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Portland Trail Blazers vs. San Antonio Spurs Preview

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The Blazers try to avoid three straight losses when they host the San Antonio Spurs tonight.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

San Antonio Spurs (34-22, No. 7 in the West) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (36-19, No. 4 in the West)
Wednesday, February 25
Moda Center; Portland, OR | 7:30 p.m. PST | Local TV/Radio: KGWHD, ESPNHD; 620 AM
Out for the Blazers: Joel Freeland | Out for the Spurs: N/A
SBN Affiliate: Pounding the Rock Timmay's Viewing Guide | Blazer's Edge Night

The Blazers hope to avoid three straight losses when they host the San Antonio Spurs tonight at the Moda Center.

Every year, the San Antonio Stock and Rodeo Show takes over the AT&T Center for three weeks in February, pushing the Spurs out of the building for their longest road trek of the year, known as the "Annual Rodeo Road Trip." Generally, this trip has a galvanizing effect on the team and they've never come back with a losing record since its inception in the 2002-03 season.

This year, San Antonio is currently 2-4 on its annual rodeo road trip with three games remaining, including tonight's nationally-televised tilt in Portland.

Earlier in the season, when the Spurs got off to a less-than hot start that's left them in the lower-half of the Western Conference playoff picture, fans and analysts looked past their struggles. The team was coming off one of the most impressive championship runs in league history, dismantling the Miami Heat in convincing fashion in last year's NBA Finals.

"Every year for the last half-decade, people around the league have written San Antonio off as too old," many analysts would say when asked about the Spurs' issues on the court. "Each year, they've proven their doubters wrong."

The narrative went from predicting San Antonio's demise due to advanced age to then criticizing those who genuinely pondered how long the Spurs' current dynasty could realistically last. Father Time is, after all, undefeated.

San Antonio fans have reason to be optimistic. Small forward Kawhi Leonard, just 23 years old, took home the 2014 NBA Finals MVP trophy last spring, firmly cementing himself as a foundational piece of the organization going forward. Guards Patty Mills, Danny Green and Cory Joseph, all fixtures in the backcourt, are all between 23 and 27. Centers Tiago Splitter and Aron Baynes are 30 and 28 years old, respectively. And though center Tim Duncan is almost 39 and guard Manu Ginobili is 37 -- both future Hall of Fame locks -- All-Star point guard Tony Parker and key component Boris Diaw, forward, should have plenty of gas left in the tank at 32 years old each.

Still, how do you explain San Antonio's 2013-14 Offensive Rating of 108.2, good for No. 6 in the NBA, dipping to 103.6 and No. 12 in the league this year?

Let's allow Pounding the Rock contributor Michael Erler to take over for a moment:

The problem is bigger than the Spurs averaging 4.9 fewer points this season than last or sinking from 7th to 12th in offensive rating. It's that almost everyone has been worse, or at least less efficient, instead of just one or two guys.

Parker, Mills, [Marco] Belinelli, Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw are all scoring less and shooting a worse percentage than they did last season. That's five of the team's ten best players, and they're having more difficulty scoring, dramatically so in some cases.

Leonard, Danny Green and Matt Bonner are averaging more points, but shooting a worse percentage. That makes eight of the top 12 shooting it worse than last year. Again, the difference is huge in some cases.

Duncan and Tiago Splitter are scoring fewer points but shooting a better percentage, just barely so in both of their cases.

That leaves two Spurs who are both scoring more points and shooting more efficiently than last season: Joseph and Aron Baynes. No offense to either of them and I'm a fan of both, but when Joseph and Baynes are your only two improved scorers, your team is probably struggling to score.

Pretty much the entire roster is scoring less efficiently than last year. Parker is getting to the rim less and shooting worse from everywhere but the perimeter, where he only launches 1.5 shots a game. As the engine to the Spurs' car struggles, so too do the surrounding players.

"Can you point to anybody who is doing well?" Ginobili asked the San Antonio Express-News yesterday. "[Parker] is struggling like the rest of us are struggling. It’s an 'us’ thing. We as a team have to get it together."

Some local columnists are even pondering whether or not the Spurs will make the playoffs.

San Antonio isn't clicking during the stretch run of a season for what seems like the first time in a decade-and-a-half. Fans and media alike seem puzzled and unable to come up with a solid explanation.

Still, the Spurs have coach Gregg Popovich, one of the all-time greatest minds in the game, and Duncan is still having a solid season, his per-36 numbers in line with his career numbers. Even his non-adjusted averages of 14.6 points and 9.8 rebounds per game this year are more than respectable, especially considering his age.

San Antonio's defense isn't all that bad, either. The teams ranks No. 6 in the league in Defensive Rating this season according to NBA.com. The Spurs are still elite at defending within the perimeter and limit opponents' attempts from outside. They're decent at defending the paint, limit easy ball movement and come out of the gate strong, posting the NBA's best first quarter defense in terms of points allowed, according to TeamRankings.com.

No matter how you spin it, though, San Antonio has still lost three straight games since the All-Star break and those around the team are looking for answers.

Can the Blazers capitalize on the Spurs' recent offensive woes?

Maybe.

Portland has similarly come out of the gates since the extended break with a whimper, posting an embarrassing loss in Utah last Friday and a fourth quarter meltdown on Monday against the Grizzlies that led to another deflating defeat. In those two games, the Blazers have shot just 38.3 percent from the field and 30.9 percent from outside. Scoring, assists and rebounds are down, while turnovers are up.

The defense has been solid for stretches; Twice in the game against Memphis, Portland held the Grizzlies to 19 points in a quarter. Against the Jazz, only 39 first-half points were given up. But Utah then rattled off a 26-point third quarter and a 27-point fourth quarter while the Blazers stayed ice cold. On Monday, Memphis busted the game open with 34 points in the fourth period and cruised to the victory.

Point guard Damian Lillard has converted well in the paint -- where he's attempted just a quarter of his shots -- and in the midrange, but his three-point shooting is an abysmal 29.4 percent in the two games since the All-Star break. Like the team itself, Lillard's assists are down and his turnovers up, and he's been much quieter on the defensive end since starting the season much improved on that side of the ball.

Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, who missed the Memphis game with a sprained right thumb, will return to the lineup tonight after scoring only 14 points in Utah on 5-of-16 shooting from the floor. Good news may be around the corner for Aldridge, however: In three games against the Spurs this year, he's averaged 26.3 points and 12.7 rebounds, shooting 48.5 percent from the field. Lillard has similarly played well against San Antonio this season, putting up averages of 29.7 points and 5.7 assists to go along with 5 assists, while making 51.6 percent of his baskets. Sure, his outside shooting has been horrid against San Antonio, but Lillard should be able to get to the rim and score tonight when he needs to.

He also did this to the Spurs back in December:

Guards Wesley Matthews and Steve Blake, along with forward Nicolas Batum, have all had issues hitting shots against San Antonio this year, none shooting above 29.4 percent from deep and 33.3 percent from the field against the Spurs. Aldridge and Lillard have truly strapped the team on their respective backs against San Antonio this season, with only a couple solid performances from the supporting cast sprinkled in.

Guard CJ McCollum, center Chris Kaman and forward Dorell Wright have all shot fairly well versus the Spurs, and big man Meyers Leonard has been decent in very limited minutes. Center Robin Lopez has played less than 20 total minutes against them this season due to injury.

The point is, the Blazers have needed monster efforts from their star players to build a 2-1 record against San Antonio this season. Now that Splitter is dealing with a reduced role and with Baynes starting in the middle, you have to figure Portland's bigs and its scorers in the paint will have a clearer path to points inside. The Spurs also have the second-worst perimeter defense in the NBA since the All-Star break, according to HoopsStats.com, so Lillard, Matthews, Batum & Co. should get some clean looks from outside tonight, which could be big after dealing with the youthful energy and length of the Jazz and the suffocating defense of the Grizzlies the past two games.

Newly-acquired backup guard Arron Afflalo has finally gotten some solid practice time in with his new team. Back in December when he was with the Nuggets, he dropped 31 points on 12-for-20 shooting against San Antonio and, after playing 24 minutes off the bench Monday in his first action as a Blazer, Afflalo could be in line for big minutes again tonight.

In the most recent two games, the Blazers haven't impressed individually on the glass, but that's skewed heavily because Aldridge didn't play against Memphis. Duncan and Baynes do a good job on the boards for the Spurs but, as a team, they're average right now. San Antonio doesn't crash the offensive glass hard but they're much better on the other end. Portland has struggled recently to grab misses underneath its own basket but has advantages otherwise. Lopez should be able to fight for put-backs and tap-outs against Baynes down low.

With both teams currently facing offensive woes and with extended losing streaks on the line for each squad tonight, this game will come down to who can execute down the stretch. While the Spurs really have no firm answers as to why things just aren't working in their favor lately, the Blazers can at least point to Aldridge's absence Monday night and the insertion of two new players -- Afflalo and wing Alonzo Gee -- into their rotation in the last week for some of their issues since the All-Star break.

It's not panic time yet for Portland and its fans, but with Oklahoma City climbing the Western Conference rankings quickly and a reeling Spurs unit rolling into town, tonight would be a good time for a good old-fashioned, morale-boosting win over the defending champs. If the Blazers can get some support for Aldridge and Lillard -- Matthews, Batum, McCollum, Leonard and Afflalo are all prime candidates against San Antonio's as-of-late leaky perimeter defense -- they can head into Friday night's showdown with the Thunder at home with a win tucked into their back pocket and some momentum instead of riding a three-game losing streak and searching for answers.

-- Chris Lucia | blazersedgepodcast@gmail.com | Twitter

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