Before the San Antonio Spurs shut everything down, LaMarcus Aldridge played like a man possessed in the Portland Trail Blazers’ first round matchup against the Houston Rockets. In six games, the three-time All-Star had his way, leading the Blazers with 29.8 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks on 47.9 percent shooting from the floor — numbers way up from the season averages that launched him into the MVP conversation from an early stage.
However, in the first two games of the Western Conference semifinals, Aldridge hasn’t been the well-oiled machine that he was in round one, and the Blazers have suffered as a result. In the series opener, Aldridge scored 32 points, but it took him 25 shots to get there. And in Game 2, he had his worst performance of the postseason, scoring 16 points on 6-for-23 shooting from the field. The Blazers lost both games by an average margin of 20.5 points.
Unlike the Rockets, who had no answer for Aldridge in the low block, the San Antonio Spurs’ Tiago Splitter has been the key in the series thus far, having great success guarding one of the league’s elite power forwards. According to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, Aldridge is shooting 8-for-25 with Splitter guarding him over the first two games of the series, and in Game 2 alone, he was 2-for-13. The knock-on effect has been less lay-ups and open three-pointers for the Blazers — their bread and butter — because Splitter has been able to slow their leading scorer and offensive catalyst with single coverage. That, in turn, has allowed the rest of the Spurs to stay home on their defenders, not helping off the likes of Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Mo Williams.
As a result, the Blazers have scored less than a point per possession so far in this series — a worrying sign for a team that relies so heavily on their offense to carry them through games. They’ve also failed to crack the century mark after averaging 111.6 points per game against the Rockets.
What makes Splitter so special defensively is his ability, at 6-foot-11, to stick with Aldridge when he puts the ball on the floor. For the Rockets, Omer Asik had the size to contest Aldridge’s mid-range jumpers, but not the foot speed to keep up with him in half-court sets. Conversely, Terrence Jones had the quickness to stay in front of Aldridge, but neither the strength nor size to slow him down on the low block.
Splitter also uses his body perfectly, taking each hit on Aldridge’s back-downs in the middle of his chest, ensuring that he stays in front of him at all times. And just for good measure, he’s able to crowd the ball handler without fouling (Aldridge only attempted four free throws in Game 2). Splitter has never been a shot-blocker — one of the many things for which he has received criticism since he entered the league four years ago — but in matchups against dynamic, outside-shooting power forwards like Aldridge and Nowitzki* that works in his favor. Knowing that the chances of him blocking Aldridge’s shot are razor thin, Splitter focuses on staying on the ground, and using his length to frustrate him by getting a hand in his face. He also does a good job of staying on Aldridge’s right hip, which forces him middle and stops him from shooting his patented fadeaway jumper over his right shoulder.
* Splitter did a fantastic job against Nowitzki in the first round, too.
The Spurs have the Blazers right where they want them: Down 0-2, knowing that, after losing both games by a considerable margin, something needs to change. The game plan that got them to this position (play through LaMarcus Aldridge and ride the hot hand) simply hasn’t worked, and based on the first two games of the series, it doesn’t look like it will. Tiago Splitter has had too much success against LaMarcus Aldridge to think otherwise, and nobody other than Lillard is capable of creating shots for themselves on a routine basis.
The Blazers have to make changes heading into Game Three, and they will. However, whether or not those changes can stop the bleeding at this point remains to be seen.