The San Antonio Spurs just finished going toe-to-toe with a transformational power forward whose mid-range game stretched their defense to the max, needing seven games to oust Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks.
Tiago Splitter and the Spurs made life difficult for Nowitzki in the opening round. And now they get Nowitzki 2.0 in the Western Conference semifinals when Portland's LaMarcus Aldridge comes to town.
I think LaMarcus is a younger Dirk who can shoot and drive, play in the post (and do) a lot of things, so it's not going to be easy, Splitter said Monday. We know that. I think all the team is aware of that; everybody is going to help a little bit.
Like Nowitzki, Aldridge relies heavily on the mid-range game, using every inch of his 6-foot-11 frame to get his jumper off against smaller defenders. When faced with someone his size, Aldridge has the strength and nimble feet to get past them, as he did time and time again in the Trail Blazers' defeat of the Houston Rockets in six games.
The Rockets rarely had an answer for Aldridge, who beat up the smaller Terrence Jones on the block and took Omer Asik and Dwight Howard away from the basket to stretch the floor. He scored 89 points in the first two games of the series. He averaged 29.8 points, 11.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in the opening round.
Guys are going to be confident, but still have to think about the way that we got here, working hard and grinding it out, Aldridge said. I think guys are definitely going to be more confident but this is new territory for most of us.
The Blazers haven't been out of the first round since 2000 while the Spurs are looking for a return trip to the NBA Finals.
Here are five things to watch when the series opens in San Antonio on Tuesday night:
POINT GUARD HEAVEN: In a new golden age of point guards, it would hard to find a more compelling matchup than this one. San Antonio's Tony Parker is the NBA's gold standard, a savvy veteran who changes speeds like an All-Star pitcher. He was at his best in Game 7, dismantling the Mavericks with 32 points. Portland's Damian Lillard is the new kid on the block, a supremely confident second-year player who had perhaps the moment of these young playoffs with a game-winning 3-pointer to eliminate Houston. He can do everything, Parker said. He can shoot from the outside, penetrate and so we're going to try to do some stuff to try to contain him. You're not going to stop him.
DEFENDING PARKER: As great and fearless as Lillard has been offensively, he still has a lot to learn on the other end of the court. He likely will see the speedy Parker for stretches of the game, but in the biggest moments, look for coach Terry Stotts to put Nic Batum or Wesley Matthews on Parker and try to hide Lillard on Danny Green, who is a standstill shooter and nothing more. That's what generally happened in the regular season series, which was split 2-2.
SPURS DEPTH: Even after the Trail Blazers added Dorell Wright and Thomas Robinson in an effort to beef up their beleaguered bench, they still relied heavily on their starting five for most of their production. That stands in stark contrast to the Spurs, who didn't have a player average 30 minutes per game this season. If the series goes deep, that could come into play.
POPULAR GUY: After beating the buzzer to hit his game-winner against the Rockets, Lillard said his phone got quite a workout. My phone was on 60 percent right after the game, he said. As soon as I picked it up it was just buzzing and I went on the podium and when I got off of the podium it was dead. I think I had like 350 texts or something like that.
BELINELLI'S STRUGGLES: In his first season in San Antonio, Marco Belinelli put together one of the best seasons of his career. He shot 43 percent from 3-point range and averaged 11.4 points per game in a valuable role off the bench while playing alongside his friend Manu Ginobili. But he was a non-factor in the first round against Dallas, scoring just 22 points total in the seven games. Beli needs to come back and play better, Parker said. I think the way they are going to play our wings are going to be more free than against Dallas.