Game Time 7:00 p.m. TV: KGW
Ahhhh...Hell Week begins. Well, Hell Fortnight really. The Blazers stretch schedule is plenty tough. This is like a final exam before the playoffs, gauging where the Blazers are and how serious they are about the run they're going to make (or not) in the post-season.
A small sigh of relief might be in order early, however. What looked like a killer exam just switched to the pass-fail grading system as the totally awesome San Antonio Spurs come into town without their heart, soul, and much of their height in the form of the injured Tim Duncan. Don't get me wrong. The Spurs are amazing and fully capable of beating the Blazers without Duncan. The Blazers are also capable of beating the Spurs even with Tim on board. But San Antonio working on a short (in more ways than one) front line can only be to the Blazers' good, especially with Portland's "big" man corps working so effectively lately.
Duncan's absence means it's hard to handicap the game based on normal stats. The Spurs aren't normal when he's not there. Their offense is guard-centered nowadays and probably won't be affected nearly as much as the defense. Duncan isn't quick anymore but he's still got great instincts and pristine fundamentals on the defensive end. DeJuan Blair, Antonio McDyess, and Tiago Splitter don't carry the same weight. A particular challenge for the Spurs will be watching LaMarcus Aldridge. Blair doesn't have height, McDyess doesn't have range, and Splitter doesn't have the flight time to guard the New LMA. The Spurs will likely have to commit extra men to the task, meaning that Portland's other players get a free pass. The Blazers' passing has been sterling the last few games. They have the knack of finding the open man. If Gerald Wallace can drive and Wesley Matthews, Rudy Fernandez, and Nicolas Batum hit any open shots they could make San Antonio look ridiculous. The only real mistake the Blazers could make would be abandoning the things that have made them look good recently. The Spurs can still rebound so one-on-one, contested shots are a no-no. Just make them prove they can handle LaMarcus and let the offense flow from there.
The Blazers also have reason to be confident on the other end. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are a handful and San Antonio gets the best out of their supporting cast. But Batum and Matthews were built for situations just such as this. Parker and Ginobili will no doubt score but as long as they have to work for it, the Blazers should prosper. There are a couple big no-no's. First, don't allow Parker to get in the open court. Good shots and smart offense are the best preventative to any fast-break attack San Antonio might think about throwing. But if Portland's guards do shoot deep they better not watch the ball. Parker on the run is one of the few ways the Spurs can find crucial extra points. Offensive rebounding would be a second. Blair, McDyess, and Splitter can all be nightmares on the offensive glass. The Blazers always have to rebound well to prosper but especially against San Antonio with one of their legs missing. A third crucial spot is the arc. San Antonio can murder you from distance. If the Blazers have trouble containing Parker or Ginobili and have to squeeze in on them somebody better recover because everybody who's not a power forward--and even one of their power forwards--can hit the three. This is not the game to get lazy. The other place I can see the Spurs gaining ground is the bench but Portland's rotation is so tight now that there might not be time. Still the group of Roy, Fernandez, Mills, and Camby sometimes have wretched offensive nights collectively. The game would be easier if at least a couple of them scored.
The Blazers win against San Antonio when they make the Spurs look slow. A little ball movement, a lot of energy, and some determination on the boards are the signs of victory tonight.
There's another back-and-forth with Pounding The Rock coming up tomorrow. In it I encapsulated the game thusly: The Spurs' average level of play is higher than the Blazers but especially without Duncan the Spurs are unlikely to exceed that average. Given the situation Portland is capable of outplaying or under-playing in this game. It'll be interesting to see which Blazers squad shows up. It's now or never to leave your imprint on this season.
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