Coming off a thrilling win in Dallas, the Portland Trail Blazers will look for another victory tonight in their first back to back of the season.
The Portland Trail Blazers will try to improve to 3-1 as they face the undefeated Spurs in San Antonio on Monday evening. Here are a few key things to keep an eye on.
Since LaMarcus Aldridge left for San Antonio in the 2015-2016 season, the Blazers are 5-9 against the Spurs. Tonight, the Blazers will look to add another check in the win column against a Western Conference opponent who will surely be competing for a playoff spot against the Blazers come April.
Unfortunately, it’s not likely we will get a massive Pau Gasol revenge game against his former Spurs team tonight as he is still working his way back from a foot injury. However, we can definitely expect an intense matchup. Here are a few keys to victory for the Blazers.
Tough Defensive Matchups
It should come at no surprise that the Spurs will roll out a solid line-up littered with defensive minded guards that will make life difficult on the Blazers starting guard duo. Year after year, Gregg Popovich finds new ways to reload on the defensive end of the court. Lillard, averaging 32 points per game so far this season, will face his toughest match with a feisty Dejounte Murray.
There isn’t any player in the league who can truly stop Lillard from getting to his spots and scoring, but Murray’s defensive efforts will likely force the Blazers to ask the rest of the starting cast to step up their offensive contributions.
C.J. McCollum is the obvious go-to scorer behind Lillard, but he will see a mix of Bryn Forbes and Derrick White. The Spurs guards defend with authority, leaving the more interesting matchups to the front court. Zach Collins, if healthy, and Hassan Whiteside will be the difference makers. The Blazers bigs must win their battles in the post to alleviate Lillard and McCollum’s normal burden of carrying the offense.
Blazers Defense Won’t Be Exposed From Deep
Through the first three games of the season, teams are shooting a combined 41 percent from three against Portland. Luckily for the Portland Trail Blazers, the Spurs took the fewest 3-point attempts in the league last season. Aside from Bryn Forbes, who shot a phenomenal 43 percent from deep last year, the Spurs starting rotation does not pose much of a threat from three.
This could provide an opportunity for the Blazers defensive rotations to play to their strengths and get the most out of the defense. The Spurs are shooting nearly 50 percent on two pointers through their two games this season, but they have not faced a duo of shot blocking forces like Whiteside and Collins. If Whiteside and Collins control the paint on the defensive end by altering shots and forcing midrange jumpers, the Spurs could struggle to score despite San Antonio’s midrange strengths.
Blazers Need Their Bench to Step Up
In their first back to back games of the season, Coach Stotts will likely mix up the usual rotations and give fewer minutes to the starters. This will force the Trail Blazers bench to step up their play on both ends. Kent Bazemore has proved to be a defensive gem in the early season. Similarly, Anfernee Simons played a terrific game against the Kings on Friday night with 15 points in 21 minutes, however, he followed up that performance with a lackluster showing in Dallas on Sunday.
Both Bazemore and Simons will be asked to stay consistent in their outputs on Monday night, but players like Mario Hezonja, Anthony Tolliver, and Skal Labissiere will need to manage the game while the starters rest more than normal. After showcasing his potential in the preseason, Hezonja has yet to prove he can consistently contribute in the regular season. Similarly, Tolliver has struggled to get open and score. Pegged as a three point specialist for the Blazers, Tolliver has yet to score a point, let alone hit a three. If Collins is injured, the Blazers will likely use Tolliver, Hezonja, Labissiere, and even Nassir Little to make up for his loss.
Must Win Tough Games in a Loaded Western Conference
Lastly, the Blazers must recognize the importance of picking up wins against conference opponents to begin the season. This years Western Conference is stronger than ever and the Blazers are not guaranteed a spot in the post season if they experience any slips. Even this early in the season, tough wins on the road will go a long way towards cementing the Blazers in the playoffs.
Games such as tonight’s are the ones that can solidify a team and make a difference come April and May. If the Portland Trail Blazers can overcome the Spurs’ relentless defense and can get enough support from the bench, there is no reason the Blazers can’t pull out another win and continue gaining momentum on their road trip.