PORTLAND -- Things weren't supposed to be this easy for the San Antonio Spurs. After taking the Dallas Mavericks to seven games, last year's Finals runners-up looked poised for a tough fight with the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round. The Blazers split the regular season series with San Antonio, 2-2, and showed that they could hang with the big boys after beating the Houston Rockets in six games.
Oh, how things have changed.
A steady dose of double-screen three-pointers and sideline pick-and-rolls has led to the Spurs dominating Portland, up 3-0 in the series while outscoring the Blazers by a margin of 56 points over its course. San Antonio has collapsed on drivers defensively and locked down the Blazers from the arc, where Portland has shot just 33 percent. The Spurs have been unbelievably good, with head coach Gregg Popovich at the middle pulling the strings.
"[Popovich] has done a great job of getting them to understand that their level of play, from regular season to postseason, has to be 10 times better," said Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge. "They're definitely more locked in."
Tony Parker has benefited greatly from the Popovich's scheme, darting his way through Portland's defense off of screens and in the pick-and-roll, a play the Blazers have yet to defend well. Parker has been so effective that the Blazers tried guarding him with Wesley Matthews to start the game on Saturday, switching Damian Lillard onto Spurs shooting guard Danny Green. Parker finished with 29 points on 12-of-20 shooting in Game 3.
Parker has been invaluable for Popovich's ascending postseason schemes. During the regular season, Parker averaged 16.7 points per-game on 50 percent shooting with 5.7 assists. Against Portland, he's averaging a whopping 26 points on 53.3 percent shooting while adding 8.3 assists.
Parker hasn't just been efficient, he's been a focal point. In the series against the Blazers, he's accounted for 22.5 percent of the Spurs' total field goal attempts, more than six percent more than his regular season average. Parker has taken nearly seven more shots per game, penalizing Portland for their soft pick-and-roll defense.
Pounding the Rock
The Blazers' scheme has been built to force long jumpers all season, and Parker has taken advantage of myriad open looks from 15-17 feet in all three games. When Portland has adjusted, Parker's resourcefulness has allowed him to change pace and get into the paint for an assist or a bucket at the rim.
"When his shot is there he's taking it, and he's knocking it out," Tim Duncan said. "He's been unbelievable for us, and obviously the driving force of this entire series."
On the other side of the floor, Lillard has had a front row seat to the exhibition put on by one of the game's best point guards. The second-year All-Star is one of the NBA's best young talents, but the depth to Parker's game, especially as the Spurs turn it on for the playoffs, has been an eye-opening experience for Lillard.
Lillard is shooting just 37.5 percent from the field in the series, with just one made three-pointer to his name. San Antonio has made it a point to chase him off the arc on pick-and-rolls and has packed the paint so tight that there's been little room to even consider the attempts at the rim he found against Houston.
As Portland's All-Star guard has struggled, his weaknesses have stood as indicators of what has gone so terribly wrong for the Blazers in the second round. Terry Stotts has refused to alter his defensive coverage while informing the media that the midrange jumper is the best shot to surrender on average. The Spurs, meanwhile, have paid extra attention to Lillard, Aldridge and the three-point line. The Spurs have adapted. Portland has not.
San Antonio is a machine, with the best minds in the NBA fine tuning it after every game. Popovich's scheme has put the Blazers into a 3-0 tailspin, a deficit no team in league history has recovered from in the semifinals. If the Spurs complete the sweep of the Blazers on Monday, they'll reach the Western Conference Finals for the seventh time in 10 seasons.
Those in NBA circles like to talk about how San Antonio appears to be able to flip the switch come playoff time. While it is probably more complicated than that, the Spurs have transformed in the second round. Portland -- and the rest of the NBA -- is still catching up.