Portland Trail Blazers (4-4) vs San Antonio Spurs (5-2)
Wednesday, November 11
Moda Center | 7:30 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: ESPN/KGW; 620 AM
Portland injury report: Gerald Henderson (Probable) | San Antonio injury report: None
SBN Affiliate: Pounding the Rock | Blazer's Edge Night 2016
The 4-4 Portland Trail Blazers look to right the ship after blowing late leads in back to back contests. Standing in Portland's way are the 5-2 San Antonio Spurs, led by Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, in Aldridge's first visit to the Moda Center since deciding to leave Portland and sign a max contract with the Spurs this past summer.
So far this season, everything is pointing to "another year, another stellar San Antonio season." Through seven games, the Spurs are shooting a league-best 48.8 percent on the year from the field, have the second highest average margin of victory at 10.57 points, the no. 8 ORtg at 105.2, the no. 2 DRtg at 94.4, the sixth highest assist per game average of 25.4...the list goes on and on. (For an in-depth look at the numbers behind tonight's matchup, check out Blazer's Edge user Scipiotheyounger's post Blazers vs. Spurs, Comparing and Analyzing Team Statistics.)
There have been some whispers about how LaMarcus Aldridge would fit in the Spurs' pass heavy offense. Aldridge tends to hold the ball for a considerable amount of time and is reliant on the midrange jumper. Thus far in the young season, Aldridge is averaging 15.1 points on 13.1 shots per game, both good for his lowest output since his rookie season. To be fair, Aldridge is only playing 29.4 minutes per game this season, down from 35.4 last year.
Interestingly, Aldridge is still taking 37 percent of his shots from 16 feet out to the 3-point arc, in line with his averages since he became an All-Star in the 2011-12 season, but he is shooting a career worst 35 percent from that range so far this year. It's not unsurprising that Aldridge's production is down slightly as he adapts to a new offensive system where he is not the clear focal point, but it is doubtful that he'll continue to struggle from the midrange.
One player that is decidedly not struggling is Kawhi Leonard. Leonard has been on an absolute tear recently, making 20 of his last 29 shots and averaging 22.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game this season. The reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard has continued his dominance on that side of the ball, averaging 2 steals and 1.4 blocks per contest. Though his usage rate is at a career high, he still plays within the framework of the system and never lets the ball movement bog down when it's in his hands.
Matching up against Leonard will be Al-Farouq Aminu, the Blazers' best defender. It will be interesting to see how successful Aminu can be at forcing Leonard to work for his offense.
With all of the buzz surrounding Aldridge's arrival and Leonard's hot start, it's easy to overlook the two future Hall of Famers in the Spurs' starting lineup, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan. While we've learned over the last four or five years that Duncan is actually immortal, Tony Parker struggled notably last season, not only shooting a lower percentage, but continuing to deal with injury problems that have plagued him over the last four years. Last season was the first where Parker had noticeably lost a step and seemed to be unable to get to the rim at will, a trademark of his career.
This season, Parker is playing fewer minutes, but is moving more effectively and is back to his efficient self, shooting 54 percent, including 43 percent from the 3-point line. It remains to be seen whether Parker can sustain his hot outside shooting, let alone his health, but at this point in the season, he is looking closer to the Tony Parker of old than the washed up version we saw late in the season last year.
Duncan, on the other hand, has been on a minutes restriction for what seems like an eternity now, averaging fewer than 31 minutes per game every season since 2009-10. With Aldridge in tow, he is being relied upon less for his scoring, but is still shooting 52 percent and averaging 10.9 points and 9.6 rebounds per contest.
Shooting guard Danny Green, fresh off of his four-year/$40 million dollar deal, has struggled in the early going this season. A 3-point specialist, Green takes 7.7 shots per game, 4.6 of them from behind the arc. Unfortunately for the Spurs, the career 41 percent 3-point shooter is hitting at an abysmal 22 percent clip so far this year. Blazer shooting guards CJ McCollum and recently activated Gerald Henderson will still need to keep tabs on Green all game long, as he can get it going in a hurry.
The Spurs have one of the deepest benches in the league, averaging 36.4 bench points compared to 23.8 for Portland. Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, and David West are all capable of getting hot for short stretches and, even more importantly, don't show any drop off in terms of running the Spurs' game plan. Coach Gregg Popovich runs a tight ship, and San Antonio's role players know that they will be yanked off of the court without a second thought should they try to start going one-on-one.
Meanwhile Portland's second unit has struggled to generate offense. Ed Davis, Maurice Harkless, and Allen Crabbe have all been up and down recently, while young power forward Noah Vonleh has mostly been down. The Blazers need solid contributions from these three to stand a chance tonight.
Help may be on the way, however, as it was announced Tuesday afternoon that shooting guard Gerald Henderson is probable to make his Blazers debut against the Spurs. Henderson brings defensive tenacity, adequate shooting, and athletic offensive prowess to the Blazers' backcourt, though it remains to be seen what kind of shape he is in, or what kind of minutes he is able to log.
The Blazers are going to have their hands full tonight if their recent defensive woes continue. Portland has allowed 49.6 percent shooting over their last three games, including back-to-back losses where the opponent was able to score seemingly at will in the fourth quarter. Things won't get any easier tonight. Portland needs to be locked in defensively for the full 48 minutes, or else the Spurs are going to pick-and-roll and back cut the Blazers to death.
The aforementioned Al-Farouq Aminu/Kawhi Leonard matchup will be key, but it will be interesting to watch who is guarding Aldridge tonight. Expect to see Meyers Leonard at least start out on him, as he has the length to contend with Aldridge's overhead release jumper, not to mention the countless hours he spent guarding him in practice. If coach Terry Stotts switches Mason Plumlee onto Aldridge midgame, the Blazers are likely already in trouble.
Keys to a Blazer victory
Dame Lillard statement game: This isn't an actual key to victory so much as a "watch for." With LaMarcus Aldridge returning to town after a summer of rumblings that the two players never quite saw eye-to-eye, don't be surprised to see Lillard emphatically put his mark on this game, showing who this team belongs to now.
Don't get stagnant on offense: During the last two games, the Blazers went through stretches of not knowing what they wanted to do on offense, settling for the players taking turns going one-on-one. This isn't winning basketball against the Denver Nuggets and it's definitely not winning basketball against the Spurs. Portland needs to execute its game plan to perfection, making clear reads, setting solid screens, and making crisp passes. Settling for 36 minutes of focused basketball just won't cut it.
The sixth man: Think the crowd will be just a little bit loud tonight? Whether he gets booed or cheered, LaMarcus Aldridge's return is without a doubt the biggest "circle it on your calendar" game of the year. If the Blazers come out hot and Aldridge misses a couple of early shots, the crowd could help propel Portland forward with a playoff-level of intensity.
The key is for the fans to not let up. If the Spurs are able to go on any kind of decent run, they'll be hoping that the energy gets sucked out of the arena. Blazer fans fortunate enough to have a ticket to tonight's game will need to bring their A-game and bring it for the full 48 minutes.
..Unless Coach Pop decides to rest Aldridge and the rest of his starters tonight. He wouldn't do THAT, would he?