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Nowhere to Hide: Damian Lillard Defending the San Antonio Spurs

May 6, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker (9) moves the ball against the defense of Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) in game one of the second round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps more than anything, individual matchups are magnified in the playoffs. As rotations shorten, intensity heightens, and coaching looms more influential than ever, the exploitation of a certain player’s strengths and weaknesses can easily swing a game, and by proxy a series. Which teams win or lose a single mismatch can be the tipping point between advancing into June and being eliminated in April.

The Portland Trail Blazers know this phenomenon first-hand. They relentlessly attacked the defensively listless James Harden in round one, forcing him through a ringer of post-ups, ball-screens, and aggressive cuts. The results weren’t surprising. Houston gave up 5.4 points more per 100 possessions with Harden in the game than on the bench, allowing Portland a scorching 56.5 true shooting percentage in the process. Oh, and it moved onto the Western Conference Semifinals, too.

Against the San Antonio machine, though, the Blazers find themselves on the other side of the coin. That was evident in Game 1, a 116-92 Spurs thrashing that served as a helpful reminder of Portland’s relative youth and inexperience. This is San Antonio, after all. Timmy, Tony, Manu, and Pop have been at this stuff for well over a decade, and the Trail Blazers – on the broad shoulders of an ascendant Damian Lillard – just won their first postseason series since the new millennium.

Lillard’s meteoric rise over the past few weeks to newly anointed superstar has been exhilarating. No player in basketball outside of Kevin Durant can match his combination of shooting ability and athletic prowess, and he combines them with a sense of pace and playmaking that belies his years. Then there’s the very real late-game heroics, on display since the season tipped off last fall.

Whether consensus levels of praise are warranted or otherwise, Lillard is a star. But that hardly means his game is without its holes. And not surprisingly, the biggest and most glaring one comes on the other side of the ball.

Lillard’s defensive deficiencies aren’t new. His performance on that end of the floor has been a problem since his rookie season. But those issues matter more than ever when the stakes are highest, and San Antonio is uniquely equipped – through nature and nurture – to take advantage of them.

The Spurs are extremely difficult to defend due to a rare congruence of talent, precision, and commitment. No team’s offense flows like San Antonio’s, and that relentless continuity is a product of incessant movement on and off the ball and solid screen-setting.

Lillard’s struggles as a defender are vast. He’s just as likely to fall asleep lurking on the weak-side as he is guarding a primary action, an unfortunate catch-22 that puts Terry Stotts in a tough position. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are innate penetrators, Kawhi Leonard is a developing isolation threat and capable mid-range shooter, while Danny Green and Marco Belinelli are among the most active long-range marksmen in basketball. And if there’s an opening, the Spurs will surely find it more often than not.

There’s just nowhere to hide Lillard against San Antonio, an inevitability that likely led to Stotts’ decision to opt against doing so at all in Game 1. Lillard began Wednesday’s conference semifinal opener checking Parker, and did so for a majority of the game’s possessions until the score was out of reach in the third quarter.

“I’m not going to go out there and stop [Parker] by myself and hold him scoreless,” Lillard told The Oregonian earlier this week. “But I’m excited about the challenge of having to guard him.”

But hoping and saying are far different things than doing.

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This is a still from early in the first quarter of Game 1. Parker has four easy points by this point, a consequence of Stotts’ decision to start possessions with Lillard guarding him. Portland is switching screens and hand-offs between San Antonio’s perimeter players, but the Spurs have been mostly content to begin sets early and avoid those actions, forcing Lillard to chase Parker without a reprieve.

The above is one such instance. Parker catches on the right wing to get set San Antonio on its second side and waits for a side ball-screen from Tiago Splitter. The Blazers prefer to ICE pick-and-rolls in these situations by coaxing the ball to the sideline, but there’s a miscommunication between Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge. The result is Lillard getting absolutely swallowed by Splitter’s screen – seriously, can you even see him in that photo? – and Aldridge dropping at an angle that surrenders an easy jumper to Parker. Two points in far too easy a manner.

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Later in the first half, Lillard properly executes Portland’s scheme, jumping above Tim Duncan’s pick to ensure Parker can’t attack middle. This is encouraging, and indicative that Lillard understands the nuance necessary to effectively defend at the NBA level. He certainly has the physical chops for the job; the mental engagement and commitment is what he’s lacked on this end since 2012.

After taking the available baseline space and swinging the ball back to Duncan, Parker quickly reverses field into a quick hand-off/side pick-and-roll. Lillard, unsurprisingly, is fooled.

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Lillard relaxes once Parker kicks the ball back to Duncan, allowing separation between he and his defender that makes guarding the forthcoming action extra difficult. Staying attached to Parker is vital, and takes consistent effort and attentiveness that Lillard lacks in this sequence. You can guess what happens from the still – Lillard gets caught on Duncan’s screen, leaving Parker ample time and space to attack Robin Lopez. Two more points.

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This is the ensuing Spurs possession, and Lillard still hasn’t learned. After effectively navigating a series of off-ball picks from Splitter, he eases up once Parker catches on the other side of the floor. But San Antonio wastes no time and comes at you in waves. A ball-screen from Duncan awaits Parker on his catch, and Lillard’s effort wanes again in getting over it and staying at Parker’s hip. Yes, two points.

Learning to defend at the NBA level is about experience as much anything else. It takes multiple seasons of trial and error for young players to develop the mental acuity and physical persistence to play dependable, high-level defense. Lillard has the makeup to be a solid defender, but he’s lacking in both respects right now. And against San Antonio, those weaknesses are only enhanced.

Stotts’ Game 1 blueprint didn’t work; the question now is where here goes from here. And as his team is currently constructed, there’s just no easy answer. Wes Matthews is a bulldog, and did an admirable job checking Parker in Wednesday’s second half. The length and quickness of Nic Batum is another viable alternative to letting Parker – or Ginobili, for that matter – abuse Lillard. But there are inevitable corollaries to such adjustments, and they were proven often in Game 1.

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Lillard has no chance against Leonard in the post.

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And he’s liable to give up opportunities like this to Belinelli, Green, and Patty Mills.

This is a problem for the Trail Blazers, obviously, and one only exacerbated when Lillard shares the floor with the equally inept Mo Williams. How they adjust from here will be key in deciding the tenor of this series going forward. It starts tonight.

*Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.

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Jack Winter