I might be going out on a limb here, but I’m going to say that right now is probably the best time for the Blazers to face the San Antonio Spurs for the final time in 2012-13. Or at least, I can say that there probably isn’t a better time than the second week of the second to last month of the regular season to see the best team in the league.
Here’s why Friday night isn’t a bad time for the Blazers to square off against the Spurs: Portland has absolutely nothing to lose at this point. There is pride and lottery placing left to play for (opposing forces though they may be) but other than that, the Blazers have reached the point of the season where there’s no pressure on how games actually play out.
A loose and relaxed Portland team has a chance against the Spurs. The Blazers beat the Spurs at home the second time San Antonio came to town, and played them very close at the RG the first time. They can compete with this team. Putting a lot of pressure on themselves to win this game, the kind of pressure that might be applied if the Blazers were a game out of 8th and not three and a half games out of 8th, or worse in 8th position already and being chased by a team such as the LA Lakers. If that were the case, San Antonio would be the last team Portland would want to see on the schedule.
But Friday isn’t just about the Blazers not getting uptight against the current number one team in the NBA. Even with their fantastic record, San Antonio is still old, and even if they don’t care about how the regular season shakes out, the Spurs still have the Oklahoma City Thunder coming to town on Monday.
The Spurs won’t be happy finishing 2012-13 with the best record in the NBA. This San Antonio team is championship or bust. Regardless of where they finish (1st or 2nd, they won’t fall any further than than that), the Spurs will have to do something this season that they couldn’t do last season: beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in a seven game series. Monday’s game is much more important to San Antonio than Friday’s. Even if the Spurs eight through 14 guys are probably better than everybody but the top four on Portland’s roster, the Blazers have a slight advantage knowing that San Antonio couldn’t care less about Friday’s outcome.
Blazers Starting 5: PG Damian Lillard, SG Wesley Matthews, SF Nicolas Batum, PF LaMarcus Aldridge, C J.J. Hickson
Spurs Starting 5: PG Corey Joseph, SG Danny Green, SF Kawhi Leonard, PF Tim Duncan, C Tiago Splitter
The thing that makes the Spurs so fascinating year in and year out is that their roster doesn’t quite blow your hair back. Tim Duncan is a Hall of Famer, same with Tony Parker (probably) and Manu Ginobili (most likely), but other than those three, everything else is a combination of interchangeable parts that can either shoot the lights out (Gary Neal, Matt Bonner, Stephen Jackson), play outstanding perimeter defense (Kawhi Leonard), effectively stay out of Tim Duncan’s way (Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw, DaJuan Blair), or greatly overachieve by being placed into scenarios where it’s very hard for them to fail (Danny Green, Patty Mills).
If Portland wants to have a chance of being only the fourth team to beat the Spurs in San Antonio, they’ll have to focus on taking care of the basketball and getting good shots on the offensive end. They will also have to play strong perimeter defense and limited the Spurs’ second-chance points. In short, if the Blazers want to pull out a big road win, they’ll have to play probably their best 48 minutes of basketball. Just because the Spurs might take the night off and give Portland a chance, doesn’t mean the Blazers won’t have to work for it.
Tony Parker is out for four weeks with a sprained ankle, which means that Damian Lillard might be able to have a big night scoring. Beyond that, Portland won’t have much of an advantage at any position.
That the Spurs and the Blazers are strongest in the same position (power forward) doesn’t really favor either team. Tim Duncan is having a great season, LaMarcus Aldridge too. It will be fun watching the two of them go head-to-head, but as far as advantages go, the four is basically a push.
Wesley Matthews versus Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard versus Nicolas Batum are two very intriguing match-ups. Green has grown into a pretty outstanding player, same with Leonard. Neither Spur does exactly what Wesley and Nic do, but they’re strong enough players to knock Portland’s wings off their games, and if Matthews and Batum aren’t sharp defensively, Leonard and Green can certainly make them pay.
The Leonard/Batum match-up is probably the most important one for Portland. Leonard is strong enough to put a body on Nicolas to disrupt his drives to the hoop and he’s long enough to challenge his outside shooting. Kawhi is also athletic enough to put Batum in the post and make him defend. Luckily for Nic, the Spurs don’t run many plays for Leonard so Nicolas won’t have to do much one-on-one defending in the post. However, Batum absolutely cannot lose Leonard on the defensive glass. Leonard lives off second-chance points. Nicolas can’t let that happen.
Finally, the most interesting match-up Friday is going to be between J.J. Hickson and Tiago Splitter. Hickson has had some success against Splitter this season. Lillard’s play was key to Portland’s win on TNT against the Spurs in December, but Hickson’s ability to get good looks against Tiago Splitter helped the Blazers get into that game early. This match-up could go either way though. Splitter is the type of tall center J.J. Hickson has serious trouble defending. At the same time, Hickson can really work in the paint against the Brazil who struggles himself on the defensive end.
What to Watch For
- Bench battle. There are many differences between a team like the Spurs and a team like the Blazers. Near the top of that list is San Antonio’s second-unit depth. That being said, coming into Friday, Portland’s bench is much better than it has been at any other time in the season. A big game off the bench from Eric Maynor especially could be huge for the Blazers. Maynor will be going head-up with Patty Mills. I like the current Blazer over the former Blazer in that one. Manu Ginobili is going to be a handful for whoever checks him, but that’s to be expected. Portland has to keep the rest of the Spurs bench from going off if they want to get a win Friday.
- Can Portland hang in the first quarter. The Blazers need this game to be close the whole way to have a chance. If the road team gets down by double digits in the first 12 minutes, they’re going to be in trouble.
- Three-point shooting. Both the Blazers and the Spurs are three-point shooting teams. My prediction is that the team that shoots better from three wins on Friday.