Game Time: 7:30 p.m. Pacific TV: Local--KGW, National--ESPN
So...the Blazers sit at 2-3 and are in the midst of soul-searching and lineup-fiddling when--joy and wonder!--the Spurs roll into town. I can pretty much guarantee that the ESPN storyline on this one will be the Old Lion versus the Young Lion. Except that right now the Young Lion has da sniffles. Hopefully a little hanky-blowing and some warm tea will be all the Blazers need to regain some of their roar.
A Look at the Spurs
As it turns out, the Old Lion could use a little checkup as well. The Spurs have won 2 games this year, both times scoring 113 on their hapless opponents. On the other hand they have also lost 2, showing a definite lack of hap on the road against Chicago and Utah, topping the century mark neither time en route to double-digit losses. They've either crushed (at home) or been crushed (on the road). Obviously the Blazers hope that story continues tonight.
Normally you'd like the aging Spurs on the second night of a back-to-back against tough opponents, but the Old Lion King, Greg Popovich, is sticking to an interesting strategy to start the season. Every Spur in the legitimate rotation plays between 20 and 29 minutes per game from Tony Parker at the high end to George Hill down low. Last night 10 Spurs were in the 17-30 minute range. Channeling Hubie Brown lets Pops keep his troops fresh and probably mitigates the fatigue factor tonight.
In general the Spurs have done an excellent job shooting the ball, particularly from beyond the arc. They've averaged 6 more three-point attempts than their opponents, making 2.3 more, and shooting better. They're a full 5 percentage points above their opponents in overall field goal percentage. As usual they keep the turnovers down and the defensive rebounds up. You have to beat them the old-fashioned way. They're not going to give it away.
Keeping with another Spurs tradition they trail handily in offensive rebounds. They've also given away 5 more free throws per game to the opponent though it hasn't crippled them because opponents have shot horribly from the stripe.
Long story short San Antonio doesn't take shots they can't make, they don't have to clean up after themselves much, and they're not looking for you or the refs to bail them out or lift them up. They come to do a job. If they're not as accomplished at getting that job done every night as they once were at least they're not going to bungle it foolishly. This isn't a team looking to find itself. This is a team that found itself long ago and is banking you haven't. When they run up against teams just as assured who execute well they get into trouble. Sometimes they'll also get burned by youthful enthusiasm and energy. But on the balance they're going to win more than they lose because they're just better at what they do than the opponent is and you'll not easily force the out of what they want to do.
Tim Duncan is off to a fine start this year, averaging a strong double-double, amounting to 15 points and 13 rebounds before last night's game. If the point total seems low, remember what we said about limited minutes. He was playing 26 per game at that point. He was also shooting over 62% so the Spurs are finding him where they need to. Tony Parker was shooting over 55% before the Jazz game and averaging over 16 with 5 assists. Manu Ginobili is lofting and missing a lot of threes but also drawing a relatively large number of fouls. Richard Jefferson is duplicating that scheme almost exactly. In relatively small minutes Michael Finley has begun to make an impact again, shooting 60% from the floor and 50% from the arc off of open shots that his teammates create by drawing attention. Not every big name is clicking for them but they're doing enough...at least on the offensive end.
Of the lesser-known names reserve point guard George Hill is feast or famine, scoring when he's not guarded well and having difficulties when he is. Center Matt Bonner is snack or famine, hitting his twos but missing his threes. Energy scorer Roger Mason Jr. is having a hard time finding enough minutes to get comfortable. Both he and Bonner have been Blazer killers in the past though. The new kid on the block, backing up Duncan, is DeJuan Blair. He's shooting an incredible 70% from the field. It's just a matter of how many looks he's getting on a given night. More importantly he's giving the Spurs heaps of rebounds in limited minutes.
As we just alluded to, the question with the Spurs right now is whether their secondary and tertiary players can defend well enough game-to-game. Duncan is good enough even though he's slower than he used to be. Parker is quick enough to be bothersome...sometimes. Ginobili can get scrappy...sometimes. Jefferson's impact seems to ride on how much attention he is paying which also varies from night to night. After that it gets pretty shaky. You're not really scared of even these guys, let alone your Finleys and Bonners. Gone are the days when Duncan could singlehandedly bail out his team on that end. They either bring it as a team or they don't. When they don't, they don't win.
Let's assume the Blazers play more or less as they have...that there will be no great Renaissance tonight or burst of all-encompassing energy that allows them to bowl over the Spurs. If that's true and if this becomes an ugly fight there's really only one key. They have to deal with Tony Parker somehow. Given what Portland has shown so far, I don't know how they do it but they'd better find a way. Hold Parker to his average and even with San Antonio's other scorers the Blazers have a chance...more than a chance really as many of their easy buckets key off of him. But if Parker is fast breaking, free-wheeling down the lane, and hitting jumpers that the Blazers are late in getting to Portland is in serious trouble. Swarming him to shut him down leaves the Blazers ultra-vulnerable. He's too quick, smart, and passes too well. San Antonio can score from a lot of places and it's unlikely the Blazers could recover off of him in time to stop the Spurs from getting their shot. That's when they score in the 110 range. Slow Parker down, make him work, don't let him lead the break, make him shoot tons of shots for his points and you have a good chance.
Other than that the Blazers have to keep rebounding. Portland could feast on second-chance points tonight. They also have to make their second unit tell. The Spurs' bench is pretty good and Portland needs to at least match. Not every Blazer starter will get past San Antonio's defense but whoever manages to do so--be that Roy, Aldridge or even one of the secondary options--the Blazers should keep riding the hot hand. Take your scores anywhere you can get them regardless of the hand they come from. Also do not count the Spurs out even if you get ahead. They've been here before. If you get up, stomp on them.
Tonight you'll see two teams in similar situations for different reasons and on different ends of their life cycles. Whichever team puts it together first in this game will have a huge advantage. If both remain shaky, flip a coin. It's probably a more important game for the confidence of the Blazers than the Spurs. Let's hope that adds a little energy to the proceedings.
Check out the San Antonio point of view at PoundingtheRock.com.
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