Spurs Blazers

Portland Trail Blazers’ Playoff Growing Pains

The second game of the Western Conference Semifinals ended Thursday night with another lopsided loss for the Portland Trail Blazers. Game 2 was a lot more promising for Portland in comparison to the first, but they just couldn’t keep up with San Antonio Spurs’ relentless pressure on both ends of the floor. For every Blazer run, the Spurs had an immediate answer, dashing any hopes of a comeback reminiscent of the first round.

The Blazers are learning some painful, yet valuable lessons here. Lessons that Houston couldn’t provide. They now know what true playoff level defense is like. Houston has some individual defensive stalwarts like Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley, but the Spurs play total team defense. LaMarcus Aldridge’s midrange shots aren’t falling and open threes are hard to come by.

I feel like Portland wasn’t fully prepared for that level of defensive intensity. Perhaps the euphoria of winning the Houston series on the legendary shot got into their heads. It is difficult to say, but they definitely looked to be blindsided by the Spurs. LaMarcus may need to switch up what side of the floor he posts up on to get his turnaround jumpers. Nearly all of his shots come from the left side of the court. The Spurs know it, and exploit it.

I am seeing less of the Damian Lillard, Aldridge pick-and-roll game that helped get both players open shots. A lot of LaMarcus’ shots seem to be from isolated post-up plays. The more movement the offense can get the better. The Blazers have actually outscored the Spurs in the second half of both games. More pick-and-roll plays should open up the offense, and draw Spur’s big man Tiago Splitter further from the basket.

The offensive efficiency isn’t the only issue. The Spurs have revealed Portland’s biggest flaw: the bench. The reserves have been outscored 100-37, nine of which came from Will Barton in game 1 mop up duty. The three primary bench contributors, Mo Williams, Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson, have chipped in 15 points. Former Blazer guard Patty Mills, a guy who could barely crack the rotation in Portland, has put in 17 points for the Spurs.

GM Neil Olshey did a great job of trying to improve the bench without giving up any assets or cap flexibility for the coming free agent market, but the depth and quality of the bench simply cannot compete with the Spurs.

The biggest issues I see for the future is depth behind Wesley Matthews and Nic Batum. Mo Williams is usually the first guy off the bench for Matthews, but he lacks the size and strength to be a shutdown defender and an offensive weapon. Batum’s primary back-up, Dorell Wright, is really only a stop-gap solution.

I think the Blazers expected first round pick C.J. McCollum to fill the role behind Matthews, but the early season injury derailed his rookie season. Portland has a few potentially good players on their roster. Barton, McCollum, Robinson and maybe even Meyers Leonard could become good players, but do the Blazers’ bass have the patience for them to pan out?

I feel like these guys deserve a little more patience, but with the huge steps forward taken this season  the desire to win now will increase and patience could run thin. Unless the bench rapidly improves, it is going to hold this team back down the road. A team that will have Western Conference Finals aspirations next year. There is a real problem going forward.

I am willing to give McCollum another season to find his way into a meaningful place in the rotation. A guy picked 10th overall deserves that much. The team wouldn’t have used a lottery pick on him if they didn’t think he could play. The problem behind Batum will need to be solved via free agency because Portland lacks a first round draft pick.

The 2014 free agent crop will be big, assuming players take their early contract termination options, most do. Guys like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony and Dirk Nowitzki could all be on the market.

With big name teams trying to sign the big name guys, Portland has the potential to get solid players for a lower price than usual.

I would look at Shawn Marion, who is set to hit unrestricted free agency from Dallas. He’s a great defender throughout his entire career that would provide a veteran presence.

Caron Butler is also set for unrestricted free agency. He’s veteran scorer with lots of playoff experience.

Avery Bradley from Boston is going to a restricted free agent. He’s another guy known as a lock down defender and he can knock down open jump shots.

Darren Collison could hit free agency, if he declines his player option. He’s a guy I have always liked since his days at UCLA. Collison could add more defense and fast break offense.

There are a lot of good names out there. Nothing super flashy, but Portland is probably never going to be a marquee free agent destination for big time players. The Spurs are a perfect example of how to build a team from the ground up. It takes a lot of smarts and a little bit of luck.

LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard are franchise cornerstone material, like Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Olshey has been very smart in his short tenure and that has to continue for the Blazers to compete for the long haul.

With all that being said, I am not going to completely write this team off until game three. The home crowd should bring out the intensity and Coach Terry Stotts should have a few adjustments prepared. It is just that in order to win there is going to have to be some incredible performances by the starting five, performances a team like San Antonio don’t always need to win big games.