The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the remnant of the San Antonio Spurs tonight after Gregg Popovich's latest roster diaspora, but the bigger news of the evening is Robin Lopez fracturing his hand in the third quarter of this game. We will talk about what that means in a minute after giving a few minutes to the game itself.
Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tiago Splitter all sat out tonight, making the evening as suspenseful as an oatmeal cook-off. Instead of testing themselves against last year's World Champions, the Blazers faced a tribute band playing in the style of the Spurs.
As usually happens when the Spurs rest their starters, their makeshift lineup played with plenty of energy. San Antonio's pressure bothered the Blazers, keeping the visitors close in the first half. Two factors prevented the Spurs from making serious inroads:
1. They couldn't hold onto the ball, making careless, uncoordinated turnovers.
2. The Blazers bench--substituted in unusual formation--seemed to pick up the challenge and put defensive pressure right back on the Spurs. San Antonio's lower-minute players crumbled quicker than Portland's did.
As a result, Portland led 48-43 at the half.
The Blazers' starters woke up in the third period as the team force-fed the ball to LaMarcus Aldridge and his scoring freed up Damian Lillard for drives. Aldridge would score 14 in the frame, Lillard 6 with 3 assists. The Blazers also capitalized on the offensive glass. Even when the Spurs forced misses, their rebounds were never secure. Portland's combination of star power and board control wore down the undermanned San Antonio roster. The Blazers led 76-68 after three and cruised home to the 108-95 win.
Aldridge scored 23 with 14 rebounds. Lillard also scored 23 with 10 rebounds and 6 assists.
Portland's bench provided more surprises than the starters tonight. The first-half rotation featured Steve Blake, Will Barton, Allen Crabbe, and Chris Kaman playing together. Barton hit a buzzer-beating three to end the first period. Crabbe showed impressive defense and scored 8 points in 14 minutes on 3-4 shooting. His play was the biggest bench development of the evening. Thomas Robinson got a look in the fourth quarter, scoring 7 points in 9 minutes, adding 3 rebounds, 2 turnovers, and 2 fouls.
Credit goes to the reserves for bringing energy to the game for the second straight outing when the starters didn't. Special nods go to Crabbe, Barton, and Kaman.
Now back to Lopez. The extent of his injury isn't known at this time, nor his prognosis for recovery. This will be the first time the Blazers will be without a member of their starting lineup for an extended period since Aldridge missed the 66th-72nd games of the 2013-14 season with back issues. The Blazers went 3-3 in that stretch. In general they've dealt well with injuries, though their near-pristine health hasn't left much opportunity for experimentation.
Lopez sitting out will test one of the running theories of the new season, that the Blazers are deeper at the center position. Lopez's contributions were so singular last year that losing him for 20 minutes changed Portland's flow dramatically. Kaman and Freeland have filled in ably this year, but their roles and minutes have been set up by Lopez. They've shown enough to evoke confidence, but anyone who watched the Blazers flounder without Lopez last season can be forgiven for an involuntary shudder at the idea of him in street clothes.
Just as Nicolas Batum is a quiet hub of Portland's offense, Lopez is a quiet hub on the other end. He's the fail-safe when the guards can't stop the dribble, the heart of Portland's rebounding confidence...if nothing else for keeping the opposing center off the glass, leaving Aldridge to battle his own man one-on-one for rebounds. Speaking of...Lopez's prodigious offensive rebounding rate gives the Blazers a cushion no other player on the roster can match.
Losing Lopez won't be as obvious as removing a 20-point scorer from the lineup, but routine tasks just got harder for everyone else. Games against New Orleans on December 20th and Houston on December 22nd will be especially challenging with a shortened big-man rotation.
As a result of this injury we're going to get a better look at Freeland, Robinson, and Meyers Leonard...or if we don't, we can assume the opportunities to view them this season will be rare. Freeland has excelled in short minutes. It'll be interesting to see if he can expand his role. Also interesting: How will Terry Stotts mix and match between power forwards and centers? Everybody but Kaman is a natural forward or a shaky hybrid. Will Aldridge play the 5 or will one of the young players get re-converted to center? Until somebody besides Kaman steps up, the coaches might as well distribute Lopez's playing time with a Magic 8 Ball.
Don't be surprised if the Blazers end up preserving Kaman's bench role, just with larger minutes. He's a huge key to the second-unit offense. Take him out of the equation and they've reverted to last season's scoring power...which ain't much. Look for the coaching staff to consider Leonard or Freeland starting, Kaman playing when it matters most.
Since it's the season of giving, don't forget to help underprivileged youth see Portland's March 30th game against the Phoenix Suns by contributing tickets to Blazer's Edge Night. The cost of a ticket is low and the joy it brings into the life of a child who otherwise wouldn't get to see a game is immeasurable. We're looking to send over 1000 kids this year. You can find all the details here. Please help with a ticket or two (or 10!) if you can.