There are many things that could be said about the Blazers' opening round playoff series against the Houston Rockets. The one word that doesn't describe the Blazers' season is "finished". There is still work to be done. There are real basketball games yet to be played.
Damian Lillard played the most minutes against Houston (268), followed by Nicolas Batum (257), LaMarcus Aldridge (246), Wesley Matthews (239), Robin Lopez (197), Mo Williams (150), Dorell Wright (79), and Thomas Robinson (57). Joel Freeland played only 14 minutes, while Will Barton and CJ McCollum each recorded one minute apiece. Looking at these numbers and using the eye test, we can draw two big picture conclusions about Stotts' use of his bench in Round 1.
First, Stotts will be doing none to zero "player development" in the playoffs. The young guys that got rotation minutes in the regular season ("The People's Champ", McCollum, Meyers Leonard) have seen their minutes disappear in the second season. This isn't surprising, we've known all year that if Stotts has to go too far down his bench against good teams the Blazers usually lose. The youth movement we saw all year long is over, it's time for the veterans to shine.
Second, even though Stotts is only using an 8-man rotation, he isn't being stubborn with his substitutions and lineups. Mo has seen a slight minutes increase in the playoffs, but he's the only reserve getting consistent minutes as Stotts is going with whatever is working on a game-by-game basis. Wright played over 11 minutes the first five games (including 18 minutes each in Games 2-4), but only one minute in Game 6. Stotts used him at both forward spots, willing to go big or small as the situation dictated. T-Rob played over 15 minutes in games 1 and 6, but less than 10 in games 2-5. Freeland played 14 minutes total (partly a result of having just returned from injury), and only played 1 minute combined in games 5 and 6 after it became clear he was completely out of his league against Houston's front court.
So much of the playoffs comes down to match ups, and it's encouraging to see Stotts not being inflexible in his rotations. How Stotts juggles his lineup against San Antonio will play a large role in determining whether the Blazers go to their first Western Conference Finals since 2000. Here are the biggest questions surrounding Stotts' use of his bench:
How much will we see Joel Freeland? Even though Freeland played 14 minutes total in round one, he should fair better against San Antonio, given their personnel. Coach Greg Popovich has used essentially a three-man rotation in the front court, with Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter, and Boris Diaw getting the lion's share of the minutes, with Matt Bonner getting about five minutes per game and Aron Baynes and Jeff Ayers each seeing spot duty.
Duncan is Duncan, first-ballot Hall of Famer, best power forward of all time, and one of the eight or ten best players in the history of the game. The only players who should ever be guarding him in this series are Aldridge and Lopez (you could make an argument Robinson might potentially bother Duncan with his athleticism and quickness, and he showed improvement against the Rockets, but that would be based more upon T-Rob's potential than his actual abilities at this point). Splitter has improved this season but is still very limited offensively. He won't challenge Robin Lopez, which should help the Blazers' overall team defense. Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner are both stretch 4's, and will cause problems for the Blazers defensively if they draw Lopez out of the lane. Freeland and Robinson should be fine matching up with Splitter, Diaw and Bonner.
We won't see Stotts giving Robinson and Freeland 35 minutes a game, but the match ups should allow Stotts to use them for around 12-15 minutes each to help provide Aldridge and Lopez more respite during this series than they got against the Rockets.
Will we see any small ball? Stotts wasn't afraid to go small against the Rockets when only one of the Howard/Asik duo was on the court. The Spups have gone small this season, using Kawai Leonard at PF, but they haven't done it a ton. The evidence thus far suggests Popp won't go small much if at all. The Spurs and Blazers both run defensive systems that call for keeping two traditional big men on the floor at all times. In addition, the Spurs only used Leonard in lineups at PF against the Blazers for a total of five minutes during the regular season and he only spent three minutes there in the series against the Mavs, per NBA.com. So we probably won't be see small those small-ball lineups this series. That's a good thing, as Blazer lineups featuring Batum or Wright at PF against the Rockets logged 70 minutes and had a collective +/- of -8.
Will the young guards see any minutes? The Spurs are inarugably deeper than the Blazers (Monty Python corollary: noting is truly inarguable). They have six perimeter players averaging over 13 minutes per game in the playoffs, none of them more than 35 minutes per game. Meanwhile, Lillard, Matthews, and Batum are averaging 40+ minutes per game, with Williams averaging 25 and Wright 13 (with a number of those coming at PF). Fatigue could be a major factor in this series; the Blazers having the entire weekend to rest up will be a huge boon to them against the Spurs. The Spurs give major minutes to Patti Mills, Marco Belinelli, and Manu Ginobili off the bench and the Blazers' bench players simply can't match that level of firepower. The starters are going to score the overwhelming majority of Portland's points in this series, so it's critical that the backups play well enough to give them proper rest.
In round one McCollum, Barton and Allen Crabbe saw a collective two minutes in seven games. That's it. It's highly unlikely Stotts gives the young guys any playing time in this series. However, there is one factor that may help the Blazers' perimeter players avoid fatuigue in this series: the lack of small ball. The Blazers are going to keep two of the Aldridge-Lopez-Robinson-Freeland quartet on the floor virtually at all times, which will mean all of Wrights' minutes will come backing up Batum at small forward. Having two capable backup perimeter players will help Stotts get his starters proper rest against the deeper Spurs.
If Stotts is not going to turn to the young guards for minutes against the Spurs, he does have one other option for minutes on the perimeter: Earl Watson. Watson didn't play at all against Houston, but he is a veteran who has been to the playoffs before and won't embarrass himself or the Blazers. He need not see more than five minutes a game, but he could help spell Lillard and Matthews throughout the series.
Stotts used, essentially, an eight man rotation against the Rockets. It will be interesting to see how many minutes he gives to which bench players against the Spurs. Robinson played very well in round one, providing energy, rebounding and some offense off the bench, so he should get consistent minutes against the Spurs. Freeland matches up better against the San Antonio's bigs than he did against Houston's, so Stotts may be more comfortable with giving T-Rob a shorter leash against the Spurs knowing Freeland won't get killed like he did against the Rockets. Williams and Wright will be the main perimeter backups, but it will be important for them to be able to contribute by providing offense when they are on the floor. The Spurs' starters don't play as many minutes and will be better rested than the Blazers', so the backups will need to play well to give the starters appropriate rest.
At this point the biggest question is how far is Stotts willing to extend his bench? The Blazers' biggest weakness is (still) their bench, and how Stotts juggles his lineups could determine the outcome of this series.