Tuesday night in San Antonio was an absolute bloodbath. The Portland Trail Blazers, for all their buzzer-beating playoff triumphs, weren’t prepared for the defensive juggernaut they faced come Round 2, and top wing scorers Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum were held to a combined 15 points on 5-of-18 shooting.
It was an uncharacteristically bad performance for both players. The Blazers have thrived all year with Batum operating as a hub in Terry Stotts’ flow offense. Matthews has been deadly from beyond the arc, where Portland has used him nearly a third of the time in spot-up situations, shooting 42 percent on three-pointers.
Portland took the third-most three-pointers out of any team in the NBA in the regular season, with Matthews and Batum averaging a combined 11.1 attempts per-game. Against San Antonio, these two were nowhere to be found, with Mattews and Batum taking just eight shots from beyond the arc and connecting on one.
Unsurprisingly, it was San Antonio’s defensive pressure that forced the Blazers wings off the arc. The Spurs used a contact show on every pick-and-roll involving Portland’s big men, with Tiago Splitter bumping Damian Lillard on every turn. Meanwhile, Marco Belinelli, Danny Green and Manu Ginobili overplayed any wing action coming from baseline to timeline, denying simple passes above the arc to Blazers wings.
Portland played right into San Antonio’s trap. The Blazers forced the pick-and-roll, and in Game 1, it accounted for 22 percent of their total plays. The results were miserable: Portland created 0.72 points per-play and a whopping 28 percent turnover rate, according to Synergy. Much of their wing-to-wing action was via handoff, which created limited chances for Matthews and Batum.
Perhaps most surprising about Portland’s insistence on the pick-and-roll was that they completely ignored using any off-ball wing screen action that was baked into their regular season offense.
The Blazers have several sets that involve primary, secondary and tertiary action starting with a simple flare screen. Portland has run these against overactive defenses before, including San Antonio.
The most simple flare screen Portland runs.
A lot of Portland’s action on Tuesday night involved Matthews and Batum coming up from downpicks set by LaMarcus Aldridge or Robin Lopez to receive the ball at the top of the arc. This is normally used to start a pick-and-roll, or act as an entry pass location for an Aldridge post up. But with a tight Spurs defense, the Blazers failed to create a counter. Normally, Portland creates several backdoor options for when teams start to jump the play.
Matthews comes to the top to start the pick-and-roll
only to reverse the ball and receive a flare screen from Aldridge.
Portland did adjust their pick-and-roll attack in the second half. In the first two quarters, San Antonio sagged heavily off Lopez as Lillard rounded picks, with the Spurs using their big man to clog the lane and keep their wing defenders stuck to Blazers shooters. In the second half, the Blazers instead used Lillard on the sideline, pushing Lopez and his defender away from the lane. Lillard then snaked the pick to return back to the lane, creating havoc for wing help defenders.
Alas, that still didn’t do much to help Matthews and Batum, especially when it came to the arc. Portland’s penetration resulted mostly in plays for Lillard at the rim. Just one Batum three-pointer, made with 6:13 left in the fourth quarter and with the Blazers down, 101-78, came of the second half adjustment.
Portland’s offense is about options. All season, Terry Stotts’ squad has taken what the defense gives them. But San Antonio made a conscious decision to take away the three-pointer from the Blazers on Tuesday, and by the time the Blazers figured it out, it was too little too late. When the two meet for Game 2 on Thursday, Portland will need to press the issue against eager San Antonio defense, using a full slate of backdoor cuts, drives to the lane and off-ball screens to free up their shooters. Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum are two critical players for the Blazers, on both sides of the ball. Without them, they don’t have a chance.