Running The Break: May 5, 2014

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Can the Trail Blazers continue to stymie Tony Parker? Who are the X-Factors? What team wins the series and in how many games? Six local reporters who eat, sleep, and breathe Trail Blazers basketball give their take in this week's edition of Running The Break.

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1. In three games against the Trail Blazers this season, Tony Parker has been held in check, averaging 12.7 points, on 35.6-percent shooting, six assists, and five rebounds. What does Portland do defensively that bottles up Parker so well? Also, should fans expect to see a lot of Nicolas Batum on Parker not only because of his length but to save Damian Lillard’s energy for the offensive end of the floor?

Casey Holdahl (@Chold), TrailBlazers.com: I'm not entirely sure I know why Parker has struggled ever-so-slightly against the Trail Blazers this season, though it could have something to do with Parker's usual forays into the lane being stunted by LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez patrolling the paint. Parker also isn't much of a threat to shoot the three-ball and the Blazers try to take away the midrange, so maybe funneling Parker down to Aldridge and Lopez works better for Portland than it does other teams. Or maybe it's just a statistical outlier.

As for who guards him, I think you'll probably see Batum pick up Parker from time to time, particularly in the second half of games, but I'm not sure that really saves Lillard any grief. You can assume that Wesley Matthews will be guarding Manu Ginolibi and if Batum is checking Parker, that means Lillard is on Kawhi Leonard? That's no picnic either.

Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes), CSNNW.com: The Trail Blazers' versatility on the defensive end does present problems for Tony Parker. Whenever he has gotten past the first line of defense, Robin Lopez has done a great job of making his looks tough. I do expect Nicolas Batum to log heavy minutes on his friend in this series, allowing Damian Lillard to guard a primary stationary Danny Green. Parker throughout the series will see Wesley Matthews, Lillard and Batum on him. Not many teams can throw that many defenders on an All-Star point guard.

Erik Gundersen (@BlazerBanter), The Columbian: I'm not quite sure what the biggest factor was but Damian Lillard also guarded him a fair amount. I fully expect to see Batum on him. But Lillard will certainly see his time on him too. It's going to take a team effort and I wouldn't be surprised if the Blazers even through Matthews at Parker just to change things up. It probably doesn't help Parker's offense that he has to deal with Lillard's offense as he has played especially well against the Spurs in his career. But, it's tough to put a lot of stock into the Spurs in the regular season.

Mike Acker (@mikeacker), Willamette Week: The answer to this question is in the question: the Blazers have shut down Tony Parker because they have guarded him with Nicolas Batum. Nic’s length is a lot more than Parker is used to getting from point guards, and his lateral quickness means that Parker can’t so easily dribble around him. Other than Nic, the Blazers have done a great job of forcing ball handlers into pressure in the key and then protecting the rim. Forcing a ball handler off the three point line means more mid-range jumpers, which are the bane of the efficient offense and aren’t Parker’s specialty. Protecting the rim also means fewer easy lay-ups, which are Parker’s specialty. The expectation for the second round should be Batum on Parker most, if not all, of the time.

Dave Deckard (@blazersedge), BlazersEdge: The Blazers will need to mix up their coverage. Parker and Popovich are too smart to leave any single scheme unbroken for seven games. That means Batum taking over on Parker, especially in critical moments. But it also means Lillard showing the same understanding and commitment on defense that he evidenced in Game 6 against Houston. With the Spurs stocked with brains and shooters, the Blazers won’t be able to gamble much. They’ll throw the kitchen sink at Parker but in the end, it’ll come down to one guy stopping the other.

SlyPokerDog (@SlyPokerDog), RipCityTwo.com: I'm not sure if you can get much insight from the regular season. The Spurs are a savvy veteran team that year after year seems to not hit its stride until the playoffs start. But yes, we will see Batum on Parker. Batum knows Parker well and has the length to slow him down a little. How much we see this will be on how Lillard does in guarding him. I thought Lillard's defense looked good against Houston, not great but it was an improvement over the regular season.

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2. What are the X-Factors for each team and is there a particular individual matchup the Trail Blazers must win in order to take the series?

Holdahl: I'll go with Robin Lopez for the Blazers and Patty Mills for the Spurs. After squaring off against Dwight Howard for six-straight games, going up against Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan has got to feel like a reprieve for RoLo. It's not going to be easy by any stretch, but if he can score against the Spurs the way he did against the Rockets, that's a huge advantage for Portland.

As for our old friend Patty, the Trail Blazers have had issues slowing down opposing bench guards, and Patty can score with the best of them. He's played well against Portland this season, and I would expect Gregg Popovich looks to Mills for scoring early in this series against Portland's second unit.

Haynes: Mo Williams and Patty Mills are the closest to being X-Factors for each team. Portland needs Williams to play well being that the Spurs are a much deeper team. Offensively, Williams shoulders the load for that reserve unit and if he can average 10-14 points in a efficient manner, it'll definitely bode well for Portland's chances. Mills adds a different dimension when Parker is out: lights-out perimeter shooting. When he gets it going along with Parker, it's going to be a long night for the opponent. I'd have to imagine Mills will be extra up for playing against his former team.

Gundersen: I think an x-factor for the Spurs is going to be how much of a difference does their depth make. The way the Blazers are playing right now, especially with their starting five, could beat anybody including the Spurs. But with every possession in the playoffs becoming more important, the Blazers are going to have to minimize any differences between the Spurs bench and theirs. Houston's bench was very limited and only once did they really dominate the Blazers, when Jeremy Lin went off in Game 5. Portland's bench players, Mo Williams, Thomas Robinson, Dorell Wright and even Joel Freeland had some moments in the series but Manu Ginobili and co. are a different animal than the Rockets skeleton crew on the bench.

Acker: The X-factor for the Spurs is probably going to be a second unit player, because that is where San Antonio has its largest advantage over Portland. My guess would be that San Antonio’s x-factor will be either Boris Diaw or Marco Belinelli. Diaw is going to be a tough cover for Thomas Robinson or Dorell Wright, and Belinelli can get hot from deep and shoot the Blazers right out of a game in no time at all. Also, Portland’s defense is going to key in on Manu Ginobili, leaving Diaw and Belinelli in single coverage or wide open. Both those guys can knock down shots and could sway the series.

For Portland, it’s going to be about all five starters playing well at the same time for at least four games. The Blazers’ bench doesn’t have the depth to go blow for blow with the Spurs’ second unit, so the starters are going to log heavy minutes. So, in my opinion, the Blazers’ X-factor is going to be Nicolas Batum. He needs to make his presence felt every night on both end of the floor if the Blazers have any chance of taking this series. Batum disappeared at times against the Rockets, although he showed up to make big shots when called upon. He needs to do more than that if the Blazers are going to make the Conference Finals.

As for the particular match-up the Blazers must win, I’m going with the obvious one. If LaMarcus Aldridge and consistently out-play Tim Duncan, Portland wins the series. However, another interesting match-up to watch is going to be Robin Lopez versus Tiago Splitter. RoLo had some huge (HUGE) plays in the fourth quarter of game six against the Rockets, so there’s a chance we’ll see more offense from Portland’s center. But Splitter is good on offense too. He won’t win any games for the Spurs, but if he dominates the offensive glass and gets a lot of easy buckets, it’s going to be short series for the Blazers.

Deckard: One key for the entire team is being able to cover the Spurs straight up without defensive breakdowns forcing rotations and scrambling. The Blazers can win individual matchups. Aldridge and Lillard can outshine Duncan and Parker. But that won’t matter if the Blazers can’t stop passes and contest shots on the other end. One player bending Portland’s defense will bring down a torrent of threes from San Antonio sharpshooters.

Another key: what will Portland do with San Antonio’s bench? Ginobili has killed the Blazers this year. But it’s not just him. Most of those sweet shooters we just mentioned come off the pines for them. Portland’s second unit can’t collapse and hope the starters bail them out.

Individually Robin Lopez has the potential to out-big, out-work, out-jump, and out-intensity Tiago Splitter. If Lopez can corral offensive rebounds he’ll put a serious kink in San Antonio’s game. Even better if he also keeps Splitter from being effective inside at the other end. Lopez has to push him around and prove who’s boss of the lane.

SlyPokerDog: Aldridge has to outplay Duncan on offense and defense. The Blazers will need Aldridge to play the way he did against Houston. If that happens that will open up the rest of the Blazers for easier scoring opportunities. The X-Factor will be Lopez. A lot of effort will go into containing Aldridge that will leave Lopez open around the basket. He must score but he also has to do a better job in hitting free throws the entire series.

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3. During the regular season, Portland used a balanced attack to achieve 54 wins in the rugged Western Conference. But the postseason saw two Trail Blazers, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, rise to the occasion. Rip City’s dynamic duo combined to average 55.3 points, on 45.7-percent shooting, 17.5 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 2.9 blocks, and 2.0 steals in the First Round. Do Aldridge and Lillard have to continue to play like superstars for Portland to advance in the postseason?

Holdahl: Absolutely. It was hard enough for the Blazers to win in the regular season with both Aldridge and Lillard having off nights. And in the playoffs, Portland winning is a near impossibility without at least one of the two having a stellar performance, and even that's not a given.

Haynes: Yes they do. They're not deep enough for those numbers to dip dramatically. Those two are on top of their game, thus why I don't see them tailing off much in this series. Portland's starters will carry a heavy load. Any energetic, productive play from the bench would be a huge bonus, but those two All-Stars will have to continuing playing like superstars.

Gundersen: Even if they play like superstars, nothing is certain in the playoffs or against the Spurs. But yes, to advance they are going to need them to continue stepping up.

Acker: Absolutely they do. The best players in the NBA are the ones who have their best games when the stakes are the highest. It’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché because it’s true. LaMarcus Aldridge will have the spotlight on him after the way he came out against Houston, and Tim Duncan is a much more difficult match-up than Terrance Jones. Damian Lillard will have a lot of eyes on him as well considering how amazing his series-winning three was. He won’t likely be able to match the pure magnitude of that shot, but he won’t be able to take his foot off the gas even for a second.

Deckard: It’d sure help. They’re a problem the Spurs will have trouble solving. Aldridge makes Duncan look old. Lillard makes Parker’s defense look slow. San Antonio compensating for that star pressure will open up Portland’s shooters, and with them the floodgates.

SlyPokerDog: Short answer, yes. Longer answer, hell yes! To win this series we're going to need both Aldridge and Lillard to play like they did against Houston. But the Blazers are also going to need more consistent scoring and 3pt shooting from Matthews, Batum and Williams.

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4. Against Houston, Portland’s bench averaged just 15.5 points per game during the six-game series whereas San Antonio’s reserves poured in 36.3 points per game during their seven-game series versus Dallas. Having a future Hall of Famer as your Sixth Man gives San Antonio an edge, but how can Portland limit that advantage in the Conference Semifinals?

Holdahl: They don't really need to. Portland's bench doesn't need to beat San Antonio's, they just need a few quality performances throughout the series. I would expect the minutes and output from Portland's bench versus San Antonio to be about what it was in the series against Houston.

Haynes: If Mo Williams isn't averaging 15 a night, you're going to see a huge differential in bench points. I think it's a given. Terry Stotts just can't afford to go deep or give his reserves extended minutes. There's too much at stake. You got to milk as much as you can out of the starters and give them the proper rest in between games. The Spurs' bench will dominate their counterpart.

Gundersen: By simply playing better. The Blazers bench and particularly their small line-up with Mo Williams, Dorell Wright, Lillard, Batum and Lopez has to play better, especially on offense. They had an offense rating worse than the Sixers did in the first round, so it's not that surprise also because of Thomas Robinson's energetic play) that Wright only played 1:13 in Game 6. I'm sure we'll see Wright back on the court but Stotts will have to get creative.

Acker: The Blazers’ second unit will probably try to mitigate the scoring power of San Antonio’s second unit by simply outscoring them. That’s not going to happen, and probably isn’t the best tactic. Portland’s subs can limited the impact of their Spur counterparts by playing a little defense and by slowing down the pace of the offense. The Spurs second unit will want to get out and run. The Blazers’ second unit should do everything they can to play a half court game. The half court offense is not the strongest suit of Portland’s non-starters, but they’ll need to do it and do it well for short periods of time throughout the course of the series. If the Blazer bench gets blown out by 20 every night, the Spurs will win the series going away.

Deckard: Mo Williams has fared well against the Spurs this year, almost as well as Ginobili has fared against the Blazers. Pray that continues, or at least that Mo pops up in a few games. Other than that, the Blazers probably have to limit bench exposure and to tell their bench players to rebound hard and run even harder to keep ahead of the Spurs defense and get easier shots. If you’re only going to play 10 minutes tonight you can run full-out for all of them, right?

SlyPokerDog: The Blazers can't. The Spurs played their bench long minutes this season to keep their aging big three, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili fresh for the playoffs. The Blazers starters have played big minutes all season and are going to do so against the Spurs. Our bench just has to not give up big leads, not try to match the Spurs' bench point for point.

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5. Lastly, who wins the series and in how many games?

Holdahl: Well, I picked the Rockets in a Game 7 coin flip the last time around, so I don't know why anyone would value my pick this time. So to keep things consistent, I'll once again pick Portland's opponent to win the series on a last-second shot in Game 7.

Haynes: I got the Spurs in six. The Spurs are too seasoned. Portland has had a great run. I really can't see them pulling this off. However, I was wrong last series...

Gundersen: I went back and forth with this pick many times but I'm taking the Blazers in 6. I think this series will be as good in terms of teamwork as any in the second round and the ball movement will be fantastic to see. While Parker, Duncan, Ginobili and co. have the resumes, Aldridge and Lillard have been the league's most dominant duo and Matthews, Batum and Lopez have shown they are ready to make big plays. Batum and Matthews will have to outplay their opponents on the wing, whether it's Leonard, Green, Ginobili or Belinelli if Portland is to pull out the series.

Acker: I got pretty blasted by a couple friends for qualifying my last prediction so heavily before making it. So I’ll try not to do that for a second time. I certainly believe that the Blazers have a chance against the Spurs. They split the season series, winning once at home and once in San Antonio. Portland is riding higher than ever and no doubt have the confidence that they can beat anybody out there. The Blazers need to win one of the first two in San Antonio, much like they did in Houston. They once again need to protect home. And after the way the Spurs dispatched the Mavericks, Portland needs to avoid a game seven on the road. Again, the Blazers win one in San Antonio to start the series, come home and protect their home court, and once again close the series out in Portland. It worked for me last time: Blazers in 6.

Deckard: I’m going to narrow it down to Portland or San Antonio, somewhere between 4 and 7 games.

SlyPokerDog: I picked the Blazers to defeat the Rockets in 7 games. I'm glad that the series didn't go to a 7th game but I think this series against the Spurs will with the Blazers winning game 7 in San Antonio.