It's time for the season's second game between the Portland Trail Blazers versus the San Antonio Spurs. And when Portland's on the schedule, that means that Dave, the head of the otstanding Blazer's Edge and I do the epistolary equivalent of a game of H-O-R-S-E. Our last one is here, if you need a refresher. And the entire series of Fraternizing with the Enemy posts now has it's own page here, in case you want to check to see if you missed any of them.
Before we begin, be sure to go see their side of the discussion, and behave yourselves over there.
Looks almost forboding, doesn't it?
The injuries, Dave. Oh, the injuries.
I know that you of all people, a fan of the Blazers of all franchises, have far more reason to bemoan the chances that have led to your team's, um, difficulties with the injury bug so I guess I should stop myself in mid-gripe and instead turn this conversation in a more productive direction. How do you cope? What tactics do you use and what hope can I have that things can improve? I really need help and so I turn to you because of your knowledge and expertise in this area. Please tell me that there's something I can do. Let me know that everything's going to be all right. Assure me that the sun will come up brighter, the birds will sing more beautifully than ever, and my beloved South Americans, Manu and Tiago, will return soon, in good health and for the rest of the season.
Is it too terribly presumptuous of me to ask this of you after all that you've been through? Perhaps, but I can't help it. These things used to be yearly for Manu, but now we're going to semi-seasonally for him what with this setback because of his tweaked oblique and I don't know if I can take it. Not to mention Tiago. He's reportedly been pretty rugged from his Euroleague days, but last year saw him glued to the bench with one ailment after another, and this year's great run by him (where his per minute numbers rival those of the West's big men All Stars) is now going to be paused while he convalesces with his strained calf. And at this point I'm just waiting to hear how bad each of these really are. Manu's going in for an MRI today and some kind of word on the severity of Splitter's latest is expected on an hourly basis.
I can hardly enjoy the latest win over the Clippers in the 10 game winning streak with all this going on. What can you tell me? You're my only hope.
Drink. Drink hard. Like an STD in your BVD's that injury bug never really goes away once it starts coming around. It just keeps flaring up until eventually you have to cut off the affected parts and replace them with new, younger parts.
Wait...you don't have that kind of clinic yet in San Antonio? Sad.
Oh well. I guess you can just content yourself with working on a 10+ GAME WINNING STREAK. "Oh...one of our Big Three went down again, so we just got better to compensate!" How do you DO that? What kind of hormone-enhanced chickens did Greg Popovich sacrifice at the altar of the basketball gods? It's like they have favorite children who can do no wrong and then other children who are only pulled out of the basement to get their daily beatings and soggy Zweiback crackers.
The basketball gods (if they indeed exist and possess Zwiebacks) are not only fickle, but also biased, Ritalin-dependent, and stingy -- even in their doling out of crackers. I can't even begin to explain or understand their ways, so I prefer to pretend that they don't exist, regardless of the precise breed* of steroid-fed poultry that are daily immolated by the dozen, just outside of the Spurs practice facility at moonrise.
Visual approximation of the Basketball Gods' relationship with Manu
But your reaction to the Spurs' continued success is pretty much league-average, I must say. In addition to which, when last our teams tangled, and we talked beforehand, Blazersedge regular halo_on took exception to my argument that it was legitimate for Vegas' odds to include San Antonio in their list the top four teams in the league: Heat, Bulls, Thunder and Spurs. I think his response was something along the lines of -- oh, I'll quit pretending. Here's the relevant quote:
Last year the Grizzlies ousted them 4-2 in the first round. What's different about this year's squad? Are they any faster than they were last season? Younger? Who did they pickup in the offseason to keep their window cracked open? No disrespect ... but seriously? [J.R. Wilco] really believes the Spurs are one of the top two teams in the west?
Well, I was all ready to start our conversation with a bunch of faux-smug trash talk about how the Spurs are currently in sole possession of the Western Conference's 2nd best record and so forth. But all those ideas were kicked out of me by injury report at the end of the Clippers game.
To finally answer your question, Spurs fans (while just as clueless as everyone else at the continued success of a team that on paper should be declining at best; basement dwelling at worst) prefer to point to the group we call PATFO, and simply give the guys in charge of the franchise all the credit for what we see on the court and the in the standings. Then we pretend that makes sense of it all. Why are the Spurs gaining on Oklahoma while Ginobili sits in street clothes? Because Pop is the Kasparov of Koaching. How do the Spurs always seem to find guys to contribute like Gary Neal, and Danny Green whilealso swinging deals like George Hill for the pick to draft Kawhi Leonard, at the same time they're bringing Tiago Splitter over after drafting him 4 years prior? Because R.C. "Bargain Basement" Buford has a legion of Eastern European coaches he's brainwashed and can activate with a simple text message.
Seriously though, Buford and Popovich do spend a ton of time during the off-season cultivating their contacts in Europe, giving coaching and analysis clinics to the staffs of countless basketball clubs on numerous levels. I'm sure it's made easier due to his Serbian/Croatian ancestry, but they work like crazy to create and maintain those contacts. And when you look at the way this team was built through the drafting of Parker and Ginobili, guys like Neal start to make sense -- with all the ball he played overseas before getting a call from Texas before the 2010 season. Also, Pop has done an amazing job, once again, of designing and re-designing the offense around the strengths of his best players while simultaneously putting his role players in a position to do what they're best at. Tim Duncan's not quite as dominant a scorer anymore? Give the ball to Manu and Tony for most of the game and pass to Tim at the top of the key for a jumper when the defense helps off him. Manu's out with a broken hand? Give the ball to Parker and get out of the way while he goes for 30+ points and flirts with double-digit assists nightly. When you watch the Spurs' offense from this year, it's an entirely different beast than it was less than two years ago. Duncan will still occasionally venture into the post, but those possessions are more of their bread pudding and less of their bread and butter. The main offense is now guard initiated, motion oriented, pick-and-roll-based with even the occasional high double pick out near the three-point line, which the Spurs used to NEVER do. So it's quite a departure from what seasoned NBA observers are used to, and the only question now is what kinds of tweaks will we see with only three frontcourt guys (Duncan, Blair, and Bonner) healthy and available.
Trade Sacrifice Tony!
Well, in halo_on's defense we can't all be omniscient at Blazersedge. Otherwise Raymond Felton would be an All-Star, Jamal Crawford 6th, 7th, and 8th men of the year, and the Trail Blazers' 7-2 start would have been a total fluke...because of the two losses, of course. But to his credit, the guy did predict that Halo would become a smash hit Also he cornered the market on those little "on" name plates. You can't flip a light switch or hit a remote control without him making bank. Plus he patented the use of the underscore in place of a space! Every time somebody does that he makes 2.5 cents. You'd be surprised how much that adds up. Don't make him angry, he could probably buy us all out.
In any case, go ahead and faux smug talk if you wish. If anyone is entitled, the Spurs are. And why are you worried about injuries? Take out a top guy, they win 10 straight! If they lose Parker or Duncan they'll probably win out the season. It's like you're cyborgs or something. Why...won't...they...just...
I hear you on the style change. The Blazers have been trying this higher-tempo thing which works all the time except when they don't do it, which is half the time. They still have the LaMarcus Aldridge post in the halfcourt but they don't have reliable guards to take pressure off of them. Raymond Felton isn't a threat to hit off the screen. Putting a screen in front of Jamal Crawford is a sure path to disaster. Wesley Matthews has the opposite issue with Felton. He can't drive off a screen. So you tend to get a bunch of wasted motion in the halfcourt sets, evolving into one guy out top trying to make a move by himself after all the fruitless screening has gone by. That's why Portland's best option is usually getting the ball up the floor quickly before the defense sets and taking advantage of having four guys who can attack on their own on the floor at any given time.
That said, Nate McMillan has taken Matthews out of the starting lineup and put in Nicolas Batum at shooting guard. Batum can defend as well as Matthews, shoots well, can score a little off the dribble, can finish at the hoop, and rebounds. All of a sudden a lineup of Batum, Aldridge, Gerald Wallace, Marcus Camby, and a point guard becomes rangy, rebound-dominant, solid defensively, and can still score. The energy has been different for everybody since this recent change. Maybe the Blazers will get new life from it.
Any way you slice it, though, Portland is looking at a major landscape change at the end of the season. Aldridge, Matthews, and a restricted-free-agent-matched Batum are the only rotation guys almost guaranteed to be in a Blazer uniform in 2012-13. I suppose Matthews could be traded if the right move came along (unlikely). So enjoy whatever you get out of this incarnation of the Blazers while you have them.
I don't want to act smug now that I know how rich halo_on is. I want to get on his good side. I've heard that wealthy people are sometimes generous and there's no sense in making enemies unnecessarily.
I like your cyborg line, but I have to say that there's got to be a limit to the efficacy of removing the best players on the team. Doesn't the law of diminishing returns have to kick in somewhere? I'm pretty sure it does and I don't want to be around when it kicks back.
As to the changes in Portland's starting lineup, you've definitely hit the PtR hot button with Batum. I think there are some who still haven't gotten over the way you guys snaked him out from under us just one pick before the Spurs were going to draft him. I suppose he's still adding to his collection of chase-down fast-break-killing blocks, isn't' he? It's great that he's finally getting a chance to start, even if it is as part of a lineup that's only really comfortable scoring in transition. As to that, you know that Aldridge is to San Antonio's defense what a hot knife is to butter. This team is deep into the Attack of the @'s that's known as the Rodeo Road Trip and this is their third game in four nights. They haven't played a home game since the 4th and there's still one more stop after Portland. If there's any team that's set up to give the Spurs fits right now, doesn't it have to be the Blazers coming off a loss the night before to their dreaded nemesis?
Speaking of which, I want to change gears real quick and ask you about something we've never touched on before, and that's the team you lost to Monday night; the one that wears those gaudy yellow togs. You've played them twice already this year. What's your take on them? All of the Spurs games against LAL are in the last month of the season. Will K. Bean Bryant have worn himself out by then? Do you have anything but a deep and abiding hatred for them, or is there room in your heart for grudging respect?
Yup. The Blazers got run out of the building by the Lakers last night. 7 point first quarter. 30-point deficit 15 minutes into the game. It always happens that way (though not quite as badly) in L.A. But then we get them up in Portland and return the favor. No matter what the relative strengths of the two teams, Blazers-Lakers looks pretty much the same year after year. Neither team cares to lose to the other. Each clubs the other at home. Nothing much gets solved. Except, of course, in the playoffs. You have to go back to Drexler or Walton for Portland to get the upper hand there.
Respect and hatred are actually close cousins from Portland's point of view. Simmering resentment of the Lakers is never far beneath the surface. But the animosity really cranks up when the teams are close--or at least can look forward to being close--in strength. A couple years ago the future looked bright in that regard. Now, not so much. Early on in my blogging career I used to refer to them as the L*kers, as we don't allow profane words on Blazersedge. But back then we could pretend there was a contest brewing. As soon as Oden went down and Roy got injured I gave up on the asterisk. What's the point? We're not really in the same neighborhood and won't be anytime soon, unless maybe in a way that doesn't matter...welcoming them to a lower rent district instead of moving on up to the penthouse ourselves. Someday maybe we'll be able to generate the energy for true hatred again. Until then it's, "Meh. What are you gonna do?" So they're asterisk-free and a lot more hate-free than they used to be.
Well that and Ron "Metta World Peace" Artest is already mincing up and down the court like an octogenarian, the clock is ticking on Kobe Bryant's career, and Pau Gasol might not be a Laker for long. The Spurs may be old but they're like your kind grandmother, the one who goes to church and gives you cookies. The Lakers are like an old biddy getting a facelift and hitting on 40-year-old guys. Every time I see them play it's like looking at the unnaturally tightened lines on the face of an aging actress who's had work done. Yuck. It's not an occasion for hate. More like pity.
However one pleasant side effect of the Blazers getting their butts handed to them on a platter last night will be the likely ending of San Antonio's streak tonight. Everything would speak against it, right? It's the second night of a back-to-back, the Spurs are red hot and the Blazers just got killed, yadda-yadda. One thing I've learned about this team is that they'll never win the games necessary to put them ahead in the world. They'll even lose some games that nobody in their right mind should lose. (Hello Detroit and Sacramento!) But just when they've played their stupidest, given the most limp effort imaginable, just when you count them out, that's when they rise up and win games they have no business winning. After that they'll go hot for a while until you get ready to count on them again. Pffffftt. That's when the air comes out of the balloon and the losing begins.
It's sad for such a nice team to bear the brunt of Portland's wackiness. Most Blazer fans I know respect the heck out of San Antonio with no animosity whatsoever, except maybe for Pops being the whiniest championship-level coach in the history of forever with the refs. You guys win a ton anyway. You have Tim Duncan and titles. And here's Popovich storming up the sidelines with every close call, looking like the ref just murdered a box of small kittens. Personally I hated Phil Jackson's whining more, but Pop is a pain. Anyway, that's the only complaint Portland fans have about the Spurs. So it was no fun to see such a horrible loss last night for a couple of reasons. Had the Blazers won they promptly would have returned home and dropped this game in spectacular style. But no. Nothing is guaranteed in sports, of course, but chances are San Antonio will get their first rodeo loss tonight...thanks in part to L.A.
Crow...one of us will eat it.