Youth takes on experience once again tonight, this time in the form of the young and scrappy Portland Trail Blazers hosting the championship-caliber San Antonio Spurs. The Blazers currently sit in last place in the Northwest Division, but are only 9-12 and not to be counted out. Not surprisingly, San Antonio is 18-5 and ranks first in the Southwest Division.
Both teams met in Portland back on November 10, with the Spurs staging a great comeback and winning 112-109. The Blazers will be out for revenge tonight, particularly since their opponents just lost a close game to the Utah Jazz. Likewise, San Antonio will look to shake off losing at the buzzer and get back on track.
A rowdy Portland crowd will do all it can to subdue the Spurs. Fans have rallied behind rookie point guard Damian Lillard, who is averaging 18.4 points and 6.4 assists per game, and are back in the winning mindset following the disappointment of last season. The team came close to beating San Antonio the first time they faced off this season, and will learn from the mistakes from that game in order to bring home a win tonight.
Experienced San Antonio will likely have a plan for every one of Portland's moves, but execution is the key. Despite the differences in record, this game has all of the makings of one with a close final score, and it will be anything but a walk in the park for the Spurs.
Time: Wednesday, December 13th, 10:30 p.m. EST
Records: San Antonio Spurs (18-5) vs. Portland Trail Blazers (9-12)
Betting Lines: San Antonio (-7 1/2), Portland (+7 1/2)
Injuries: Damian Lillard (ankle, expected to play), Nicolas Batum (back, day-to-day), Wesley Matthews (hip, day-to-day), Stephen Jackson (finger, out), Kawhi Leonard (knee, out), DeJuan Blair (ankle, day-to-day)
Key Storyline: Portland Seeks Vengeance For Early Season Loss To San Antonio
As was mentioned before, Portland and San Antonio faced off early in the season, and San Antonio just barely won thanks to a late comeback. The hero of that game was Gary Neal, who provided 27 points and seven rebounds off the bench for the Spurs. Not even 33 points and five three-pointers from Nicolas Batum could give the Blazers a win, and the team will be looking to get even tonight.
No matter how you look at it, the odds of Portland coming away with a victory this evening are unlikely. Forget that San Antonio is the superior team, but both Batum and Wesley Matthews are not a lock to play tonight. Both are key members of their team's offense, and missing them would be a tremendous loss against a team like the Spurs.
Portland will be fully motivated by the November 10 loss, whether or not they have two of their best players in the lineup, and everyone will do their part to help give the fans a win.
This means slaying the giant that is the San Antonio Spurs. Per usual, Gregg Popovich's men are playing great basketball and their on-court chemistry is off the charts. Nobody plays selfishly nor impulsively, and they all seem to genuinely get along.
Their veteran core players in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have also won three rings together, which just adds to their overall prestige.
If the Blazers are indeed destined to defeat this team tonight, it will take nothing short of a miracle.
Key Matchup: Tony Parker vs. Damian Lillard
The Spurs and Blazers have one key component in common with one another: both teams rely on their point guards to be both distributors and offensive forces. Lillard naturally fills this role, and also provides about a steal a game on defense.
He has the tough task of guarding veteran Tony Parker tonight, and he could very well receive a lesson from one of the best scoring point guards in the NBA.
Parker is having a fine season thus far, averaging 19 points and 7.6 assists per game. He is also shooting a highly respectable 51 percent from the field, and has made 36 percent of his three-pointers, though he only averages one attempt from long-range per game. Once he starts defending Lillard, the rookie is going to realize just how much he has to learn about playing the point in the NBA.
A scoring point guard much like Parker, Lillard is still learning how to balance his scoring with his distribution. He is shooting just 42 percent from the field and, while he has made 37 percent of his threes, nearly half of his field goal attempts come from beyond the arc. If he is to become one of the elite floor generals in the NBA, he needs to find this balance sooner rather than later.
This means being willing to sacrifice scoring points against San Antonio tonight. Lillard has two fine big men in J.J. Hickson and LaMarcus Aldridge, both of whom can hold their own in the scoring department. Assuming Batum and Matthews are unable to play and Lillard utilizes both Hickson and Aldridge properly, then he has a fighting chance at defeating Parker in this matchup.
However, seeing as how Parker and his teammates have been playing together for much longer, it is highly unlikely that a rookie still learning the basics will win this battle.
X-Factor: J.J. Hickson
Hickson does not have much size for a center at 6'9", 242 pounds, but has been nothing short of great in the paint for Portland. He is averaging 11.4 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, and never backing down in a battle for a loose ball.
In Portland's first game against San Antonio, Hickson finished with 13 points and 14 rebounds. Tonight, he must do just that and maybe more if the Blazers want a shot at winning.
Hickson has a key advantage in that he is a better athlete than two of the men the Spurs may use at center. DeJuan Blair can rebound and play a good low post game for someone just 6'7", but cannot do much else. Boris Diaw is undersized for the position at 6'8", and prefers to use his jump shot rather than get his hands dirty under the basket.
That leaves Tiago Splitter, who has great size at 6'11", 240 pounds. The only flaw against him is that he is still learning how to play center at the NBA level, but he is adjusting quickly. Against the Miami Heat on November 29, he scored 18 points and pulled down nine rebounds.
Regardless of who the Spurs play at center, Hickson needs to have a great game for the Blazers. Portland ranks 24th in rebounding compared to San Antonio, who ranks ninth, and it is up to Hickson to prove those numbers wrong.
He needs to park himself under the basket after every shot and go after each loose ball as if it's cash falling from the sky. The key to defeating the Spurs is out-defending them, and Hickson is the key to the Blazers doing just that.
If he can have the same type of performance as he did on November 10, then his team will have a fighting chance.
The Portland Trail Blazers will put up another great effort against San Antonio, but they will fall short once again. Forget the fact that Batum and Matthews might not play. San Antonio is just too good a team to let young Portland beat it, and they will not need to make a comeback to win this game.
Rather, the Spurs will play well from the get-go. Tony Parker will take Lillard to school both off the dribble and in the paint, and Tim Duncan will have another fine scoring and rebounding night. When the game gets close, Danny Green, Manu Ginobili and Gary Neal will make some clutch shots and simply demoralize young Portland.
Who will win?
Lillard and Hickson will both have good games and do all they can to keep the score close with some help from Aldridge, but it just won't be enough. San Antonio is too deep and too close to winning another title, that their collective experience will help them pull away by the midway point of the fourth quarter.
They will thus successfully shake off the loss to the Jazz, and get right back on track with a road win in the Rose City.
San Antonio Spurs 107, Portland Trail Blazers 95