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Trail Blazers vs. Spurs: Experience in the Clutch


Mar 12, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker (9) drives to the basket past Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (behind) during the first half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday on Twitter, the incredible fact that Tim Duncan has played in as many playoff games as the Portland Trail Blazers have as a franchise (218) surfaced. This is all kinds of ridiculous the more you think about, but in and of itself, it has little relevance to the Blazers’ upcoming series against the Spurs.

What matters is what those 218 games get you – experience. And heaps of it. This is a topic that David has already broached, but it absolutely deserves the attention. To an extent, merely saying a team “has experience” or is “more experienced” is often an empty platitude that various pundits and sportscasters throw around without explanation. But that’s not to say that it isn’t valuable – far from it, in fact.

What experience gets you is hard to define. Using merely the eye test, I would say I see more experienced teams hold up better under pressure, especially at the ends of games. More discipline. Less sloppiness. Smarter decisions. Etc.

These things are harder to quantify purely using numbers, because even which numbers to use can be subjective. Recently, has started defining “clutch” minutes as any time the score is within five points in the last five minutes of a game or overtime. While there will never be a perfect definition, it’s a convenient standard to use.

Thus far in the playoffs, the Blazers are tied for the third most clutch minutes logged (36), thanks to the riveting series they just concluded with the Houston Rockets. In these 36 minutes, the Blazers have shot only 39.1% from the field, and 31.8% from beyond the three-point line – both well off their season averages.

The Blazers have also fouled at an astronomical rate, committing 29 fouls during this time (a product of hacking Dwight Howard). The Spurs have only played 20 clutch minutes thus far in the playoffs, so their sample size is smaller, but no matter how you slice it, it isn’t a pretty comparison for the Blazers. The Spurs are shooting 47.1% overall, and 44.4% from three during these situations. They have also committed only two turnovers in these 20 minutes (compared to seven for the Blazers in their 36 minutes).

The Blazers’ seemingly lone bright spot, an excellent 82.1% shooting from the free throw line (an improvement from their in-season performance), is also overshadowed by the Spurs. The Spurs are shooting an almost unbelievable 91.7% from the free throw line in these clutch situations (22-24).

Despite all of these apparent shortcomings, the Blazers still somehow managed to outscore the Rockets by 12 full points during these 36 minutes. It may not have always been pretty, but the Blazers somehow made it work. Ultimately, that’s what matters – scoring more points than your opponent, no matter how you do it.

I think the Blazers’ relative inexperience can even give them a couple of advantages. To start with, I don’t think these Blazers will be intimidated, caught up in the moment, or in awe of the Spurs’ pedigree. This is just another team to them, and in fact, a team they have matched up with very well the past few years.

Additionally, all the pressure in the world is on the Spurs, not the Blazers. If the Blazers, as an upstart young team, lose to last year’s runner up and likely most successful team of this millennium thus far, most people won’t bat an eye. At least on paper, the Spurs are expected to win, which brings a whole new level of pressure, both internally and externally.

When it’s all said and done, I expect there to be some close games throughout this series. Both teams appear to be too good to ever get truly blown out, so the clutch time performance may very well come into play.

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