As is our wont when the Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs meet, J.R. Wilco of SBNation sister-site Pounding the Rock and I went back and forth on a host of Spurs-Blazers issues. Part one of this discussion can be found here. It covers all the discussion we've had since pre-season regarding our two teams. But now we get down to the nitty-gritty. It's game day and the game is ON. What's the difference between Kawhi Leonard and Nicolas Batum? Who fears who more, Aldridge or Duncan? Which unexpected sock-rocking dunk was better?!?!? Read all the hottest topics below, talk about it, then check out the comment section of the twin post at Pounding the Rock and discuss there too!
As the visiting guests, the Spurs get the first shot. Enjoy!
We have had a recent conversation on Pounding the Rock about whether it's better to make a trade to completely sell out for the best chance at another championship while Duncan is still playing at such a high level. Or whether it we should keep an excellent known quantity like Kawhi Leonard in the hopes that he will be good enough to aid to the team during his NBA infancy enough to maximize the team's current chances so that they can hold on to him and see what he becomes. My contribution to this discussion was to draw attention to the odds stacked against the team being able to follow a superstar in David Robinson with another superstar in Tim Duncan, and then believing that a third one has fallen into our laps without any dip in the franchise's fortunes. It just seems too good to be true.
Which brings me to your Blazers and Damian Lillard following on the heels of Brandon Roy's exit from Portland the way that MechaGodzilla followed Mothra -- immediately afterwards and with an exceedingly high profile. Now I'm sure you don't need me to quote his stats at you, but his rookie season so far has been so impressive that I wouldn't be able to help myself if he hadn't already inserted his name into the Rookie of the Year conversation the way he has.
So tell me what you've learned through the first quarter of the season watching Lillard tear through the opposition and establish himself as the future of your team. What do I need to know about him that I couldn't have learned in his first meeting against the Spurs? What do you find most impressive about him at this point?
Lillard showed most of his cards early. He's just kept playing them and raking in his fair share of pots. His jump shot is already legendary. That three-pointer is sweeter than a first kiss. He picks his spots with poise, has learned to mix in the drive a little, pretty much everything you want considering his experience level. He had a few games where he tried to compensate for bad performances by over-shooting. But hey, 8-21 still equals 20 points, right? This year is a free roll anyway. He's welcome to it.
The shadow side of Lillard's game has been exposed a little as the season has progressed. The offense is precocious but the defense is atrocious. He stops drivers like chimneys stop Santa. Not being able to keep in front of his man puts inordinate pressure on Portland's interior defense. The Blazers are mobile but nobody can keep up with the layups and kick-out jumpers that spring from Portland's lane. The combination of Lillard and young and/or inexperienced centers on pick and roll defense is toxic. It shows you how technical NBA defense is. Lillard's routes going over or under picks are only 2-3 feet off, but in the NBA that might as well be a mile. He looks like he's strolling down the 15th fairway while the opponent blows by off of the screen.
All in all, though, we'll take it. Whatever ails Lillard can probably be addressed by a little time and a big center. But let's head back to Kawhi Leonard for a minute. How likely is he to become a star? What star-like qualities do you guys perceive? Portland fans have been waiting for Nicolas Batum to assert himself for years now. If K-Leonard provides a blueprint, we want to see it!
I completely agree with you that this year represents a free roll for Lillard, and if there's anything that can slide with a point guard, especially at this point in his career, it's going to be defense, isn't it? I mean, just how many excellent defensive point guards are there in the league? We've been led to believe that the elite list begins and ends with Rajon Rondo and everyone else is pretty much scattered across the landscape between the Doesn't-Embarass-Himself drylands with Tony Parker and Russel Westbrook, all the way to the Gets-Stuck-In-Every-Pick tar pits like Steve Nash -- with the rest of the league falling somewhere in the great frozen wastes of Getting-A-Clue.
As for how likely Leonard is to be a star, of course the jury is still out on that one, but the defendant's case has been ably made by one Gregg Popovich Esq. and while there may not be enough evidence collected yet to please the court, it certainly looks like the verdict will be a favorable one. For starters, he almost never makes the same mistake twice on defense. (Small pause) I just stopped and stared for a good half a minute at that previous sentence to make sure that it was true, and I really think it is. He's just like a sponge for basketball knowledge, and if there is anyone around to soak it up from, it would be Pop.
Kawhi's learning curve has been so steep, that at times it seems he came NBA-ready straight out of the draft, with all of the knowledge necessary to run San Antonio's complex systems already loaded Matrix-like into his brain. For every brainfart he has while defending, there are two to three "I know Bowen-Fu" moments to offset it. San Antonio is not a place known for allowing guys to make a lot of mistakes and continue playing heavy minutes, and while Spurs fans have griped about that learning atmosphere being difficult on young players, Leonard seems to have been born to it.
Of course his offense last year boiled down to the corner three-pointer and off-the-ball cuts, but if you're going to specialize on two things on offense, those are pretty good things to pick, and he did each of them at league-leading levels. Once his shot had been remade by the legendary Chip Engelland, he went on to shoot well over .400 from behind the arc for the rest of the year (including a crazy-hot .450 in the playoffs) and nearly .500 from the field. Not to mention that he was in the top 3 for points per possession when receiving a pass while cutting last year. Also, he makes his free throws.
This year he's handling the ball more, bringing it up on the fast break, and being more aggressive going to the hole. This is where he's experiencing his growing pains, as he's being called for charges as often as not, but the elbow jumpers and his pull-up game are both progressing quite nicely and I'm not alone in believing that the rough patches will be ironed out pretty quickly. The only remaining issue is that he's been out for more than two weeks now with tendinitis in his left knee. But the team seems to be playing quite well without him, so obviously there's no need to rush him back from that.
As far as whether you can find any kind of a blueprint in there for Batum, I couldn't say. Kawhi just seems like one of those guys who was made to play basketball; body, mind, and will. Even if there is a blueprint for him, I'm not sure it would work for anyone else.
Well, Batum doesn't need the technical blueprint. He's got skills. Or should that be skillz? Wait, he's French. He's got les skills cordon bleu. (For those deficient in the beautiful French language, that means skills with ham and cheese melted onto them. I learned this at Denny's.) However he hasn't quite mustered the mindset yet. He's been more active this year, more consistent in his ability to change the game at either end, but somehow he still seems less like Rambo, destroying the enemy in every circumstance, and more like the red balloon, drifting through life and waiting to see what develops around him. He'll have moments of intensity and masterful play but it's still not enough to christen him a star.
LaMarcus Aldridge has been embroiled in mini-controversy, adapting to Terry Stotts' new system by feasting on elbow jumpers, eschewing the post. This has saved wear and tear on his body and psyche but wreaked havoc with his shooting percentages, especially the advanced ones that all stat geeks and supermodels drool over. He's taken it inside heavily in a couple games, most notably in Portland's last outing against Toronto, but the jury's still out on how effective he'll be. Having him playing anything less than superb offense is a blow to Portland and his personal aspirations. He's an All-Star because of efficiency, not flash. Also, I can't stomach the thought of him giving the Spurs bigs an easy defensive night by heading to the free throw line extended and lofting a jumper every third possession. I suppose there's some justification, as it would take a rebounder out of the lane and the rest of our rebounders might be greater than the rest of yours. (Portland has several good smaller-position rebounders plus J.J. Hickson-also good-and they like easy buckets off of offensive rebounds.) Still, I'd like to see Aldridge down low more even if he has to dominate the ball more to do it.
Enough about our forwards, though. How about your backcourt? This game could well be won or lost for Portland based on how well we contain your smalls. How's Parker fairing? (Saw that triple-double the other night. Nice!) What does Danny Green have to offer? Also, who's stepping in for Leonard? Gary Neal, right? How's that working out on each end of the floor?
Nicholas Batum + cordon bleu = mad skillz. Got it. But I must say that, as a Spurs fan, I already knew how great Nicholas was. First, there's the alley-oop game-winner with time expiring against San Antonio a couple of springs ago. But even before that, just after the Blazers drafted him, it became common knowledge that San Antonio's front office was hoping he'd drop to them at the very next pick. So all this time he's been one of those players who, like Omri Casspi, we've been hoping would eventually become available to come to San Antonio -- where he should have been all along. But now that he signed his big contract, that's less likely than ever to happen, unless it's much further along in his career, like Boris Diaw. Which means it might just be too late for him to become a star, but we both agree that he definitely has it in him.
I hear you talking about the difficulty in making the right choices with Aldridge's game, and while I understand the concept in theory, in practice it's a very different issue against the Spurs. As you well know, LaMarcus' eyes light up like a babe on Christmas day whenever he laces 'em up against the silver and black. I'm convinced that if Portland played 82 games against the Spurs, he would average 35 points 13 boards and 6 assists a game. Just how close this is to being the truth, I have no idea, but it sure feels that way since he, to my knowledge, has never played a poor game against the Spurs. So you can take all of your post-eschewing and supermodel drool and lump it for all I care. Whether it's operating in the post or shooting those elbow jumpers, it really makes no difference as I expect every part of his game to be working tonight.
Before we get to the Spurs backcourt though, I've got to play the game of Dueling Dunking White Boys. In the red corner, we have your Luke Babbitt. In the silver corner, we have my Matt Bonner. Both of these awkward Caucasian men named after apostles have recently thrown down massive dunks in the course of an NBA game. And I leave it to our fair readers to decide whose is best.
Points in Luke's favor: he created the driving opportunity himself and it was his first dunk in the league.
Points against: he barely kept his feet afterwards, and there was no celebration or flair whatsoever.
Points in Matt's favor: he looks a somewhat more than halfway coordinated, there's flair galore, and he ends it all with a heroic right cross.
Points against: he's Matt Bonner, he had the entire left half of the court all to himself, and mega-points should be deducted for his getting into a jawing battle with his own bench after the dunk. Come on, Matt. Everyone knows that you talk smack to the opponent's bench after you throw it down during a blowout. Sheesh!
You asked about our backcourt; here's a little-known/long-forgotten fact; way back toward the beginning of my association with Pounding the Rock, I was known as the "Trade Tony Guy" because of a pair of posts I wrote that introduced the topic of moving our wee Frenchman. For quite a while, everyone was content to conveniently forget that I actually concluded that there was no way to get equal value back for Parker - something that, considering his contract and production, is more true than ever today. But even though I didn't want him traded, it was quite a while before I really embraced him as a player, and that was only partially because I'm more of a Ginobili guy.
But there's no more getting around it; what has seemed true for the last few years is an absolute written-in-stone-cold-hard-fact: Tony Parker is about as good as a poing guard can be. Not only does he have complete command of Popovich's offense, he can now shift almost effortlessly between play-making and scoring - which was something he struggled with for years. Not only can he free himself for a layup with the pick and roll, but he's finally above average at getting the ball to the roller for an easy score. Hardly anyone in the league can stay in front of him when he decides to drive, and he can get that elbow jumper, going left or right, just about any time he wants it. Add to all of that his being a competent defender and it's impossible to ignore the fact that he is a complete player.
Danny Green is playing quite well, he hit seven of eight from three point land the other night, and his defense and rebounding make it so that he's worth having on the court even if his shot isn't dropping at the moment. As you mentioned, with Kawhi Leonard out it really does fall to the rest of the bench to step up, and Gary Neal has showed that he's not just a scorer anymore. He's not going to set the world on fire with his defense, but it's no longer a glaring deficiency in his game. He has worked hard on defending, which really benefits the team because there's almost no shot that Gary can't make, and there certainly aren't any he won't take. Stand still jumpers, dribble drive floaters, long threes on the move, midrange rainbows, fall-aways from every angle - seriously, they're all in his repertoire. He's even added a Manu-esque behind the back move that's very effective if not quite aesthetically pleasing yet. It's scary how he can fill it up. Even more terrifying now that he can stay on the court.
But I'm sure I've gone on long enough now. What's this about Meyers being a wimp? Anything else we need to know?
Meyers Leonard is not a wimp. Or at least he's not a wimp at heart. He just lacks the strength and technique to enforce his will right now. But he'll develop both. The kid is a hard worker and he seems to have his head on straight. I haven't seen him back down from many situations either. Someday I think he could be a Joel Przybilla-type player, just with way more quickness and offensive versatility. A lunch-bucket, jack-of-all-trades is probably his eventual destiny. We'll take it.
It'll be interesting to see how Portland's bench players react to tonight's game. Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews both sat out the last game against Toronto. That was a stinker of a night but the Blazers won. If Matthews and Batum are out tonight, how will their replacement and everybody else who moves up a notch in the rotation react? Will they rise to the challenge (as much as they're capable of anyway) or tuck their tails between their legs and slink off?
Anything in particular you're looking forward to from tonight's contest?
As a matter of fact there is something that I'm looking forward to in particular. It just so happens that it's related to our increasingly out of touch Commissioner, one David Joel Stern. See, as you might have heard, the last time the Spurs had a nationally televised game on a SEGABABA, Pop sent Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Green back to San Antonio and nearly beat the Heat with his bench. Not only did this set off ripples throughout the NBA community, but we at PTR had a blast covering it. I posted two different parodies in honor of the occasion: the Declaration of Spurs Independence, and Mark Antony's speech from Julius Caesar ("Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears..."), both rewritten to take advantage of every bit of Sternish ridiculousness that I could squeeze into them.
So, after the fashion of everyone who enjoys unintentional humor, I eagerly anticipate the next of Pop's anti-establishment tweaks to the nose of the league office. While I prefer to see both teams play at full strength, of course, more fireworks going off between S.A. and N.Y. would be a show too good to pass up.
I'm sure you understand.
Thanks to JRW for taking the time! Join us this evening for the GameDay Open Thread and tons of post-game analysis!