We have a special treat in honor of the Portland Trail Blazers-San Antonio Spurs contest tonight. J.R. Wilco of our sister site Pounding the Rock and I engaged in a little back-and-forth about the Blazers, Spurs, and life in general. You can see Part 1 of this conversation at their site. Then come back here to read...
Blazersedge and Pounding the Rock Part 2:
What do the Blazers need to do to regain the best record in the West? Play San Antonio every night, that's what.
Oooh! As the kids say nowadays, that was one groovy sting, man!
November, December, the start of January...these were idyllic times for the Blazers. Legs were fresh, health was good, starters were playing out of their minds, and the schedule was a never-ending buffet of Eastern Conference opponents. The feeling must have been similar to Bill Gates walking into a Wal-Mart. "I'll take this. And one of those. And...why am I even bothering with this? Just give me everything. I'll send people to pick it up." Confidence did the Blazers a world of good, as did unprepared opponents. Portland's offense consisted of Aldridge in the wide post with four three-point shooters spread around him. Guard him one-on-one? You just got served a turn-around. Send and extra man? THREE!!! It was simple, effective, and really pretty to watch.
Then opponents got tougher and better prepared. They played the passing lane. They tried to stop the ball in the hands of one or two players instead of letting it move. They figured out that Portland's defense couldn't match the offense and ran the Blazers ragged on the other end. Plus Aldridge got injured and the other players wore down. Terry Stotts has tried to give the starters a rest, getting mileage out of guys like Thomas Robinson, Meyers Leonard, Mo Williams, and Dorell Wright. Only Williams has succeeded and even then he's mostly succeeded in being Mo. Since that's head and shoulders above anyone else off the bench we'll take it, but Mo giveth and Mo taketh away. Robinson has been confusing, Leonard an eyesore. Wright has barely been noticed. C.J. McCollum has put in a few good games and the now-injured Joel Freeland does yeoman's work as a converted center, but those threads are too thin to hang winning streaks upon. It's the starters or nothing for Portland.
In any case, as Aldridge and friends got tired, injured, and what have you shots stopped falling, players stopped cutting, the ball stopped moving. The Blazers can still make huge runs when you're not looking and they'll never give up on a game, but they look more stilted and nervous, especially in late-game situations. Turnovers have reared their ugly heads. Three-point percentage is good, not great. Robin Lopez has flourished. Everybody else is stumbling along, alternating good games with off nights. You can never depend on the Blazers for 48 minutes. They'll have brilliant quarters, awful quarters, and a couple in between. There's no steadying force, no bedrock. Play them bad and they'll kill you. Play them halfway decent and anything can happen.
Massive success has drifted into .500 ball...not bad but hardly league-elite. The Blazers appear to be settling into a mid- to low-level playoff seed. Before the season that would have been defined as success. At this point it's all relative. Making the playoffs is a good step but a 24-5 start makes you want more.
I'm not sure the Blazers can get back to their early-season form without a few months of rest and a better bench. They need more help. The lack of a move at the trade deadline signaled management's willingness to wait, to gloss over whatever happens this season in hopes of building more securely in the future. It was hard to watch that deadline pass given the buyer's market. But we'll see what they have up their sleeves. The Blazers needed to change their destiny coming into this season. They've certainly done it in the micro sense but going macro, I'm not sure a first-round playoff exit would change much no matter how pretty the record looks.
So what do you think would happen if these two teams were to meet in the playoffs, first or second round? Would you still bet on the Blazers having San Antonio's number or do the Spurs have another gear?
"That's one groovy sting..." I don't even -- I can't ... Moving right along.
What do I see happening if the Spurs and Trail Blazers meet in the playoffs? Lots of Fraternizing, to begin with!
But the teams, I have a very different opinion now than I did early in the season when you guys were destroying the NBA like it was a league made up of San Antonio Spurs clones for you to run roughshod over. One of my writers and I have had a season long conversation about which Western Conference team we're most afraid of. We'll send each other texts with tidbits of information backing up our fears and downplaying each other's trepidation. All I did through the first portion of the season was send him stats about Portland's offensive numbers. He'd respond by asking me whether I was still afraid of you guys, and I'd tell him that there's no other team that has the Spurs' number like the Blazers because your offense is built to do the one thing our defense isn't built to stop.
I don't feel quite the same now. He's argued me into a state where I'm less concerned about your offense, and more sanguine about San Antonio's ability to attack Portland's defense. And that's before we even start talking about the difference between the benches. Before the last couple of games, the Spurs' starting unit has had issues scoring. Duncan had a serious chest contusion in the season opener, and his outside shot was - well, it was shot. For the first third of the season people were wondering what had happened to him. At the same time, Leonard started the season ice-cold from deep. The combination of Tim and Kawhi being unable to hit an open jumper meant that the spacing was nonexistent since every defense just sat back and dared them to take the jumper. So how have the Spurs kept winning? Because the bench is just that good.
Manu Ginobili's making another case for Sixth man of the year. Diaw is making his own. We've already talked about Marco and Patty - but it's one of those deals where the sum of the parts is greater than the hole that the starters dig in their first stint. In short, the bench has been destroying fools -- even other team's starters occasionally. The ball movement is superb as everybody shares the ball to the point where 3-pointers and layups abound.
As far as another gear, the Spurs definitely have one. Especially on defense. Especially that, now that Kawhi is back from his broken hand, he's playing the way everyone expected him to play all year long. The way he played in the Finals against Lebron. Multiple steals for breakaway dunks per game. Cleaning the glass to take it coast to coast against defenses that seem to be standing still. Post-ups against smaller forwards that look like an older brother taking little bro to school. It's been a joy to behold.
How about you? What do you see a playoff meeting looking like?
It'd be an interesting series. Betting against the Spurs at playoff time is like betting against Santa Claus at Christmas. It's their season. This is why they do what they do. On the other hand, they usually stumble over that one team. Though the record disparity will be significant and the playoff experience gap ludicrous--Tim Duncan having thrown away socks with more playoff experience than the entire Portland roster--one wonders if the Blazers couldn't be that one team for San Antonio. The Blazers have size, the talent is there, the matchups are good (outside of the bench, as you mention, but the Blazers won't be playing reserves in a playoff series), and Robin Lopez even gives them a modicum of toughness...something that bothers the Spurs. Just about every strength for San Antonio is also a strength for Portland. Nevertheless, it still feels like younger brother trying to beat older brother in the driveway. We've overcome you one-on-one when nobody else was watching, but older brother might still have a trick up his sleeve for old time's sake when a crowd gathers. Judging by Portland's recent play I'd say the Spurs were more likely to win a hypothetical series between the two, but Portland prevailing wouldn't be that much of a surprise. It would be one of the more interesting matchups in the bracket. The problem is, the Blazers are looking more and more like a 5-seed. So you guys better lose enough to get down to 4 for a first-round matchup or win enough to stay #1 and hope the Blazers get to the second round. Either way, it'd be something to look forward to.
Is that the end?
Of all people, a Spurs fan should know better than to ask THAT question!
So here's a question from one of my readers. She's observed that whenever the Spurs wear their road grey uniforms, she notices at least one play where they throw the ball to the corner or sideline and it sails out of bounds because their target wasn't one of their players, rather a referee whose grey uniform is of the same hue. Have you noticed this at all? And do you think the Spurs might want to go away from "Referee Grey" as a dominant uniform color? Sure, those awful Thunder Blue outfits in OKC are worse, but are those grey unis really sweeping San Antonio as the next fashion trend?
Your reader is not imagining things. This is real. It's a problem. And it's only getting worse.
When the jerseys in question debuted last year, I wasn't very excited about them. First, there's all this blank space. Second, there's no letters. Third, that logo is simply ginormous. I mean, just look at it.
But for of a variety of reasons, they started growing on me. They're the only jersey in the league that doesn't have any letters on the front, which is kind of cool. It's starkness is kind of Spurs-y. And it seemed like San Antonio just couldn't lose when they wore them -- for this reason, there was a contingent of fans who were pro-grey jerseys for the Finals, but I don't think Stern was going to have that at all. While they did eventually lose a game in the greys, it was one of those contests when Pop sits most of the starters, so it didn't really count.
Then this thing started happening. See, the ball movement the Spurs use requires these quick passes to teammates who are expected to be in one of a couple different places on the court depending on what the defense is doing. So there are any number of turnovers a night that happen because a passer expects someone to be where they should be, and pass to that spot only to find that he's somewhere else. This issue is not merely exacerbated by the grey jersey's, but amplified by them.
Now it seems like multiple times a game, there's Tony or Manu throwing the ball to a ref, or some guy in a grey sweater with front-row seats. It's stupid, idiotic, bad for the team and entirely preventable. So cut it out, guy-who's-in-charge-of-such-things (GWICOST), it's time to kill the Spurs' grey uniforms.
Which brings me to Damian Lillard, since we haven't talked about him in nearly a year. First, he's so good he scares me. Second, what's your favorite Lillard-related story of the last 365 days. Third, is there anyone in the league's history he reminds you of, or is he a one-off?
Favorite Lillard story? How about the one where he competed in all the All-Star events but nobody remembers because he didn't actually do anything? Except they messed with the formats of all the events so NOBODY really did anything. Pharrell was there. I remember that part.
I'm not sure Lillard reminds me of any one player as much as he's an amalgam of a few guys. His three-point shot is quick and deadly, kind of like a slightly cloudy mirror of Steph Curry. His finishing power in the lane has become sweet and tricky, a little bit like Isaiah Thomas used to do. His defense is reminiscent of Nate Robinson. Or maybe a late-career Stephon Marbury. His biggest issue (besides that) is the lack of a mid-range game. He could use a few more options to keep defenders on their heels. They're not buying his fakes as much anymore which means he's having a harder time getting clean looks off the dribble. But he can still dump a metric ton on you if you give him the rock. The only question is whether he'll take 16 shots to do it or 28. Obviously the former is better for the Blazers. Lillard does tend to get...single minded sometimes. He needs a few more years under his belt before we'll see him smooth out. But the finished product could be darn good.
So...the Blazers just lost to Memphis as I typed this. That's three in a row now. They haven't dropped four straight all season. Looks like San Antonio will have special meaning for them. Portland is playing disjointed, ineffective basketball right now. Here's hoping the Spurs can help them reverse that trend. Otherwise...yeesh.