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How The Spurs Put The Trail Blazers Offense in a Funnel

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

LaMarcus Aldridge hoisted up 25 shots Tuesday night in San Antonio, making 12 of them and compiling 32 total points. It wasn’t a bad shooting performance, except that it played directly into San Antonio’s hands. Gregg Popovich and the Spurs come into each series with a specific game plan, not hesitating to adjust if needed.

Last postseason, he allowed Harrison Barnes to average 17 points a game. Content to allow the Golden State Warriors to throw their whole offense off-kilter by posting up Barnes, it allowed Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard to smother the Splash Brothers. Then in the NBA Finals, Popovich latched Boris Diaw onto LeBron James and explicitly gave the midrange jumper and three-point shot. During certain moments, we could see Spurs defenders take several steps backwards when James crossed halfcourt. It pushed the Miami Heat to seven games before it finally backfired. But really, they were but a miracle shot away from the title.

And now, with a semifinals matchup against an upstart and high-variance Portland Trail Blazers team, Popovich is attempting to erase and minimize said variance. By revolving the trio of Tiago Splitter, Aron Baynes and Boris Diaw on Aldridge, he is allowing those isolations to play out from a tunnel. Portland averages 25.3 threes per game, good for third in the NBA. Against the Spurs they shot 16, which if extrapolated, would be good for third-fewest in the entire NBA.

Small sample size? Yes. Will Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews (a combined 1-9 on threes) regress? Yes.

But do the Spurs have the players, length and awareness to combat this scheme? Yes.

LaMarcus Aldridge posted up 16 times and shot the ball each time, according to mySynergySports. The offense was pushed into the dullness with which many accuse the Spurs of being at all times. He was only double-teamed once, coming because of a Marco Belinelli switch. Of the 16 threes taken, none came from the help of an Aldridge post-up.

Here, Aldridge posts up from the left wing, backing down Tiago Splitter. Normally, some teams like to blitz the double the moment he takes a dribble or when Kawhi Leonard’s player spaces out. Leonard stays within the defense, an arm’s length of challenging a potential Wes Matthews three. When Aldridge finally commits to the drive, he swipes at the ball. It’s subtle but pesky nonetheless. Credit to Splitter’s strength to push LMA away from the basket to start the possession and Leonard’s length and awareness to contest and erase the beginnings of a tic-tac-toe perimeter passing offense.

With the Blazers’ offense so reliant on LMA’s ability to attract attention, it tends to break down without an offensive fulcrum in the middle or side of the floor. Attacking the Spurs defense with a predictable offense is what they live for. This strategic maneuver isn’t groundbreaking for a coach like Popovich. Houston tried it by isolating Omer Asik or Dwight Howard onto Aldridge. Their problem? They have Jeremy Lin and James Harden patrolling the perimeter.

Later in the game, Lillard started to attack the belly of the defense, pausing to find open shooters in the corner. This perhaps signals the adjustment for Game 2.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a straight dribble-drive attack for Lillard. He can easily split double-teams and attack, forcing defenders to scramble around the arc. This uses Aldridge more like a decoy but it doesn’t have to be the dominant base set.

We can glean from the box score that Aldridge had a very good game personally. But from the Spurs’ perspective, the iso-heavy game is exactly what they want. The Blazers will have to find a balance between the two when attacking their defense.

Game 1 was the perfect mixture of steely coaching and talented personnel from San Antonio. Your move, Terry Stotts and LaMarcus Aldridge.

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