spurs re-worked their defense in a way that was as ahead of its time as it was blindingly efficient. The squad shot to the top of the defensive ranking charts by encouraging teams to light up the night sky with mid-range jumpers. It made a point to mind the fouls, the players spent careful attention to both stopping 3-pointers and shots around the rim, and a too-slow NBA was quick to embrace what was then considered a fundamentally sound practice of stepping in for the sort of long two-pointer that made Larry Brown's or Doug Collins’ day.

The rest of the NBA has caught up to the Spurs, in that regard, attempting to focus its efforts on both emulating that 2005-styled defense while encouraging its own offense to crank up the treys and high-percentage looks in the paint or on the free-throw line. The league is not without its holdouts, though. The Dallas Mavericks won the 2011 title by pouring in long jumpers from the elbow as much as they did from behind the arc, and the league’s second-best offense in 2013-14 was performed by a Portland Trail Blazers team that ranked 10th in 3-pointers taken and 13th in free throws attempted. The Blazers don’t exactly live and die by the long two, but they’re not far off.

This is why both the Blazers’ regular season, and their four games against San Antonio during that turn, is a study in contrasts. Portland rather easily handled San Antonio twice during its white hot 31-9 start to the season, and then lost (again, rather handily) twice during the Spurs’ 29-7 end to their season. Portland notoriously cooled off as the 82-game slog churned on, dealing with injury and, at times, a cold touch as it finished its campaign with a 23-19 swoon. But the Blazers were once again lights-out against a Houston Rockets club in the first round that obsesses over eschewing the sort of shots Portland loves to toss in.

The second-round results should be fascinating. The Spurs didn’t exactly struggle to down a game Dallas Mavericks squad in the first round, but seven games are seven games, and the Mavericks aren’t that far removed in offensive planning from the Terry Stotts-designed offense that led them to that 2011 title. Stotts is Portland’s head coach now, and though he would seem to be facing down a matchup tilt against each and every member of San Antonio’s rotation, the same could be said for who Portland is lining up against.

To say that Portland relies too heavily on LaMarcus Aldridge’s touch from outside wouldn’t be completely accurate, the guy did shoot 10 of 26 in PDX’s Game 6 conquest over the Houston Rockets, but he will have to make Tiago Splitter, Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw work defensively, denying their efforts as they attempt to spy on action away from the ball. Aldridge has waited out two contracts and an unending series of disappointing teammates to get to this moment, this national moment, and he’ll have to make the aging Spurs pay for being a step slow on their closeouts.

It’s that action away from the ball, and those closeouts, that should have Blazer fans worried. Portland isn’t as poor a defensive team as Dallas is, but there’s only so much you can do against San Antonio’s “two-passes-for-every-dribble” offense. Both Aldridge and center Robin Lopez are at their best when their defensive focus is narrowed on one man, and the Spurs’ movement and passing could drive the two batty. Portland may very well dominate in delayed transition, with Aldridge in the triple-threat position, or with Damian Lillard running a fabulous screen-and-roll show, but it won’t matter a lick if the Spurs are allowed unending backdoor cuts, quick-hit layups, or free-throw chances while the Portland defense catches up.

The bottom line will be entertaining, though, as the spacing will be on point in this series, and both teams have it in them to execute quarter after quarter of aesthetically pleasing basketball. This is some true “Old Guard vs. Young Buck” stuff, with fundamentals for days, and one can only hope the series drags on for as many days as allowed by the seven-game term.

Prediction: Spurs in 7.

Dan Devine's One Big Question

Every postseason matchup has its own unique set of variables for each team, and prognosticator, to attempt to solve. Here's one that BDL's Dan Devine has been mulling over.

Can the Spurs slow down LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard enough to outscore the Blazers?

It's a question to which Gregg Popovich is eager to learn the answer.

"We had trouble with them all year long," the Spurs head coach told Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. “They have guys on that team we haven't guarded yet.”

Namely, the same two guys the Houston Rockets couldn't handle in Round 1.

Aldridge absolutely roasted the Rockets, coming out of the gate with a pair of scorching performances that put him in historic company. His midrange shot-making, even against hand-in-his-face contesting, was so dominant that it had Houston contemplating the time-honored defensive tactic of food poisoning. He finished the six-game series averaging a shade under 30 points per game.

With the Rockets juggling matchups and going bigger to put out the fires Aldridge was starting on the interior, Lillard became a flamethrower on the perimeter. The All-Star point guard shot 48.9 percent from long distance on nearly eight 3-point attempts per game en route to averaging 25.5 points to go with 6.7 assists and 6.3 rebounds per game in his first postseason series, which he capped with what you might call a pretty big shot.

In combination, they present a problem akin to having to shut down both Dirk Nowitzki and Stephen Curry in the half-court, with Aldridge forcing an interior defender out of the paint to contest long 2-pointers on the wing and Lillard forcing the Spurs out of their preferred pick-and-roll coverage -- drop the big back toward the paint while the on-ball defender fights through the screen, concede the midrange jumper but not the drive -- by launching long balls off the bounce, which he did to the tune of a playoff-high 5.5 per game on pull-up tries in the opening round. San Antonio has done both, knocking off the Warriors in last season's semifinals and besting Nowitzki's Dallas Mavericks in a seven-game fireworks display over the past couple of weeks, but can they do them both at once? They've struggled to do so this season, with Aldridge (21.3 points on 56 percent shooting in three meetings) and Lillard (25 points, 46.7 percent from the field in four games) racking up big numbers in a season-series split with the Spurs.

Their best chances figure to come with Tiago Splitter matching up against Aldridge. The Brazilian big man didn't see a ton of time on Aldridge during the regular season, as Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw handled those duties. Considering those two mostly got hammered in the process, though, and that Splitter proved instrumental in holding Nowitzki to 19.1 points on 18 field-goal attempts per game and just 42.9 percent shooting, expect Gregg Popovich to find out early if the 29-year-old's agility, length and physicality can keep Aldridge from building up too much steam too early in the series. The more success Splitter has in that matchup, the less likely Pop will be to have to consider less attractive Aldridge-dampening options, like the sort of double-teams that can lead to wide-open shots for knockdown perimeter shooters like Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum.

Ditto for the pick-and-roll, where Splitter seems more spry and capable of contesting and recovering, which could limit those Lillard pull-ups. The simple fact of bringing San Antonio bigs higher up on the floor creates more room behind them, though, which Lillard can take advantage of by bursting past the containing big if he gets a screen good enough to keep the trailing defender off his hip; if that happens, then you're giving up layups rather than open midrange attempts, which kind of mucks up what Pop wants to do, but if you're going to give up something, I suppose that's better than giving a 50 percent 3-point shooter open, in-rhythm looks. As was the case at times against Curry in last year's playoffs, I'd expect Spurs perimeter ace Kawhi Leonard to spend at least some time trying to stifle and stymy Lillard with his long arms and quick strides, and for multiple other Spurs -- Danny Green, Patty Mills, Cory Joseph if all else fails -- to spend at least some time trying to disrupt the almost preternaturally cool second-year man out of Weber State.

The Mavericks were able to short-circuit San Antonio's offense at the start of the first round by switching pick-and-rolls on the perimeter, staying tightly committed to Spurs shooters on the perimeter, and doing their damnedest to disrupt the Spurs' pick-and-roll game with only the two defenders directly involved in the play. San Antonio reportedly isn't expecting the Blazers to roll with the same tactics, though, due in part to Portland's general scheme being quite conservative -- soft on pick-and-rolls, don't leave perimeter shooters, etc. -- and in part to the fact that the Spurs adjusted (especially with more Manu Ginobili at the controls in the middle of the floor) and torched Dallas, averaging nearly 112 points per 100 possessions in Games 3 through 6 before absolutely blowing the Mavericks' doors off in the deciding Game 7. While San Antonio's offensive efficiency dipped a bit against the Blazers during the regular season (from 108.2 points-per-100, sixth-best in the NBA, to 106.7 points-per-100, which would've ranked ninth), the Spurs still scored at a very healthy clip against Portland, and I expect them to continue doing so in this series. If they can slow Aldridge and Lillard -- at all, even a little bit -- they ought to be able to move on to the conference finals for the third straight season and the ninth time in Pop's 17 full seasons on the bench.

Prediction: Spurs in 7.

Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability

Over the next two months, basketball fans will hear all manner of insights into key matchups, X-factors and other series-deciding phenomena. For most people, though, watching so much basketball is a luxury or bizarre form of punishment, not a fact of life. These brave souls must know one thing: is this game between 10 men in pajamas worth the time? Eric Freeman’s Guide to Playoff Watchability attempts to answer this difficult question.

The popular view of the Spurs presents them as detached problem-solvers, a team that identifies an opponent’s weaknesses, takes away strengths and wins simply because it’s the logical outcome of the process. Funny, then, that so many of their recent wins have been dramatic, thrilling and entertaining. Consider their first-round victory over the Mavericks or last spring’s six-game dispatching of the Warriors. In both cases, the Spurs seemed in genuine danger before pulling through, with their counterparts expressing themselves capably. Those series may not have had the grand narratives of other matchups, but they proved to be massively enjoyable in the moment. The overall results were somewhat predictable, but the form was not.

At first glance, the Blazers would appear similar to those previous opponents. They have many excellent shooters, likely won’t be able to stop the Spurs on a consistent basis, and appear headed for a series loss. Honestly, it seems hard to pick against San Antonio — the Spurs are the superior team and don’t look to have a particularly difficult matchup.

Yet that doesn’t mean the series itself needs to be dull. As the Spurs have shown, they’re perfectly able to get involved in a really fun set of games while also prevailing as most of us predicted. We may all be pleasantly surprised.

Rating: 8 Open Jumpers Out of 10

Prediction: Spurs in 6.

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