I joined lead editor Dane Carbaugh from A Young Sabonis, a Trailblazers blog site, to ramble on about Spurs and Blazers and how tonight will pan out for the top two teams in the Western Conference. My outlook for tonight's game at the AT&T Center isn't so rosey.
Dane Carbough: With Danny Green out with a broken hand, how has that changed San Antonio’s look (on both ends of the court) and how they faring so far without him?
Aaron Preine: Well, health wise, it’s been a rough start to the new year for the Spurs. Manu’s hamstring is giving him fits, Splitter is out with the strained shoulder, and now Danny’s non-shooting hand. With Danny, the biggest loss for the Spurs is on the defensive end. He’s statistically the second best defender on the floor, typically taking on opponent’s best guard. The void now forces Kawhi, another good defender, to take on more minutes, as well as responsibility at the two-spot. We’ll begin to see more minutes for forgotten combo guard Cory Joseph who is somewhat undersized but can hold his own.
Outside of his three-point ability, the Spurs aren’t hurting too much on offense. Defenses know Danny isn’t adept at creating or even just putting the ball on the floor. Belinelli has flourished in the Spurs offense and San Antonio still has a plethora of players who can hit the deep ball. If Kawhi does take on more of a role at the two-spot, it could be another opportunity for him to prove himself as an offensive focal point. Popovich has experimented with it early this season but Leonard has struggled for the most part.
Quite honestly, I’m more worried about Splitter’s absence considering that he is one of the most undervalued defensive big men in the NBA. Speaking of injuries, I’m sure you’re enjoying having a team that hasn’t been burdened with the NBA injury plague. But considering the amount of importance Portland places on their starting five (a near average of 35 minutes per game), it feels like it’s only a matter of time before they get it hit.
Do you think Coach Stotts needs to dial it back sooner than later?
DC: That’s hard to say, really. Last year the clear goal was to get Lillard some time while secretly trying to lose as many games as possible (playing Sasha Pavlovic 14 minutes per-game, for example). Stotts wants to win no matter what, and although Portland’s bench has improved there’s not a legitimate threat outside of Mo Williams to score. CJ McCollum might help alleviate that, which could lead to more rest for the wing players moving forward. There’s no post scoring threat on the bench for the Blazers, which lets defenses key on Williams. I’m not sure I see Stotts reducing minutes all that much for his starters since he’s going to want home court advantage in the playoffs.
Tell me about Tony Parker’s recent play, he’s really stepped it up the last five games. Is that because of Green being out?
AP: It has more to do with playing five terrible defenses, including the two worst in the NBA – Utah (108.1 DefRtg) and New Orleans (107.2). Tony is also dealing with a minor injury and is listed as “probable” tonight with a right shin contusion. It’s bad enough Green is out but a dinged-up Tony Parker trying to stay with Lillard is a nightmare. If Parker does play, the Spurs will try to hide him on defense. Matthews or Batum will likely see a big boost from this.
Tony’s health was the biggest concern heading into the 2013-14 season. Parker has been dealing with leg issues almost nonstop since last spring: a badly sprained ankle in early March and the hamstring strain in the Finals. Much to the frustration of Spurs fans, he went almost directly into the Eurobasket tournament which took up most of the offseason. And to no one’s surprised, Tony has has been dealing with minor lower leg issues since the start of this season. As Tony goes, so do the Spurs. But people forget Tony Parker has racked up a ton of basketball mileage.
So from lottery hopes to being contenders for the top seed in the brutal Western Conference. That’s quite a jump for one season. They’re the most destructive offensive unit in the league but their defense is a completely different story. Do you think the Blazers can go deep into the playoffs without a solid defense?
DC: The defense issue is actually been a bit blown out of proportion. Portland isn’t an incredible defensive team, to be sure, but they aren’t a sieve as many believe them to be. They’re middle-of-the-pack in things like opp eFG%, opp OREB% and opp offensive efficiency. They’re actually very good in opp 3P%, opp three-point rate and opp FTA per FGA. They do a lot of things right, and that’s by design. Stotts wants to force teams off the three-point line and protect the hoop the best he can (although Lopez and maybe Freeland are the only protectors he’s got). Portland’s “bad” defense is by design, and it’s really not all that bad. They’re leaders in differential and that’s a huge plus. You also have to factor in that the Blazers really are a second-half team — not in skill but that Stotts and his crew really are some of the best halftime adjustment guys I’ve ever seen. I think they’ll do just fine in the playoffs… just as long as they don’t draw the Phoenix Suns in the first round.
Why don’t you give me a prediction for tonight’s game?
AP: Portland has won 13 out of the last 18 games against San Antonio, including the last three. And I don’t see that streak ending tonight. The Spurs have been living off bad and mediocre teams which has masked quite a few of their flaws (pick and roll defense, contesting spot-up shooters, not aggressive enough attacking the paint). With Green and Splitter both out and Parker on a bad wheel, I think Portland’s backcourt will feast. Duncan has always struggled against Aldridge so Diaw will have that responsibility (actually an underrated defender but still…) Other Spurs bloggers have growing faith in Jeff Ayers but I’m not buying in. I’m guessing a double-digit win for your Blazers and a double-digit tally of empty beer bottles on my table tonight. Do you concur?
DC: Honestly, I’m not sure. Portland hasn’t been the most impressive team as of late, so they’re going to need to regain some of their confidence on this tough four-game trip. The Spurs have a tendency to turn it off and on, which isn’t great for them. The Blazers play up or down to their opponents, which could mean they come out very strong tonight in Texas. I would doubt this is a blowout one way or another, and we could even be in store for more Damian Lillard heroics late. If the Spurs lose, though, you’re going to have to tweet your empties.