By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
SAN ANTONIO – If Terry Stotts doesn’t answer his phone, he’s probably still on the line with his former boss Rick Carlisle.
The second-year Portland Trail Blazers coach is next in line to take his shot at the living legend that is Gregg Popovich, the Coach of the Year, the coach of the No. 1-seed San Antonio Spurs, the coach who stood 48 minutes away from wondering what the hell happened while retreating to his wine cellar for the remainder of the playoffs.
“I’m certainly glad it is over,” Popovich said Sunday evening following his team’s first complete performance in Game 7 of this first round series, a 119-96 start-to-finish thumping of Carlisle’s upstart and eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks. “It kept many of us up night after night trying to figure those guys out. Rick did a great job with his game plan.”
Stotts served as Carlisle’s offensive coordinator in Dallas for four seasons, including the 2011 championship run when Dallas beat Kobe Bryant‘s Lakers, Kevin Durant‘s Thunder and LeBron James‘ Heat in succession.
Stotts’ Blazers are a rock-and-fire offensive featuring cold-blooded point guard Damian Lillard and All-Star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who’s coming off 29.8 ppg and 11.2 rpg against the Rockets in the first round, and 56 percent shooting against San Antonio in the regular season.
What Portland is not, much like Dallas, is a lock-down defensive squad.
Among West playoff teams, only the Mavs entered the postseason with a worse defensive rating than the Blazers. So Stotts will have a keen interest in studying Dallas’ film to see how a season-long turnstile defense successfully choked off San Antonio’s lethal 3-point game, and limited the Spurs’ precision offensive attack to 93 points or fewer in three of the first four games. The Mavs had the series split 2-2 at that point, and felt they could have commanded a 3-1 lead.
“The games to steal was Game 1 (90-85 Spurs) and then maybe Game 4 at home (93-89 Spurs) when they really weren’t quite used to what we were doing defensively yet,” Dirk Nowitzki said. “Over the series, they attacked our defense better and better.”
Particularly Tony Parker. Carlisle knew he didn’t have the more talented team and needed to devise different approaches in an attempt to temporarily, if not longer, discombobulate the Spurs machine. Dallas practically begged Parker and Tim Duncan to do the damage while they sold out to cut off everybody else best they could. It worked on Danny Green until the final two games. Marco Belinelli was never a factor and Patty Mills shot 26.1 percent from beyond the arc.
All-in-all, Dallas made 10 more 3s in the series than San Antonio, whose 49 3-pointers were just seven more than the Spurs made in their four-game regular-season sweep of the Mavs.
“Rick Carlisle is one of the most clever guys around, and trying to follow all of his stuff is really difficult,” Popovich said. “That was the toughest part for us, in addition to them playing so well.”
Earlier in the series, Popovich told Parker to shoot 25 times if that’s what the defense dictated. Only that’s not the way Parker’s wired to run an offense that’s always looking for the next pass. Parker averaged 14.5 shot attempts in the first four games. Gradually, a scorer’s mentality began to take hold in Game 5 when he put up 23 shots, followed by 23 more in Game 6 and 19 in Game 7 when he scored a game-high 32 points on 57.9 percent shooting.
“I just knew that I had to be aggressive if we wanted to have a chance to win the game because of the strategy that the Mavericks chose,” Parker said. “They just dared me to score.”
In Sunday’s first half, Parker went 9-for-12 from the floor for 24 points, and just two assists. His shooting chart looked like a giant blob under the basket. Only three of his shot attempts came from outside the paint. San Antonio led by 29 in the second quarter and 68-46 at halftime. By the time he exited at the 5:47 mark and the Spurs leading 111-81, Parker had tied his season-high of 13 free throw attempts, eight more than he shot in any of the previous games in this series.
“You have to give a lot of credit to the Mavericks,” said Parker, who scored 62 points in the first three games and 77 in the final three. “They tried to switch, they tried to do different stuff to get us out of our game, and it worked the first three, four games. We had a hard time to play our game, to play Spurs basketball, to move the ball. Finally, Pop decided to just let me go and be aggressive and see what happened. It worked out pretty good.”
So the Spurs advance to find another young and talented up-and-comer to challenge their time-tested superiority. Golden State last year put a scare into Spurs Nation with a hotly contested six-game series. Now it’s the Blazers, a younger, more explosive version of Dallas with 3-point bombers stationed around Aldridge.
Two more athletically gifted teams in Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers begin their semifinal series on Monday night.
“That was a great warmup, if I can call it a warmup,” Parker said of the just-completed series with Dallas. “It was tough to play in.”
As the Blazers head to San Antonio for Game 1, it’s now Stotts’ turn to figure out how he can keep Popovich up at night. So if his phone is busy, it might be a while.
He’s likely got Carlisle on the other end.