The Portland Trail Blazers entered the second round of the NBA postseason hot off an impressive victory over the Houston Rockets, serving notice they are a young, talented and dangerous squad. They left Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinals with a firm lesson in how to dominate a playoff game, courtesy of the San Antonio Spurs.
In a full-on beatdown, the Spurs defeated the visiting Blazers 116-92. Just like we saw in the conference's other Game 1 on Monday night, the domination started early and continued with only minor interruption.
The Spurs got off to a quick start, winning the first quarter 29-16 and making it abundantly clear they would not make things easy for Portland. For many years, the Spurs' defense has succeeded less by suffocating opponents than by taking away one of their strengths, engaging in a form of defensive triage in which they decide certain types of shots just won't happen to the degree their opponents prefer. The Blazers are one of the most efficient offensive teams in the NBA, but they depend on getting a large number of 3-point attempts to score at full capacity. The Spurs focused on this area and effectively cut off the Blazers' perimeter shooting, instead forcing them into taking midrange jumpers and contested shots in the paint.
The numbers indicate just how thoroughly the Spurs dictated the form of the Blazers' offense. In a 39-point first half, Portland took only five 3-pointers (making none), well off the pace of their regular-season average of 25.3 per game. Those outside shots were replaced by 17 attempts for leading scorer LaMarcus Aldridge, who hit just six of them. It's not the worst thing for a team to get more shots for its leading scorer, but this team requires more balance. The Spurs took that away from the Blazers early, and they struggled with 33.3 percent shooting and a 4-to-7 assist-to-turnover ratio even as the game was played at their preferred pace.
At the other end, the Spurs displayed the balance the Blazers lacked, dicing up the defense for open shots with stunning regularity. Starters Tony Parker (17 points on 7-of-14 FG), Tim Duncan (10 points on 5-of-7 FG) and Kawhi Leonard (11 points on 5-of-8 FG) led the attack, but it was the contributions of the bench that really stood out. Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli and little-used big man Aron Baynes (who played just five minutes in a seven-game series against the Dallas Mavericks) combined for 25 points in the first half on 9-of-10 shooting. The San Antonio bench scored just nine points fewer than the entire Blazers team with Manu Ginobili contributing nothing, setting the stage for a 65-39 halftime lead.
Portland actually won both quarters of the second half, but they were clearly at a disadvantage throughout and never got the lead below 20 points. Aldridge finished with a very respectable 32 points on much-improved 12-of-25 shooting, which at least suggests the Blazers could have a go-to guy for the rest of the series. Crucially, though, the 3-point woes continued, with their first make coming at the 11:06 mark of the fourth quarter from reserve Will Barton. In fact, Barton made all three of his long-range attempts, with only Nicolas Batum making another as part of a 4-of-16 performance by the team. Head coach Terry Stotts and his staff might need to reimagine the ways they get their shooters open for the rest of this series.
In many ways, the Blazers can take some solace in knowing things aren't likely to get any worse. Game 1 was something like their doomsday scenario, if only because they shot so poorly and the Spurs shot so well. That said, it's hard to look past the fact the Spurs controlled the terms of the game at both ends. Other teams in recent memory have had more talent on hand, but Gregg Popovich's team is unparalleled in its ability to devise a game plan and carry it out to perfection. As ever, their opponents face a major challenge to move on to the next round.
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