After opening up Phoenix’s US Airways Center and Denver’s Pepsi Center, the Trail Blazers finally come home to Portland to open the regular season doors for the first time at the newly christened Moda Center. Attempting to dampen the celebration will be the San Antonio Spurs – a team that very easily could have been the “Defending NBA Champion,” San Antonio Spurs. As it stands, the Spurs arrive in Portland having lost 8 of the last 9 games in the city and 12 of the last 17 in the series overall. To make matters worse, San Antonio may be without its surefire Hall of Fame power forward/center, Tim Duncan, who did not even suit up for the Spurs’ 91-85 victory over the Lakers on Friday, as he nurses a deep chest bruise.
Although the Blazers have dominated the series in recent years, and Duncan may not play, and the aged Spurs roster is playing its second road game on back-to-back nights, and it’s the home opener in Portland, the Spurs are still the Spurs. Tony Parker will no doubt test Damian Lillard’s defensive ability early and often. Parker’s brilliance lies in his ability to use his quickness, intelligence, and seemingly infinite stamina to run defenders ragged by layering pick-and-rolls upon pick-and-rolls. But expect Parker to run Lillard around even more screens than normal, so as to prevent Lillard from ever settling and digging in on defense. With that in mind, don’t be surprised to see Stotts try switching Nicolas Batum or Wes Matthews onto Parker and hiding Lillard on Danny Green. The Blazers have already shown similar second half adjustments in the first two games when Lillard has struggled to contain opposing point guards. Only in this game, it could even happen right out of the gate.
If Duncan cannot go, starting in his place will likely be Boris Diaw. Diaw is obviously not nearly the caliber of player that Duncan is, but Diaw’s versatility, especially on the offensive end, could give LaMarcus Aldridge some problems, as it did the Lakers in Diaw’s 10-point fourth quarter on Friday night. Aldridge is normally an excellent on-ball post defender, but he’s at his best when defending more classically styled post players. Players who handle the ball and face up as well as Diaw – who came into the league as a guard, somehow – are often the kind that Aldridge has more trouble with. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Diaw is a tougher matchup than Duncan, but Aldridge might be more comfortable – but not necessarily more effective – defending Duncan instead of Diaw.
Where San Antonio laments the absence of Duncan the most, is the luxury that he offers them in lineup flexibility. Since most teams in the modern NBA lack elite post scorers, Greg Popovich can comfortably play lineups that feature Diaw, Matt Bonner, or Kawhi Leonard at the 4. Because Duncan excels in protecting the rim through his defensive positioning, these lineups allow Popovich to get extra shooters or playmakers on the floor without sacrificing much defensively. It’s no coincidence then that this era of Blazers dominance against San Antonio has occurred along with the rise of Aldridge, who has consistently punished whatever smaller players the Spurs have tried to put on him. Poor Bonner cannot play even a minute against Portland without Aldridge walking the Red Rocket right down to the block and pummeling him into paprika.
For the Blazers to win tonight, they will need two strong performances from Aldridge and Lillard. Lillard might struggle defensively to corral Parker but on offense, Lillard needs to use his scoring ability and explosion without inhibition whenever he finds himself against the weak defending Parker, who may struggle to find a hiding place among the Blazers rotation. Should Popovich try Danny Green on Lillard and slide Parker over to Wes Matthews, the bulky Matthews can post up Parker with ease. The best-case scenario for Parker is if Lillard gets in foul trouble or if his poor defense leads to a lot of Mo Williams, who cannot punish Parker as a slasher nearly to the extent of Lillard. The worst-case scenario, of course, is Lillard goes for 30, chases Parker around every screen with newfound tenacity, the Blazers continue their dominant run against San Antonio, and everyone goes home happy.