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Five questions about the Spurs’ matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers

Getting to know tonight’s opponent with Marlow Ferguson Jr. of Blazers Edge.

San Antonio Spurs v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

The San Antonio Spurs begin a grueling three-game Western Conference road trip as they take on the Damian Lillard-less Portland Trail Blazers at the Moda Center tonight while looking to extend their first winning streak of the season.

From a new head coach to a handful of free agency signings, this is a very different rendition of the Blazers than fans are used to seeing. So, I turned to Blazers Edge contributor Marlow Ferguson Jr. to give me the lowdown on tonight’s opponent.

1. The San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers have split their last 14 meetings. How do you see this round playing out between these two Western Conferences clubs?

The dynamic of tonight’s game will certainly have a different feel with Damian Lillard out of the rotation for the next week, and Norman Powell and Nassir Little listed as questionable. Dejounte Murray, whom I’d argue should be a first-time All-Star in February, has mixed athleticism and size in a way few could when defending Lillard, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him shadow CJ McCollum for stretches. Portland feels unusually vulnerable at this point, and with the Spurs playing better over their last few games, this one could be competitive. Derrick White feels like the key, too. If he’s both aggressive and efficient, this is a different team. Give me the Blazers, but in a nail-biter.

2. Portland signed Larry Nance Jr. and Cody Zeller in the offseason to bolster their frontcourt rotation. What impact have those two had on the team so far?

Larry Nance Jr., in particular, has really found his way quickly. He’s far down in the pecking order in terms of shots, but he does so many of the “little things” well. He’s No. 1 among Blazers in on-court plus-minus (+6.0) and on-off swing (+9.1), and he’s already gotten a few “Lar-ry” chants from the home crowd. The Blazers’ defense remains nonexistent at No. 27 in the league, but having Nance adds a layer of switchability and versatility. Zeller’s impact has been less pronounced; his minutes have dipped under 10 per game in five of his last nine games. But, the effort is always there. He’s having a career-best year on the offensive glass, and he’s been efficient in pick-and-roll and short roll situations. It’s been “good,” but not yet “great.”

3. First-year head coach Chauncey Billups has the Blazers sitting at .500 through a little over a quarter of their regular-season schedule. What changes has he brought to this organization?

Before Billups’ arrival, the word “accountability” certainly hadn’t been used as much as it has now. Part of what contributed to Terry Stotts’ exit was that some believed he was too accepting of the Blazers’ defensive flaws, particularly from the backcourt stars. Players have spoken a ton about Billups being straightforward and willing to hold everyone accountable. Having that aura as an accomplished former player certainly helps, too. He’s still trying to find his way, though. He’s certainly leaning into his young talent more than Stotts did, and the Blazers have cut down on their isolation-heavy offense until late in games. Portland had the hardest 20-game schedule in the league to open their season, and now that they’re beyond that, it should really be interesting to see how he adjusts. Portland opened the year top ten in defensive rating, so he’s proven to some degree that he can help them find new heights.

4. Damian Lillard has seen a sharp dropoff in points per game, free-throw attempts, and scoring efficiency this season. What’s behind his slow start?

The abdomen injury he suffered in the Olympics is probably the No. 1 reason for his slow start. Lillard has felt almost Iverson-like in my eyes in how he’s grimacing from game to game, tending to some part of his body, all while still giving 30-point masterpieces. It’s difficult to get the requisite lift with those abdomen and lower-body injuries. He’s a 31-year-old who ranks No. 1 in minutes and No. 2 in games since entering the league in 2012-13. That’s tough. But, there are also drawbacks to having a new coach (and scheme), and the NBA’s new officiating changes have been more defense-friendly. One has to think the ten-day rest will serve him well.

5. Nassir Little was one of several players the Spurs passed on with the 19th overall pick during the 2019 NBA Draft. Can you talk about how the third-year forward has come into his own this season?

In some ways, he’s arguably been the Blazers’ biggest positive this season. Portland has seen their 3-point shooting betray them at times, and the defense comes and goes. But Little’s energy and aggressiveness have become a night-to-night constant. That much was going to put him on the floor on most nights. What’s kept him there is his improved 3-point shooting. He’s come down to earth this past week, but he’s shooting 45.5 percent (on 22 attempts) from the corners. Portland is pick-and-roll heavy, and that means they can get teams in 4-on-3 situations with shooters in the deep corners. You can no longer sag off of Little, and when you do, he’s making you pay. He’s had a well-deserved career year to this point.

Thanks again to Marlow for his time! Head over the Blazers Edge to check out my answers to their questions, and remember to tune in to the game tonight!