The Portland Trail Blazers take on the San Antonio Spurs at the Rose Garden tonight in a game that will be televised nationally on TNT, beginning at 7:30 p.m. Pacific. Your Jersey Contest form for the game is here. Portland Trail Blazers tickets are always available through our sponsor TiqIQ.
Other than that, this preview is not going to follow the normal format, for a few reasons:
1. You are getting some Blazers-Spurs in a back-and-forth between myself and J.R. Wilco of Pounding The Rock. The first installment, covering conversations we've been having since pre-season, is here. The second installment, covering today's game, is right here.
2. These are the Spurs. If you've watched the NBA at any time during the last decade you know who they are. If you haven't you're in for a treat. These guys play basketball the way it's meant to be played. Portland usually rises to the occasion, giving them all they can handle. LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum have had memorable moments versus San Antonio. If you don't already know them, just watch and learn.
3. This preview provides a good excuse to juxtapose another Mailbag topic that's semi-San-Antonio-related...David Stern. Over the last couple of weeks people have been asking about two things: the commissioner fining the Spurs $250,000 for not fielding their first unit regulars against Miami and the commissioner decrying the "Hack-a-Dwight" strategy some teams are using to combat the Lakers' newest center acquisition. In honor of our small-market cousins from Texas visiting, let's take on the Commish.
First, if you haven't read J.R. Wilco's excellent Declaration of Spurs Independence in response to Stern's fine, do so. We'll wait.
Now...what do I think of all this? It's bunk, pure and simple.
Raise your hand if you're a Blazers fan who remembers San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich sitting the majority of his starting lineup against Portland. Your hand should be up. He's done it each of the last two seasons. Maybe Tim Duncan needed rest. Maybe his players needed a wake-up call. Maybe Pops was just channeling the Lakers who, back in the days when they were perennial title favorites, often faced the Blazers in the last week of the season and routinely sat their star players for those games to save them for the playoffs. David Stern has been commissioner through all of these incidents. Where was the outcry then?
Oh wait...excuse me. This game was in Miami. It was on TNT. Lah-tee-dah. It matters now. Never mind that the diminished Spurs lineup gave the Heat all they could handle, trailing 100-101 with 14 seconds left in the game. The starting lineup wasn't marquee-worthy. The decision affected a big-name team. So now the commissioner issues a fine. Now it's a "disservice" to basketball fans.
What's my reaction? A standing slow and hearty clap to Popovich for having the guts to do this regardless of market, game, network coverage...for doing it in exactly the "biggest" stage and thereby making a tacit argument that it shouldn't be considered that much bigger than any other NBA stage. Add in a standing catcall to Stern for reacting predictably in moving to stop it, waiting to take action until it messed with one of the NBA's pet projects.
My reaction is much the same to the more recent comments about how hacking Howard compromises the game. Here are my questions:
--Did the Lakers know what player they were getting, that Howard was notoriously bad at shooting free throws?
--Do they move the foul line farther away for Dwight or make the shot in any way more difficult for him than for any other player?
--Are there not already sanctions in place against fouling in the first place (free throws) and against fouling too often (eventual ejection)?
--Is this Howard's first season ever in the NBA? Has he not played 8 prior seasons in Orlando, during which this has been an issue? Oh wait...it's his first season with the Lakers. So now the rule needs changing? You're going to alter the whole league because something happened to the Lakers? Oh right...this is the same league that changed its playoff format mid-season in a year in which the Lakers were vulnerable under the old system. We should have known.
Something's rotten here and it has nothing to do with free throws or lineup changes.
David Stern reminds me of the guy who had the affair six years ago but then enough time passes and he stops being careful about what he says and does because he thinks it's all swept under the rug. Our memories aren't that short, Mr. Stern. We remember the fourth quarter of Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers. We remember Tim Donaghy and crooked referees in '07. Those weren't little "oopsies". Those were major events affecting the integrity of this league under your watch. You don't get to look at us now and say, "Honest, honey, my secretary and I were just working late and we got a couple innocent drinks after. You're crazy to worry." If this marriage is going to work you have to be responsible for the rest of your life. That means checking in every day, even years later, so we know that the NBA is above reproach.
That also means that you don't get to say and do this stuff, ever. Not even the ittiest-bittiest hint that you're favoring big-market, network-friendly teams should escape your lips or your office. Otherwise we should just all quit and leave you a six-team, major-market-only league. Spurs fans, quit. Blazers fans, quit. Kings fans and Jazz fans, Denver, Atlanta, Minnesota, Utah, Charlotte, New Orleans, Indiana, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City...quit, quit, quit, quit, quit, quit, quit, quit. Just give up. This is a guy who acts differently depending on which teams and markets are affected by any given stimulus. This is a league invested in squeezing every dollar of revenue out of poor suckers by selling them a heartfelt dream (and the ad time to go with it) but also perceives its own self-interest is protected when that dream doesn't come true.
Plenty of people have raised that cry already. More folks complain about the integrity of the NBA than about any American professional sports league. That alone is a shame. Adding comments and actions to the litany of reasons for people to proclaim that the league is unbalanced, unfair, or rigged outright...that's just silly. But that's what Stern is doing with these selective and curiously-timed pronouncements.
It's not just about the power to fine or the beauty of the game, it's about who matters and who doesn't. As commissioner, Stern probably ought to forego the opportunity to tell 80% of the teams in this league that they're second-class. Unfortunately he just can't seem to help himself. To my eyes his attempts at damage control do more damage than the original offense.