Matchup: No. 1 San Antonio Spurs (62-20) vs. No. 5 Portland Trail Blazers (54-28)
Season series: Split 2-2
Efficiency rankings: San Antonio (6th offense, 4th defense); Portland (5th offense, 16th defense)
Last round: Spurs beat Mavericks 4-3; Blazers beat Rockets 4-2
The blue blood (Spurs) vs. new blood (Blazers) script writes itself in a series favored to be the most aesthetically pleasing of the four conference semifinal matchups.
After surviving a surprisingly sturdy test from the Mavericks, the top-seeded Spurs are in the Western Conference semifinals for the 14th time in the last 17 seasons. Their challengers, the Blazers, have advanced in the postseason for the first time since 2000, snapping a league-high 13-year run of failing to make the conference semifinals. San Antonio's famed Big Three -- Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili -- are all 31 or older. Portland's well-balanced starting lineup -- led by All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard -- features five players under 30. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich is seeking a fifth championship ring ("one for the thumb") after guiding the Spurs to their 17th straight season with a .600 or better winning percentage. Blazers coach Terry Stotts just won a playoff series for the first time after topping .500 for the first time in his six seasons on the sidelines.
Though these two teams fit neatly into a "traditional power vs. surprise upstart" framework, extrapolating that to pitch this as "David vs. Goliath" would be a mistake. San Antonio proved vulnerable at times against a Dallas team with similar offensive and defensive efficiency numbers as Portland, failing to achieve peak play until a dominant performance in Game 7. Meanwhile, the Blazers upset the Rockets by winning two games in Houston, and they are riding high thanks to Lillard's series-clinching three-pointer for the ages in Game 6.
Spurs-Mavericks and Rockets-Blazers pitted four of the league's top-six offenses against each other. The results included buzzer-beaters, overtime periods, back-to-back 40-point games from Aldridge and some vintage Spurs ball movement. Portland has the league's most efficient postseason offense and San Antonio ranks third. In other words, expect more fireworks.
The Case For The Spurs
San Antonio holds the advantage in experience, depth and balance, and the nature of its pass-happy, motion-filled offense will present a new, imposing challenge for Portland.
The question facing the Blazers all season was whether their defense -- which ranked 16th overall and seventh among the West playoff teams during the regular season -- was ready for contention. Against Houston, Portland succeeded in weathering Dwight Howard's isolation attacks, forcing James Harden to work for everything he got and controlling the Rockets' damage in transition. Now, the Blazers will come under attack from a San Antonio team that thrives on generating good looks through unselfish (No. 1 in assist ratio) and careful (No. 3 in assist-to-turnover ratio) play. Similarly, the Blazers' biggest defensive weaknesses -- handling the pick-and-roll and conceding open mid-range shots -- are prime for exploitation by the Spurs after going mostly ignored by the Rockets.
On the other end, the Spurs will look to replicate their defensive success against Dirk Nowitzki (19.1 points, 42.9 percent shooting) in the first round by throwing multiple looks at Aldridge. San Antonio will also lean on its three-point defense, which surrendered the fewest attempts in the league and held opponents to a below-average percentage, because Portland relies on big contributions from outside. If San Antonio can do what Houston failed to accomplish -- consistently limit either Aldridge or Lillard -- its team-based, machine-like offense should be able to prevail in what could be a series of shootouts.
The Case For The Blazers
All the hallmarks of the dream start to the Blazers' season re-emerged in April: Aldridge took his game to fringe MVP candidate levels again; Lillard was a terrifying force from beyond the arc; Wesley Matthews proved to be a difference-making two-way competitor; Nicolas Batum showed that he makes plays for himself and others while doing a little bit of everything; and Robin Lopez excelled at holding down the fort defensively while picking up the scraps on offense.
This is a quintessential "five fingers make a fist" situation. Portland's starting five boasted an excellent plus-8.5 net rating during the regular season, and it upped that to an eye-popping plus-11.3 against a Houston team led by two All-NBA players in Howard and Harden. That plus-11.3 figure -- which ranks fourth in the playoffs among lineups with at least 50 minutes -- strongly supports one of Matthews' favorite sayings, which is that the Blazers can play with anybody.
Offensively, Portland will need to continue to receive A-level efforts from Aldridge and Lillard. The Houston series proved that Aldridge requires an entire defense's attention when he's on (wins in Games 1, 2, 4, 6), and that Portland has a hard time keeping up when he's not (losses in Games 3 and 5). Even before his memorable game-winner, the 23-year-old Lillard was the early favorite for breakout star of the playoffs. He's been lethal from three-point range (48.9 percent) and kept a steady hand managing Portland's offense (6.7 assists to 2.3 turnovers).
If Aldridge's and Lillard's shared magic continues, the Blazers have a legitimate shot at an out-of-nowhere trip to the conference finals. Although the Blazers were a middling defensive team in the regular season, their intensity against Houston was excellent, particularly in individual matchups. That effort level will need to be paired with intelligent play, in the form of timely perimeter rotations, diligent team rebounding and attentive transition pickups.
Bench play. The biggest difference between these two teams? How their respective coaches dole out playing time. During the regular season, Portland's starters averaged a league-high 34.2 minutes, while San Antonio's played a league-low 26.9 minutes. On the flip side, the Spurs' bench led the NBA in scoring (45.1 points) and differential (plus-9.1), while the Blazers' reserves produced a league-low 24.7 points and a minus-1.4 differential, the worst among West playoff teams.
The disparate approaches have continued in the postseason. Popovich has regularly played nine or 10 players, while Stotts has preferred eight and essentially played just seven during his Game 6 win over Houston. Though Stotts' weak reserve corps leaves him little choice, riding his starters so heavily has yet to create any major negative side effects. His starting unit logged the second-most minutes of any NBA lineup this season, and it avoided serious injuries, built up a large reserve of crunch-time experience together and maintained very good numbers despite the heavy workload.
Portland has no answer for Ginobili, who averaged 17.7 points and 4.6 assists during the first round. The real concern for the Blazers, though, isn't San Antonio's super sub, who is almost a de facto starter, but the rest of the Spurs' bench players, many of whom are viable offensive threats. If the likes of Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli are able to have an impact, the Blazers' lack of depth could be exposed to a greater degree than it was against the Rockets.
Spurs in seven. San Antonio's ability to find a way to harness and ultimately defeat a potent, up-and-coming Warriors team last year looms large in this decision, as does the world-beating brilliance it flashed in Game 7 against Dallas. Home-court advantage helps, too. Popovich's Spurs are masters at steering opponents away from their preferred options, but all bets are off if Aldridge and Lillard continue to combine for the 55 points a game they averaged against the Rockets.