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Game 2 Preview: Spurs vs. Blazers

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Out of the frying pan and into the fire.  The Blazers face last year’s runners-up to the league crown on opening night and get the team that’s won 50 billion titles in the modern NBA era for their home opener.  As Gollum would say, “Nasssty…nasssty ssschedule makerssss.  Hisss.  Evils they are.  Gollum.  Gollum.”  But until poor Smeagol leads the Blazers through the stairs of November, down the pass of early December, and into the new year this is what we’re going to have to deal with.

But chin up, Blazer fans!  Casey Holdahl predicted a win for the Blazers in this week's podcast and I can tell you from experience that Casey is only wrong about 50% of the time.  If that isn’t enough of a guarantee for you, there are reasons to believe San Antonio is beatable even if they’re still a tough team.

A Look at the Spurs

Defense has been the hallmark of the Spurs during their championship years and even now that they’re getting long in the tooth it’s still plenty good.  They finished last season third in opponent scoring and fifth in opposing field goal percentage.  As long as you have a reasonably mobile Tim Duncan on your team you’re going to be OK defensively.  Bruce Bowen playing beside him is the icing on the cake.  Pretty much you can expect Bowen to single-cover your best wing scorer and Duncan to bother anyone coming in the lane, leaving three other Spurs to harry any second or third option you might devise.

The other thing that makes the Spurs tough is that they just don’t beat themselves very often.  They seldom turn the ball over.  They almost never take poor shots.  They don’t give up unnecessary rebounds.  They get back in transition.  If you’re looking to put pressure on them and make them crack you can forget it.  The only way to overcome them with regularity is to put a talented, passionate team out there and hope your energy can overcome their efficiency.  That seldom happens.  In a league which values professional basketball these guys are professional to the core.

That said, this will not be as tough of a matchup for the Blazers as the L*kers were.  For one thing the motivation runs the other way tonight.  This is the Blazers’ home opener.  After being obliterated on Tuesday Portland has something to prove.  The crowd should be more than happy to help Portland over the top should there be a hint of flatness or lethargy.  But even if you dismiss that, these older Spurs play a better style of game for Portland’s taste than the younger versions did.

For one thing, San Antonio is not going to flat-out outscore Portland like the L*kers were destined to do.  96 points was actually a fairly pedestrian total for L.A. Tuesday night.  The Blazers were going to have to work offensive miracles just to overcome the wheelbarrow of points the L*kers dump all over the floor every night.  San Antonio doesn’t bring a wheelbarrow…more like a pocketbook.  They’re decent shooters but they don’t generate tons of extra points at the foul line or on the break.  Portland may get smacked down and held in the 70’s again but at least they don’t have to worry about needing 110 to win.  If the Blazers can generate any offense it should be enough to stay with the Spurs. 

Though good defenders, the Spurs don’t force turnovers.  They don’t block shots or steal the ball.  In other words, though they’re not going to cough up the game themselves they don’t make you do it either.  They’re reminiscent of the Revolutionary War redcoats.  Let’s both get in a line, fire at each other, and see who comes out ahead.  Most of the ways the Blazers are prone to blow the game are ways the Spurs don’t take advantage of.  I’m not trying to guild the lily here.  If the Blazers go out there and bork it the Spurs are going to take the game away and never look back.  They’ve seen far too many games not to know a free gift when they see it.  But if the Blazers execute well the Spurs aren’t the kind of team to get in their heads and make them blow it.

Perhaps the biggest boon to Portland is the absence of Manu Ginobili.  His injury plays havoc with the Spurs’ scoring attack.  Tim Duncan is bankable and Tony Parker will score all you need him to, but after that the Spurs are in sad shape.  Michael Finley is the next scoring threat on the roster and he hasn’t been good for a couple years.  After that it is six kinds of ugly out there.  Even if (as happened Wednesday night against the Suns) Duncan scores 30 and Parker scores 30, that’s only 60.  Where is the other 40 coming from when you field Kurt Thomas, Bowen, Matt Bonner, Roger Mason, Ime Udoka, and Jacque Vaughn?  You could say you only need seven points apiece from them and Finley but there are some decidedly sub-seven-point names on that list.  San Antonio’s second unit scoring is likely to be horrible.  The Blazers should have a clear advantage there.

Storylines to Watch

1.  Star Light, Star Bright

This game is all about the return of Lamarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy.  Aldridge had a sub-par game in L.A. when we needed him badly.  Roy had a game so sub-par that you needed a janitor and the elevator key to access it.  Their individual matchups tonight--likely Duncan and Bowen--will encourage a repeat.  Will they take the bull by the horns (the Spur by the boot?) and respond or will we see meltdown part deux?  If the Blazers’ two primary threats don’t excel then Portland is in the exact same situation as San Antonio…trying to manufacture significant points from unaccustomed places.  If that happens San Antonio’s defense, rebounding, and just plain experience are going to win out.

2.  The Rudy-Roy Shuffle

With Martell Webster out, Travis looking good but fitting like your high school jeans, and questions surrounding the Blazers’ backup point guard position you suddenly have cracks that Rudy Fernandez is primed to fill.  The question is: which cracks, when, and with whom?  Obviously in this situation Rudy and Roy have to get some minutes together.  It will be interesting to see how Nate manages that.  Roy at point?  Rudy at point?  Either one at small forward?  How do they adjust and produce in unfamiliar circumstances?

3.  Welcome Back Channing Frye!

Oden’s down, Channing’s up.  He may actually be an interesting matchup for the Spurs.  His weakness is post defense but if he’s defending Kurt Thomas or Matt Bonner that’s not a concern.  On the other end he could pull some Spurs out of the lane with his mid-range shooting ability.  He could conceivably see a lot of minutes at the 4-spot in this game.  Will he take advantage?

4.  What’s the Point?

We had a switcheroo of sorts on Tuesday with Steve Blake only getting 24 minutes, Sergio Rodriguez 5, and Bayless 15.  Will that pattern continue?  Are any of these guys the point guard we need right now?  This will be one of the more interesting storylines for the first two months of the season.

5.  Old King Joel

Well, well, well…look who’s come crawling back.  “You’ve always been good to us, Joel.  You stuck with us through the hard times…” they said.  “We really do like you, Joel.  But more like a ‘brotherly backup’ than a ‘sexy starter’…” they said.  “Yes, there’s a new guy, Joel.  But we still want to be friends!  We don’t know what we’d do without your rebounding.  It’s not you, Joel, it’s us…” they said.  One sprained foot later and it’s, “Ding Dong!  Uh…Joel honey?”  Guess who’s renting a limo and driving us to the prom?   There’s no doubt Przybilla will respond like the trooper he is.  The dinner will be great, he’ll dance just fine, and he won’t even get mad when we don’t let him cop a feel during “Have I Told You Lately”.  He’ll also be the hero guarding Tim Duncan so Lamarcus Aldridge can rest up for the offensive end.  But will it be enough?  These offensive sets were designed for a semi-legitimate threat in the middle.  Joel is not exactly semi-legitimate.  The Blazers are going to have to move and shoot a lot better to compensate, and this against a team that is playing them to do just that.  How many rebounds and defensive stops will Joel need in order to even things out?  Also can he stay out of foul trouble and on the floor?

Keys to the Game

1.  If the Blazers get two 20-point scorers plus 8-10 fast break points they will win this game.  Scoring is important.  You don’t want to play San Antonio in the 80’s.  Besides Roy and Aldridge Travis Outlaw could be a key here.

2.  The Blazers have to put pressure on the San Antonio defense by sending cutters and slashers through the lane with effectiveness.  There’s not going to be an overwhelming post presence probably, as Lamarcus will get double-teamed every time he gets the ball down there.  That means guys like Roy, Fernandez, maybe even Batum and Bayless have got to get their feet in the paint and get some shots up.  If the Blazers let San Antonio set their defense and rebound missed jumpers all night this game is over.

3.  Remember that 30-30-40 construct for San Antonio above?  That means if you can trip, bludgeon, scare, or otherwise manipulate Tony Parker or Tim Duncan into an off night you have an excellent chance of taking this game.  At that point the other one could make like Kobe and LeBron combined and it wouldn’t matter as long as you also get a hand somewhere near the supporting cast on their shots.

4.  One key for teams that are going to have trouble scoring is not to give them any extra points.  Fortunately the foul line is not a big production point for the Spurs, nor is forcing turnovers.  The place the Blazers might be vulnerable is allowing San Antonio second chances on offensive rebounds.  This is not a part of the Spurs’ repertoire at all but we’ve seen the Blazers turn bad rebounding teams into good rebounding teams before…notably last season.  And tonight’s rebounding lineup now looks an awful lot like last season’s.  If Joel Przybilla has to sit for whatever reason (fouls, offensive ineffectiveness) Lamarcus Aldridge and Channing Frye and our small forward of the moment had better hit those boards.

5.  We need to hit some three pointers tonight but they need to be well-thought, open, and mostly off of other people’s penetration and kick-outs.  Despite being a good three-point shooting team the Blazers make me nervous when that becomes Option 1 off of the dribble.  I get doubly nervous when our forwards start hoisting like that.  (Hello Travis and Channing.)  That’s a sure way to give San Antonio the night off defensively.  Extra points are gold, but the ball needs to go in.

Final Thoughts

You all saw how much good my caution/pep talk did before the first game, but I’m going to try it again.  Remember this Blazer lineup is missing two of the five people slated to start the season.  Remember the Blazers are playing against accomplished, proven playoff teams.  Remember that it’s very early in the season and Portland is integrating a ton of new people (and now doing so in unfamiliar positions and circumstances).  Give this time to shake out before you pass judgment.  I’ll be frank with you:  I am pretty much expecting to be 0-3 after this weekend.  Anything better than that is DARN GOOD and worthy of celebration!  Even 0-3 isn’t a disaster considering the level of competition as long as the team doesn’t disintegrate completely.  Cheer hard, cheer long, and keep the faith no matter what happens.  Look for good basketball, not just a favorable scoreboard.  It’s quite possible for the Blazers to play well right now but just not have the horses and continuity to pull off games against this caliber of team.

Check out the Spurs’ Point of View

at PoundingtheRock.

--Dave (blazersub@yahoo.com)