The Blazers' current road trip gets even tougher tonight, as they take on the San Antonio Spurs, owners of the NBA's best record and winners of seven straight.
The Spurs have had a full roster available for the first time all season during their recent successful stretch, and their balance and efficiency from top-to-bottom has been impressive.
Over the past five games, San Antonio has managed over 111 points, 48.9 percent field-goal shooting, 41.5 percent three-point shooting, 25.6 foul shots and almost 30 assists a night. For the third straight game, Portland faces a team playing its best basketball of the season.
Point guard Tony Parker, an excellent distributor with six assists per contest, is also a great scorer. He's not much of a three-point shooter -- though he's made 37.7 percent of the threes he has taken this year -- and prefers to score in the mid-range or closer to the hoop, an effective pick-and-roll player. Parker has a knack for finishing well at the basket, though his pull-up jumper is also a great shot in his arsenal. He's converting on over half his attempts the last five games and leads the Spurs in scoring in that span with 19.2 points a night.
Power forward Tim Duncan hasn't been the offensive force lately he's capable of being, but he really hasn't had to fill that role as much with a full, healthy roster. At almost 38 years old and in his seventeenth season, Duncan leads San Antonio in minutes played this year and is still a huge part of his team's success. His field-goal percentage is skewed slightly by his knack for taking jumpers that he hasn't converted very well on this year, but Duncan is still able to do work in the post, a very crafty scorer down low.
Forward Kawhi Leonard has rounded into form and is leading the team in minutes per game over the last several weeks. The Spurs are a noticeably better team with Leonard on the court, as he's able to ratchet up the energy, force turnovers and score in transition. He's an elite finisher near the hoop, also a solid jump-shooter. A 36.3 percent three-point shooter on the year, Leonard is now hitting over 52 percent of his outside shots, adding another dimension to his versatile game.
Center Tiago Splitter and shooting guard Danny Green usually start, though their offensive impact is less than that of their bench counterparts.
Do-everything big man Boris Diaw is able to adapt himself to just about any lineup Spurs coach gregg Popovich puts on the floor, a chameleon of sorts who fills whatever role necessary. Over his last five games, Diaw is hitting a remarkable 69.7 percent of all his field-goals and 63.6 percent of his threes. The 11-year veteran is a deceivingly capable athlete, and he's even making noise in some San Antonio circles as a deserving candidate for the NBA's Sixth-Man of the Year award.
Speaking of Spurs players worthy of mention in the Sixth-Man of the Year conversation, guard Manu Ginobili is still playing at a high level off the bench after all these years, putting in 15.6 points, 58.7 percent shooting from the field and 45.8 percent shooting from long-range over his last five games.
Ginobili leads what is arguably the best bench unit in the NBA, contributing to the depth available to Popovich from game-to-game.
Guards Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli are at the edge of San Antonio's main nine-man rotation. Both aren't shooting as well from the field as usual, missing almost two-thirds of all their shots lately. While Belinelli is a 43.7 percent three-point shooter on the year and recently won the NBA's Three-Point Contest, he's gone cold from beyond the arc as of late, hitting only 16.7 percent of his threes the last couple weeks. Mills still has his deep-shooting stroke, able to hit 45 percent of his outside shots the last five games.
Big men Aron Baynes, Matt Bonner, Jeff Ayres and guard Cory Joseph are all likely to pick up some minutes tonight from the end of the bench, but none plays a serious role in the offense.
The Spurs' defense has also been pretty stout lately, though not quite as efficient as the offense. Over the last five games, San Antonio has given up about 98 points, 44.4 percent shooting from the field and 36.5 percent shooting from deep. The Spurs allow a decent amount of ball movement, don't force turnovers, but don't give up easy points at the line, either. They can be scored on inside, but getting there for perimeter players is difficult due to Leonard and Green's individual defense on the wing, giving San Antonio's defensive frontcourt extra time to react.
The Blazers have gone into somewhat of an offensive lull lately, proving incapable of stringing together a solid, 48-minute performance. They're down to 103.6 points per night on 43.2 percent field-goal shooting and 35.7 percent shooting behind the arc the last five games, all below season averages.
Point guard Damian Lillard went off in the second half yesterday against Memphis, ending with 32 points and going 12-13 from the line. His 4-8 performance from outside was also good. Still, he was 8-21 from the field overall, continuing his recent troubles converting on two-pointers. Lillard seems to have found his outside shot, and the free-throw attempts are demonstrative of an aggressive outing. If he can combine last night's effort with the ability to finish inside that he displayed post-All-Star break, Portland's path to victory would become much more visible against the Spurs.
Forward LaMarcus Aldridge ended yesterday's game with 19 points in an 8-23 performance from the field. He's sunk to 37.3 percent on his field-goals the last five games, making it difficult for the Blazers to overcome deficits when he's putting up almost two-dozen shots a night with that kind of efficiency. Aldridge has found some extra points at the line lately, which he should continue, especially if his shot's not falling. His passing numbers are slightly down, though, so he might be able to initiate more offense for Portland by passing out more often when the defense collapses on him.
Guard Wesley Matthews went 1-7 last night, a rough outing for the guy who's been the third-leading scorer for the Blazers the last five games. He's had a hard time from the field lately, but like Lillard and Aldridge, has found ways to put points on the board by drawing fouls. Wing Nicolas Batum looked for his shot against the Grizzlies last night, dialing his own number 13 times and also hitting 3-of-5 threes. He'll likely be matched up with Leonard for much of the night, so Batum might have a hard time scoring off the dribble. After averaging a few assists less than normal the last couple weeks, he might look to make the extra pass tonight and take on a facilitating role for his teammates.
Center Robin Lopez didn't find many opportunities to score against the Grizzlies, playing limited minutes with foul trouble. He's functioned very well as a secondary option, though, hitting two-thirds of his shots lately. After a night when Lopez wasn't able to get into a groove, expect his number to get called a few more times tonight as he won't be matched up with the NBA's reigning Defensive Player of the Year (Grizzlies center Marc Gasol) and he'll likely have somewhat fresher legs than his fellow Blazers starters after playing only 27 minutes in Memphis.
Portland coach Terry Stotts has seen mixed results from his bench lately, and things probably just got a little more bleak for the reserves, as sixth-man Mo Williams left the game last night in the second quarter with a hip injury and is questionable for tonight's game.
Guard C.J. McCollum has been pretty up-and-down, sometimes an offensive spark off the bench and sometimes unable to create any offense for himself or his teammates. Big men Thomas Robinson and Meyers Leonard have demonstrated similar inconsistency to McCollum, both going 4-6 last night for 8 points off the bench a couple nights after registering a combined two points against the Rockets on Sunday.
The Blazers' defense has played most of the last five games reasonably well in multiple areas, but has failed to turn in a complete game for the most part. In a loss to the Mavericks Friday, Portland shut down the three-point line and defended the field well overall but sent Dallas to the line 34 times. Against the Rockets on Sunday it was the same story, though Houston attempted 45 foul shots. Last night against the Grizzlies, the Blazers only sent Memphis to the line 13 times but gave up 56 percent shooting from the floor. If Portland can't put together a full defensive effort against San Antonio, they're likely to see similar results.
The Spurs out-rebound opponents, but not to the degree the Blazers do. San Antonio has very few individuals who swing the balance on the offensive side of the boards, but they are an excellent team at defensive rebounding, the entire frontcourt full of capable individual rebounders. Portland has seen both Aldridge and Lopez get some help on the glass from Robinson, Batum and Leonard. Still, the Blazers have largely been unable to capitalize on the team's rebounding efforts lately.
Both teams played games last night, though Popovich didn't play a single starter over 29 minutes in a road win over the Bulls. Stotts, with a much more limited bench, gave 39 minutes to Lillard, 38 to both Aldridge and Batum and 35 to Matthews last night in Memphis. Portland will likely be without its first player off the bench in Williams, while the Spurs will have a full deck if Green gives it a go tonight.
On the second night of a back-to-back, the fourth-consecutive road game, against the best team in the league that's carrying a seven-game win streak and with a short bench, a win for the Blazers could be considered improbable tonight. The last team to beat San Antonio was the Suns, and they did it by pushing the tempo and not allowing any individual Spurs player to go off. If Portland can score a couple dozen points off the fast break and/or keep every opposing player below about 15 points tonight, it'd go a long way toward an upset. That might not be likely, but the Blazers did demonstrate they can win in San Antonio when they took out the Spurs in mid-January, 109-100.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter