Fraternizing with the Enemy: Dave and JRW talk Blazers at Spurs

There's a contest tonight between the Portland Trail Blazers and the San Antonio Spurs. Which, to followers of the FwtE series, means that Dave and I have once again prepared ahead of time so that you don't have to. As long as you have access to the interwebs, an interest in the game and a whole lot of time, you can rest assured that the two of us will get you ready to get the most out of the game this evening.

Before we begin, don't forget to visit Dave's excellent site, Blazer's Edge to see their side of the discussion - and behave yourselves over there, ok?

Pdx_skyline_med_0_medium
Portland at nightfall
via www.hometownadvantage.com

J.R. Wilco:

Dave, my friend, it's time.

Time to trade arguments and barbs. Time to analyze and reflect. Time to learn and teach. Time to make new acquaintances and do some introductions as well. In short (is it too late for that?) it's time to have another BE & PtR conversation that my blog calls Fraternizing with the Enemy, no matter how much of a misnomer that is when corresponding with you, since it's so much fun to do.

But putting such pleasantries aside, a lot has happened since last we chatted. So much has transpired, in fact, that I am choosing to utterly ignore everything over The Summer of the Lockout, and begin with the announcement of the new CBA. At first, I was excited that there would actually be a basketball season to enjoy and write about, but such feelings always give way to something more self-interested.

As individuals, we're always going to react to events based on how they affect us. It's not enough to see a beautiful sunset, I want to have a comfortable seat from which to view it. I'm not satisfied with simply going to my favorite restaurant and ordering my usual dish, I want it served promptly, piping hot, and just delicious as ever. Likewise, now that there's an NBA season, regardless of how strenuously I might have argued that I just wanted to see some basketball no matter what else happened, I can't only appreciate the season empirically, as though I have no bias or preference. And so I approach this season (the final year on Tim Duncan's contract, and perhaps his last) with feelings that are not only mixed, but also shaken AND stirred. I don't want him to retire, but he hasn't started the season very well and it's hard to watch that -- harder than I thought it would be.

But I know that you're no stranger to these emotions since you've had to deal not with the looming retirement of a star, but the actual retirement of Brandon Roy. Let me be the latest to offer my condolences. You might have had some kind of warning before seeing the news, but I did not and so I was in denial for quite a while. I understand if you don't want to talk about it right now. Let's move on.

Before the season, I felt that the Spurs' roster was about the same as it was last year. The Big 3 of Timmeh, Ginobili and Parker plus DeJuan Blair and Richard Jefferson were starting again. Antonio McDyess stuck to his word and retired after all, much to San Antonio's chagrin, but that loss was tempered since Tiago Splitter had spent nearly all last year watching from the bench and learning the system. While the signing of TJ Ford gave the Spurs something that they'd lacked for what seems like forever (a legit backup poing guard) and the drafting of Kawhi Leonard was something to be hopeful about, even if there was no telling what the 20 year old would be able to contribute - or what Pop would allow him to, even if he seemed ready.

But once the games started up, I began to look at the team very differently. While they didn't race out to a huge win streak like last year's squad, they may very well be a good bit deeper, and there's a LOT to be hopeful about. Not the least of which is Danny Green. Sure, Leonard is making incredible strides, and Ford was getting the 2nd unit easy shots (until he went down with a pulled hamstring Monday night) but the 3rd year guard out of North Carolina is the one who has me irrationally exuberant. He only played 8 games last year, but in his first 8 games this year he had earned a top 10 spot on the league in PER, played shut down defense on both Ricky Rubio AND Monta Ellis, and dropped 24 points on the Nuggets with 3 pointers, mid-range jumpers and drives to the hoop from both the right and the left. So, of course, against the Bucks he gets 5 minutes in a loss. Take a deep breath. Exhale.

I can hardly believe that I've gone this far without mentioning the injury to the San Antonio's best player. In case word hasn't reached your neck of the woods, Manu broke his hand while attempting to execute one of his I-can't-believe-he'd-try-that steals, had surgery, and will be out until mid- to late-February. Before he went down, he was only having one of the best stretches in his career, hitting nearly 60 from the field, over half his threes, and scoring 20 a night while playing only 26 minutes a game. In other words, he was being unbearably Manu, and doing so at an unsustainable rate. I just didn't think the thing that would end the run was another injury, seeing as that's what's been happening to him at the end of the last few seasons. Oh well, maybe he's gotten it out of his system for the year. Tell me about your guys. Any less well publicized changes that I should know about?

Dave:

Depends on what you mean by "publicized". The Blazers are in such a fishbowl in Portland that the most minor news reverberates everywhere. "Luke Babbitt ate tater tots last night! This is clearly a reaction to coach not giving him enough minutes! Wait...we're just getting this in. He opted for the fry sauce on those instead of plain ketchup! Can you say, 'Imminent Contract Extension'?" In short, while plenty of things have gone on with the Blazers, the noise reverberates so loudly in here that we have no clue what outside folks may or may not have heard. So here's the rundown in brief:

Yes, Brandon Roy retired for medical reasons. His knees are like two Ding Dongs without any cream filling. This being the Blazers, it happened on the basis of a final medical check just before training camp started when the entire city was expecting him back. The Blazers have since used their Amnesty Provision on him, so he's done with this team. While he wasn't half the player we'd come to know and love in his final two years, it's still one of the saddest things to happen to this franchise in a long time. Dude was legit. Take whatever estimations you've heard about him and multiply them by 1.5. I'm sorry not just for the Blazers, but for basketball fans that they didn't get to watch him have a full career.

Also Greg Oden, himself scheduled to return this year, suffered what was termed a "setback"--somewhat akin to the Titanic having a "small leak"--and signed a lower one-year offer (by some reports much lower) instead of the $9-ish million one-year Qualifying Offer to which he was entitled. This probably means he won't be back this season in any recognizable form.

Before the season started we ran the headline "Trail Blazers Resurrection Era: 2006-2011 R.I.P." All of that post-Jailblazers goodness and hope for an Oden-Roy-Aldridge-fueled dynasty has departed.

But like that mythical Trail Blazer rising from the ashes (What? You thought I was going to reference some other conference rival?) this year's squad has found new life. LaMarcus Aldridge keys the attack, of course. He's off to the best statistical start of his career at 22 points and 8 rebounds per game. But this isn't just a "walk it up the court and chuck it to a star" offense anymore. The Blazers have shifted styles to take advantage of the athleticism of some of their new and emerging players. Gerald Wallace is the second-best player on the team at small forward and he's a beast. Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum are rangy, quick, and great defenders. Newcomers Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford add instant offense (or at least instant attempts at offense). Wrap it all up and you have a team that excels on the run, a far cry from the glacially-paced squads you're used to seeing in red and black. These guys like early offense, passing, and scoring from every conceivable position. Crawford aside, they seldom take bad shots because they don't care who scores as long as the look is good. They're more perimeter-oriented than lane-oriented, but that's the nature of their players.

Roy-from-the-ashes_medium

Maybe it's NOT a myth!

They back the fast attack by an opportunistic defense that thrives on forcing turnovers and hawking perimeter guys, again a diametric opposite from recent vintage Blazers teams. Almost all of the players we just mentioned are long and decent-to-good defenders, including Aldridge. Marcus Camby takes most of the center minutes and he fits the mold too. At every position save point guard the Blazers are explosive and rock-solid defensively. That's creating some wild times in Portland.

The other big change is that this team is no longer young. The Blazers still feature a couple of young-ish players but when you're talking Camby, Wallace, Crawford, and such there's plenty of experience to go around. That means fewer streaks of bad play, less jealousy over touches, and fewer games lost for silly reasons.

Combined this has led to a hot start to the season and plenty of impressed Blazers fans. Whether the team can keep winning at this rate is debatable, if nothing else because they're only playing 8 guys in the rotation and that can't last in this lockout-compacted season. Their deep bench is horrible...another change from the days when Portland trotted out 12 guys that other teams coveted. After the top 8 or so the roster falls off a cliff. But the Blazers will remain plenty good, easily good enough to make the playoffs, possibly good enough to earn a mid-level seed if they can keep it together.

The best way to put it is that the Blazers' theoretical ceiling is now lower than it was a couple years ago but their average level of play will probably be higher than it was when they still depended on a hobbled Brandon Roy and a bunch of kids.

How about the Spurs. Any chance of one last big hurrah? And where do you expect them to finish in the conference?

JRW:

For as far apart they are (with differences in geography, weather and history that are quite startling) from an NBA perspective Portland and San Antonio have a lot in common. From the respective size of their metropolitan areas (23 and 25) to the size of their media markets (only Charlotte, Milwaukee and Salt Lake City separate them) they're in the same conversational boat in any number of different bodies of water -- including organizational DNA if you consider the tenure and acquisitions from the Kevin Pritchard era. But one thing I never knew that they were diametrical opposites in, is the tenor of the conversation between the press, the team, and the fans of the Trail Blazers. From your description of the hopefully fictitious Tater Tot Fiasco to the anguished atmosphere that has to result from living inside the Fishbowl of Reverberation, I must say that I have a much better idea of the emotional pulse of The City That Works: Redux.

Things are quite different in San Antonio, but I suppose that has a lot (read: ALL) to do with the fact that the current leadership team (we like to call them PATFO) has brought home some hardware. The press surrounds Pop with what can often be described as a reverential awe. Most sessions are conducted as he blankly, sometimes sarcastically, looks around the assembled scribes and waits to see who will dare to ask him a bland, unimaginative question that he can toss back at them like a child whose parents are attempting to get him to try Brussels sprouts. Sometimes he actually gets a question that he doesn't mind talking about, or he's just in a good mood and eventually humors the throng. It's quite a surreal environment and one that does NOT favor the bold. I've asked him a couple of questions that he's enjoyed talking about, but he's stonewalled even more. Privacy is prized in the Spurs organization, and if you refer to a topic that could possibly relate to strategy in any way, he's likely to respond with his name, rank and serial number. So, since that's what it's like over here, I long to know more about what things are like for you in the resounding receptacle for marine life. Are the press hounding everyone in site?

I had no knowledge of any continuing issues for Greg Oden, and the last I heard was that he'd be ok. I doubted them of course, and when I heard them I thought, "I'll believe it when I see it," so I'm sorry his health isn't working for you guys either. I'm sure you've already made all of the obvious, and not so obvious, jokes about the health situation in Portland, so I'll just leave the topic with this: were you ever really on the Oden bandwagon, or did you just try to convince yourself that he'd eventually play entire seasons and showcase his talent to the world, etc?

I don't doubt the wisdom of pushing the pace when you've got guys like Matthews, Batum, Wallace, Aldrige in addition to your newbies whom I assume can run. Having watched the Spurs go through a similar transformation last year, when they went from the bottom in the league for possessions per game, to holding the spot for the team with the fastest pace through most of last season, I know that it can be a bit unsettling to deal with. Sure, watching the wins pile up is fun, but the entire time there's this voice in the back of your head telling you that this is the kind of offense that the real contenders eat alive in the post-season. At least that's how it was for me. Are you hearing voices like that, or do your voices have entirely different topics that they like to discuss?

It was great to read your description of the team, especially the part about how they play in their own end. See, we've been having some difficulty stopping other teams from scoring for a while now, so it was quite refreshing to hear about anything approaching "rock-solid" defense being played. Except that good feeling leaves as soon as I consider the game on Friday. With Manu out and now TJ Ford down with a pulled hamstring, there's this gaping hole in the offense labeled "playmaker" that we really don't have anyone's name to fill it with. So it's going to be a long time treading offensive water until those guys return next month. Do you expect to see the Spurs struggling to score against the Portland defense since Duncan and Parker are being so inconsistent and the rest of the guys, besides RJ who's setting the world on fire, are not very established in the offense?

Dave:

Well, the gaping hole in your offense could be labeled "insert playmaker here" or the gaping hole in your offense could be labeled "Raymond Felton". I'm not sure which would be better right now. Felton and Crawford have both had rocky introductions to the Rose City. Felton can't hold onto the ball and doesn't defend it that well either. Missing shots is just icing on the cake. Crawford does nothing but shoot. It tells you the state of Portland's roster right now that these guys are blessings to the organization. But if you want to step back and actually talk about contending...yeah. I understand where you're coming from. Portland's in that "good enough to make you hope but the other shoe is going to drop" phase too.

As far as the Oden bandwagon...it depends what you mean by "on it". When Oden was first drafted plenty of folks in Portland were talking about Shaq-type performances. I was never on that part of the bandwagon. Oden obviously wasn't Shaq. He didn't have the offense, the fluidity, or the attitude. But the Blazers didn't need the next Shaq. What they needed was a guy who could block shots, rebound, eat tons of space in the lane defensively, and not totally bork it if you gave him the ball five feet from the hoop. That was Oden all...day...long. In fact he was better that I had hoped on the defensive end in the game he got to play a few years ago. His presence totally transformed that end for Portland. I can only imagine what Portland's defense--already pretty decent--would look like with him in the middle right now sending back drivers and gobbling every rebound so those athletic wings could force turnovers and/or run out on misses. It would be Doomsday. And all Oden had to do...ALL he had to do...was take the court. He didn't have to become the next anything. He didn't have to be the franchise savior. (The Blazers already had Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, a host of brilliant young players. Who needed saving?) He didn't have to score 20 a night either. ALL HE HAD TO DO WAS PLAY. Apparently that was too much to ask the basketball gods for. Now pardon me while I dig out my sackcloth and ashes yet again. Thanks, buddy.

The Spurs may have trouble against the Portland defense. It depends which defense shows up. The Blazers have brilliant defenders and plenty of athleticism at the wing positions. They're shy at point guard. Marcus Camby is good at center but he's 82,000 years old and not going to play 30 minutes most nights. So...when Portland's defense is working well it involves a ton of scrambling, busy hands forcing turnovers and obscuring passes, and most of all every player helping every other player on the court. This team isn't into selfishness. Big guys help little guys defend and vice versa. This team is, however, into fatigue, letdown, and occasionally distraction. As soon as the defensive motion and help stop, Portland looks pedestrian on defense. Picks clear guys for open shots. The lane parts. Most of all the Blazers don't get out to cover jump shooters. San Antonio is vulnerable if Portland comes ready to play. The Blazers can basically pick any one or two players in your lineup and shut them down. But Portland is going to lose unless they play their best, most active defense because the Spurs don't turn over the ball and the Spurs can hit outside shots. We could well see Portland making stabs at turnovers that don't bear fruit, slowly sagging on inside players only to fall victim to a quick pass for a triple. San Antonio has the right tools and the right make-up to beat the Blazers' natural style. Portland can only overcome that by playing a great game in that style.

That said, Portland can score now. This isn't a plodding team anymore. You better get back and be ready for early offense because somehow fatigue and distraction still allow you to shoot even when they sap your defense. I never quite figured out how that works. I think it's like my four-year old kid saying, "Dad, I'm full. I can't eat any more dinner." Then when I ask him if he wants some ice cream he says, "YES!!!" Somehow there's always room for ice cream...and a Jamal Crawford crossover.

Oh...and did you just lump both of us in with Salt Lake City??? Dude.

JRW:

(Sorry for bringing up the Oden thing, man. Won't happen again.)

So, I get that Felton and Crawford are problems awaiting a solution, while the main rotation eight are solid but the bench is nonexistent. The defense swarms but can tire out; plays lock-down when focused, besides at point guard, but is porous when distracted or fatigued. That's a pretty tidy nutshell to fit a description of the team in.

Let me see if I can do the same.

With two of our top nine players out, what was a deep bench is now less so, but still fairly profound. The offense can score in bunches, provided the outside shots are falling to create space our guards can work in. Duncan and Parker can still bring it (as they showed Wednesday night, with 45-16-13 between them) but not every night. Besides Timmeh, the frontcourt is small and thin, brawny and accurate (Blair & Bonner) sneakily effective on defense and awkwardly graceless on offense (Splitter). The wings are a collection of sharpshooters who range in defensive prowess from young and terrifying (Leonard & Green) to inconsistent (Anderson) to barely passable (Neal). And that's the short of it. The last two bench guys wouldn't even be with the team except for the injuries and were both recalled from the D-League, and neither is likely to see any court time unless it's a blowout.

Speaking of blowouts, until this week all of San Antonio's losses were of the double digit and not-as-close-as-the-score variety. Oh, and they were all on the road. Yes, the road-loving Spurs of the past are currently undefeated at home and winless when away. Which reminds me that I should talk about the way they're winning games, and failing to win them. As Dallas found out last week, if the Spurs are hot from deep, it might just be time to get your starters some rest. You talked about how Portland's defense was capable, if they kept the proper mindset, of shutting down two of the opposition's players, which is quite impressive. But with the motion offense that Popovich has employed this year, the Blazers had at least keep a man close to the other three, because if they don't then someone's going to be shooting a three. And the way they've been shooting, it's likely to go down. The formula from last year: shooters in the corners, pick and rolls to create mismatches and rotations, drives to the rim and kickouts to the arc, mostly to the corners. Combine all that with timely defense when needed and that's about all there is. After years of watching Pop walking the sidelines holding his hands down to slow the pace, we now see him constantly windmilling his right arm to get them to push the pace. After just a bit more than a calendar year of that, it almost seems natural. Almost.

Which brings me to my last point: the transient nature of all things. I'm a photographer. It's not my day job, but I do get paid from time to time. I like to play with angles and find expressions and angles that haven't been captured too often, but there's one cliché that I just can't avoid or ignore, and that's sunrises and sunsets. The Spurs fans who've friended me on Facebook know this, close to half of the pictures I post are of the latest cloud formations I've seen at the end of the day. I just can't help it. The light is just so rare at that time that it's easy to see why they call it "magic hour" - almost every moment is appreciably different from the one before. Walk outside just a few minutes too late, and what had just been the most exquisite sky, is now a ho-hum mass of grays, whites and blues. Beauty like that is fleeting. And now that I'm not just contemplating the fact that Duncan's days are numbered, but actually seeing the proof before me in living color as he struggles to beat the kind of defenders that he used to feast on, I'm trying to appreciate every superior play for the exceptional, fleeting, instant that it is. I guess what I'm saying is, I hope LaMarcus goes easy on him tonight, and I hope you guys enjoy Aldridge as much as you can while you have him.

Jrw-sunset_medium
Don't blink, you might miss it.

Final questions: if a random guy on your team is going to explode for a career best, who is it going to be? What clues should we be watching for to see whether the Blazers' heads are really in the game -- are there any tell tale signs you notice just before things go south for them? Is there anything new Aldridge added to his game during the long off-season? I know he killed us regularly with his old back of tricks, but it'd be nice to know what to watch out for all the same. (Blair now has a respectable turn around that he brings up right in the face of his defender. He's so strong that he can absorb any contact on his arms and still finish; that is, if his shot's not blocked.) And lastly, I didn't just lump us in with SLC. Charlotte and Milwaukee were in there too!

Dave:

Answers in order:

The guy who will explode from nowhere is Wesley Matthews. Dude can pour in 20+ easy with the right kind of shots. The troubles with him are an unreliable dribble, a shaky jumper if not set, and a propensity to not take the kind of shot that benefits him. He needs to be set up in the flow of the offense to be deadly. Sometimes he hits his first few shots and forgets how he got them, going one-on-one or chucking up Jack-Nicholson-crazy shots. Then he nosedives. But when he's in the flow he's a 36th level assassin with poison blades.

The tell-tale signs of good Blazer play on the defensive end are perimeter players making an effort at containment (either off the dribble or getting through/around picks) and the big guys willingly covering for them when they can't. When the Blazers are working together they can be magic on "D". But when the small guys abandon their charges and you start seeing the bigs make half-hearted (or no) attempts to cover you know this team is either tired or pouting. Then it's going to be a long night. The other HUGE clue that stems directly from these--maybe the most obvious barometer--is whether the team closes on jump shooters or not. On offense just look at tempo, count the passes in the halfcourt offense (more is generally better), and watch whether the Blazers are trying to get inside or just settling for jumpers. This team isn't subtle. Their good stuff will hit you over the head and leave you reeling. Their bad stuff will leave you shaking your head and wondering if they're even playing basketball. Fortunately they've been far more good than bad this year.

Aldridge is still evolving his offensive game. He doesn't have anything radically new. He's still learning how to use what he has. In general he's still more comfortable facing up for the jumper than playing with his back to the basket. When he does post you have to watch whether he's making an effort to establish position inside (good) or getting pushed way out before receiving the ball (bad). You can pretty much predict the success of his post play by the number of dribbles required before he puts up a shot. 0 or 1, it's probably going in. 2 or more it's likely to miss. That said, he likes to eat Tim Duncan...revenge for when he was new in the league and Duncan was The Man probably. I don't know if Tim can defend him one-on-one anymore, dribbling issues or no. Aldridge's big progress is probably on the defensive end where he's become more comfortable both on his own man and helping out. He's not afraid to take a stand or take a risk anymore. He's making use of length and athletic skill.

Last question for you: Do the Spurs have one more great run in them in a fractured and, by most estimations, weaker Western Conference or is it all over? Any miracles in the bag?

JRW:

I know that you didn't just work the word "fractured" into your last question in order to take out your frustration about my Oden inquiry, and make me remember that Manu's hand has been fractured. But that doesn't mean that I wasn't re-reading that sentence just to be sure that I wasn't missing anything.

So, do the Spurs make another run at the title this year? Well, I think (and Vegas agrees) that the four teams with the best chance of making it to the Finals are, in no particular order, Miami, Chicago, OKC and SA.

And with the West not being as strong as it's been in the past, as well as the lockout shortened season making it difficult for teams to practice and get comfortable in their systems, I think that things are set up very well for the Spurs if they: a) stay healthy, b) play defense, and c) continue to get good contributions from their new guys - yes, even the rookies. So the list of conditions is pretty long, but I think that should all of the if's come up positive, then there's a great chance they make it to the Western Conference Finals. And from there I give them a good shot at taking the Thunder and making the Finals -- where anything can happen.

But there's a LOT of basketball to be played before then, starting with Portland at San Antonio on Friday. Thanks for doing this exchange with me, and best of luck to your team ... starting on Saturday.

Dave:

Thanks! As I recall one used to need plenty of luck to beat the Spurs. Now a reasonably fast offense might do...

But we'll take the luck too, whenever it comes.

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