Update: Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com reports that the Blazers will start Dorell Wright in place of Aldridge.
The Blazers host the San Antonio Spurs tonight on the second night of a back-to-back and at the tail-end of their annual "rodeo road trip" -- a nine-game, 8,989-mile trek that started 16 days ago in New Orleans and will end on Friday night in Phoenix.
The Spurs are pretty banged up -- guard Tony Parker, center Tiago Splitter and forward Kawhi Leonard are all either out indefinitely or day-to-day -- and coach Gregg Popovich is well-known for sitting his veteran players at times throughout the season to keep them fresh for the playoffs. This time around, it's Parker who's out with a "variety of maladies" for an indefinite amount of games.
Replacing the All-Star guard in the starting lineup is Cory Joseph, a point guard with decent distributing skills and an ability to score off the dribble or off the catch-and-shoot from within the arc. Joseph is not a very good three-point shooter, and he generally avoids that shot, opting to score closer to the rim, out in transition or at the free-throw line.
Power forward Tim Duncan, at the age of 37, continues his role as a cornerstone of Popovich's offense, particularly with Parker resting. About half his shots are jumpers, the other half coming at the basket. Duncan has been great close to the hoop this year and reliable in the mid-range, but he's stepped up his game this month, hitting over 57 percent of his 14.8 field-goals attempts a night. Now in his seventeenth season in the NBA, Duncan is averaging 21 points and almost 11 rebounds a game for the month of February.
Forward Boris Diaw starts alongside Duncan down low, and he's played almost as well as him lately. Diaw gets many of his points scrapping in the paint, but sometimes he'll drift out for jumpers and even less occasionally to the three-point line, where he's actually a really good shooter, hitting half his outside attempts the last six games. Diaw is surprisingly athletic for his build, able to contribute in ways that don't necessarily show up in the stat sheet, though he did drop 18 points on 12-18 shooting against the Celtics a week ago and went 6-10 from the field in a win against the Clippers last night.
When Joseph isn't manning the point for Popovich, former Blazers guard Patty Mills captains the ship and has made the most of his increase in minutes this year. His shot attempts per game are into double-figures this month, six of them coming from beyond the arc where he's a 39 percent shooter. Mills is a solid scorer off the dribble in the mid-range and an excellent finisher inside for his size, but he doesn't mix it up in the key too often. He's also an elite shooter from the left corner.
Quietly putting together a career-year is forward Marco Belinelli, a 27-year-old journeyman on his fifth team in seven years who is flourishing in Popovich's system. Expect a lot of threes from Belinelli, which should be no surprise as he won the three-point shooting contest over the weekend during All-Star Saturday night. The rest of his shots are evenly distributed among the mid-range and closer to the basket, and Belinelli is an efficient scorer from just about everywhere, averaging 50.8 percent on his field-goals the last six games.
Starting wing Danny Green is mostly an outside shooter, hitting about 40 percent of his threes. Forwards Aron Baynes and Matt Bonner, center Jeff Ayres, guard Nando De Colo and a recently healthy Manu Ginobili round out Popovich's rotation, and none have really stuck out much lately. Ayres is a great second-chance scorer, Bonner is an excellent spot-up shooter from outside and Ginobili is still potent at attacking the rim and a decent outside shooter. The Spurs' bench may feature players with somewhat limited skillsets, but they're by far the most efficient second-unit in the NBA this year and function very well as a whole.
San Antonio's defense has been a little more forgiving inside the arc since the start of the month, but the Spurs have improved their perimeter defense in that time, only allowing 15 three-point shot attempts a game for opponents and 34.9 percent on them. San Antonio rarely forces turnovers, but still prevents consistent ball movement while not putting opponents at the line often. The Spurs allow a lot of shots to go up, but their defense doesn't give them up uncontested. Still, they can be scored on inside with center Tiago Splitter -- their best individual interior defender -- out tonight. Diaw is terrible at protecting the paint and Duncan is starting to show his age a bit and can't be relied upon as a rock-solid defensive anchor for all 32 minutes a night he plays. All things considered, though, the Clippers only notched 40 points in the paint last night.
The Blazers have experienced varying degrees of individual success on offense since February started, winning three games and losing four heading into the All-Star break. Up to that point, Portland was hitting 44.3 percent of its field-goals and 36.1 percent of its threes as a team, both pretty average league-wide. Still, the Blazers were able to make up some points by aggressively getting to the free-throw line, and point guard Damian Lillard led the way, getting there over five times a night while also setting his teammates up well lately. After a rough late-January, Lillard improved incrementally in the couple weeks before the break, improving his field-goal shooting to over 46 percent. His outside shooting is still hovering around 32 percent for the month -- down from 40 percent on the season -- so time will tell if the week-long break allowed him to regain his long-range shooting form, and the Spurs' solid perimeter defense will provide a difficult challenge for Lillard to start the last stretch of the season on the right foot.
Portland coach Terry Stotts' frontcourt rotation took two more huge hits yesterday in practice, as backup center Meyers Leonard will miss several weeks with an ankle injury and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge has opted to sit a week in order to rest a strained left groin. This adds to the knee injury big man Joel Freeland suffered last week. As Ben Golliver reported for Blazer's Edge yesterday, Stotts is left with just center Robin Lopez and forward Thomas Robinson to fill the four and five positions, likely forcing small ball lineups with wings Nicolas Batum and Dorell Wright putting in time at power forward.
Expect Lopez, Robinson, Batum and Wright to get big minutes tonight with half of Stotts' frontcourt rotation in the infirmary. Lopez has been one of the most reliable options on offense this season -- albeit, as a fourth or fifth option at most -- and he has gotten to the line a lot lately as an excellent free-throw shooter for his size at over 81 percent the last several weeks. Robinson has been unpredictable at best this month, though with some extended minutes he could get back to the aggressive scoring he's shown flashes of this year, hitting almost 46 percent of his shots on the season.
Batum has been pretty solid lately when playing a less passive role, and he'll have to do so tonight with so many players recently going down. Expect his shot attempts to go up and keep an eye on his match-up with fellow Frenchman Diaw, who will likely guard Batum for much of the game and may not be able to consistently keep up with his younger, more athletic counterpart. Wright should also benefit from the extra minutes, though he's been pretty bad from the field the last several weeks and hasn't managed to solidify a spot in the rotation since rookie guard C.J. McCollum proved worthy of minutes off the bench. Over his 10-year career, Wright has hit 42.7 percent of his shots and about 36 percent of his three-pointers in over 23 minutes a game, so with the increased playing time and shot opportunities he's likely to receive the next couple weeks, he might be able to inch his scoring efficiency back up to normal.
Guards Wesley Matthews, Mo Williams and McCollum will also be pressed into more minutes as Stotts will be forced to play small ball for stretches the next several games. All three have been good shooters from outside lately, with McCollum leading the way by hitting half his outside shots this month. Williams and Matthews have both struggled from inside the arc recently, but there will be roughly 23 more shot attempts to spread around with this past week's injuries and both will likely take their share. Williams creates more off the dribble, while Matthews is more of a catch-and-shoot guy unless faced with a smaller defender, in which case he'll likely post up and use his bulky frame to score closer to the basket.
Portland's defense is going to suffer with Aldridge out, as Robinson doesn't exactly strike fear into the opposition on that end of the court. With Batum and Wright likely logging extended minutes at power forward, Stotts will have to be creative with his game plan in order to defend the Spurs. Fortunately, San Antonio is going through injury issues of its own and Diaw, Ayres and Bonner will also play extra minutes down low. If Lopez can neutralize or at least slow down Duncan, Portland would definitely have some advantages over the Spurs with speed, athleticism and quickness in the frontcourt. The Blazers have been fouling a ton lately, and don't be surprised to see that trend continue as the only legitimate individual low-post defender active for Portland tonight will be Lopez.
On the boards, this game looks like a toss-up with so many injuries to both teams. Lopez and Robinson are both excellent individual rebounders by percentage, and tonight should provide the minutes for Robinson to prove that he can be just as effective on the glass in extended playing time as he is in short bursts off the bench. Duncan is really the only great individual rebounder for the Spurs tonight, but Baynes, Bonner and Ayres are all capable of pulling in rebounds, Baynes on the offensive side while Ayres and Bonner are better on the defensive end.
With so many variables at play -- the Blazers coming back from a week off, the Spurs playing late last night in Los Angeles against the Clippers and all the significant injuries to both teams -- tonight's match-up is tough to get a good feel for. On one hand, Popovich is without three of his best rotation players in Parker, Leonard and Splitter while on the eighth game of a nine-game road trip and playing on the second night of a back-to-back. On the other hand, Portland will miss Aldridge -- its All-Star power forward who shoots 20 times a night -- and the already thin bench for Stotts is now missing its two backup centers.
If the Blazers can run the Spurs out of the gym and focus on their advantages -- youth, rest and athleticism -- Portland has a chance of pulling this one out. Still, they'd probably have to produce a ton of points on the offensive end because the defense is likely to be overmatched for long stretches, especially if either Lopez or Robinson gets into foul trouble. Expect Portland to try forcing a shoot-out tonight, as they'd likely be sunk pretty convincingly in a defensive battle. Either way, things will certainly be interesting as Stotts will have to get creative with his match-ups on both sides of the ball.
-- Chris Lucia | email@example.com | Twitter