Not long after pandemonium followed the final buzzer at the Moda Center, there was a video making the rounds on the web featuring three Houston Rockets fans and their reactions to the final seconds of Game 6. For those three and all other Rockets fans, screams of pure joy followed the wild scene that led to Chandler Parsons’ go-ahead layup, while shock and dejection followed suit seconds later after Damian Lillard’s unbelievable three-pointer swished through the net and ended the ever-so thrilling series (to relive, check out forwardcenter’s Game 6 Mini-Movie by PWE’s own Brandon Mitchell). For Portland Trail Blazers fans the reactions were, of course, the exact opposite: for instance, at Webfoot, an excellent bar and my former stomping grounds on the University of Oregon campus, we jumped off our bar stools in disgust and buried heads in hands, only to moments later jump off again and jubilantly hug anyone and everyone in sight. Over at Rennie’s Landing, the scene was similar. As friend, bartender and Blazers fan Neil (@BlazinATrail) told me, “I’ve never heard this place that loud before.” And, mind you, that’s a regular haunt for Ducks football.
This collection of emotions fueled a victory for the ages. Not only did it lead to celebratory drinks and catapult Lillard to legend status, the win resulted in the franchise’s first playoff series win since 2000, when Rasheed Wallace, Scottie Pippen, Arvydas Sabonis, Steve Smith and Damon Stoudamire ran the show. Now, a new group is carrying Portland, led by the duo of Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge that combined to average 55 points, 17 rebounds and 8 assists per game over the series’ riveting six. And now those two, joined pleasantly by valuable pieces to the puzzle like Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and Mo Williams, turn their attention to another team that calls Texas home, the San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs aren’t the most uplifting of opponents. Gregg Popovich’s team is battle-tested and fundamentally sound. When future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan and company are firing on all cylinders, the game of basketball has a tough time looking any prettier. Veterans are left and right, championship-winning veterans, at that, and everyone knows their role and excels. In all the years Popovich has been coaching the Spurs, the caliber of play, expectations, philosophy and results have been mainstays. Popovich demands success, and season after season his players deliver with incredibly efficient play from all parties involved. The franchise hasn’t won a title since 2007, but it is always in the hunt and always expects to be the last team standing.
It would be foolish to say that San Antonio isn’t an intimidating foe, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be toppled. The Blazers are on the Spurs level, and have every bit of a chance of moving on to the Western Conference Finals and beyond. This is especially so considering how well Lillard and Aldridge are playing. The team’s defense hasn’t exactly been encouraging, but the offense is clicking because it is fueling off the inside-outside aggressiveness of its two stars. Additionally, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, Robin Lopez and even Thomas Robinson and Mo Williams have made their presence felt–all picking their spots, knowing their roles and strengths, and excelling as a result.
The guard matchup of Lillard versus Tony Parker is beyond intriguing, as is the case for Aldridge versus Duncan. Even at the ripe old age of 38, Duncan still has all the tricks in the bag. His bank shot is automatic, his post-game is superb, and his defense is still above average. Similarly, the 32-year-old Parker still has his crossover dribble, his deadly mid-range jumper, and the speed to matriculate through defenses and get to the basket. The supporting cast that includes Manu Ginobli, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw is just as important to the team’s success as Duncan and Parker.
The stars do shine come playoff time, but often a matter of winning or losing comes down to the aforementioned players tiers below. The unexpected should be expected, especially in the Spurs’ case, as Popovich likes spreading the wealth around. Anyone on San Antonio can light up the opposition, either from long-range or inside; just as Danny Green can catch fire from three, so can the crafty Boris Diaw with an array of moves inside. Portland has a few solid defensive players but by no means is it a good defensive team. This is why staying alert defensively and not taking anyone lightly are keys to victory. As an example, this comes in the form of closing out on three-point shooters, of whom San Antonio has many.
Though the Spurs are daunting with their cavalcade of quality player and Popovich running the show as well as ever, Portland should feel very confident entering the series. This is because of just how dangerous Lillard and Aldridge are. Aldridge has transformed his game drastically since coming into the league. As Robin to Brandon Roy’s Batman, he was primarily a jump-shooter, standing perched 17-feet from the basket off pick-and-rolls or through set plays. Now, he lives closer in, with moves in the post to compliment his dangerous jumper. In conjunction, he clearly possesses the desire to be the guy, and his relentless aggressiveness is exemplary of that. And that’s why he has become one of the best players in the game. And that’s why San Antonio should worry.
If he wasn’t enough of a handful, this is where Lillard’s presence comes in and makes Portland a force to be reckoned with. His ability to create for himself while Aldridge equally demands the defense’s attention could very well overwhelm San Antonio. As Lillard clearly showed Houston, he has ice in his veins and relishes in the clutch. He plays angry, he knows how good he is. He can shoot, he can score at the rim, and he trusts his talent. Aldridge has this same makeup. Translation: the two-headed monster that depressed those Rockets fans and their team has the potential to give another favored opponent and its fans fits by series end.