After dismantling the Dallas Mavericks in a 119-96 Game 7 victory on Sunday, the San Antonio Spurs will continue their quest to repeat as Western Conference Champions against the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Blazers took six games to knock off the Houston Rockets in their own first-round battle behind an incredible series-clinching buzzer-beater from Damian Lillard:
The explosive scoring ability of Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge is something that has Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich worried. He talked about it after Sunday's Game 7:
Tim Duncan added:
The two teams played each other close in the regular season, with the aggregate score of their four meetings being 423-419 in favor of Portland.
Seeds: Portland Trail Blazers No. 5; San Antonio Spurs No. 1
Records: Portland Trail Blazers 54-28; San Antonio Spurs 62-20
Season Series: 2-2
Schedule for Series: Game 1 Tuesday, May 6, 9:30 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 2 Thursday, May 8, 9:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2); Game 3 Saturday, May 10, 10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN); Game 4 Monday, May 12, 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT); Game 5 Wednesday, May 14*; Game 6 Friday, May 16*; Game 7 Monday, May 19*
* = if necessary, time TBD.
Key Storyline for the Portland Trail Blazers
In their seventh year of existence, the Blazers won the NBA Finals in 1977 behind the leadership of coach Jack Ramsay. It was his first season at the helm, and the team hadn't even made the playoffs before then.
Dr. Jack coached his way into the pantheon of Portland greats, where he'll remain after passing away this past Monday at the age of 89.
This year's Blazers are honoring the late coaching legend with patches on their jersey and play on the court that is bringing back '70s-era Blazermania:
In a 1977 article from Sports Illustrated entitled "A Fever Called Blazermania," Curry Kirkpatrick said:
Blazermania was the force behind the Trail Blazers winning their final 18 games in the Coliseum, including 10 in the playoffs, including, of course, the world championship...
What Blazermania demonstrated beyond anything else was that in an age when pro sports is so often the dull child of dismal bigness, a team by its style, character and wholesome ways can still manage to personalize itself, enchant its audience and make everybody feel good...
Behind monstrous performances from Aldridge and late-game heroics from Lillard, the Blazers are making fans believe again.
And to beat the NBA's best, the 62-win Spurs, this group is going to need its own modern brand of Blazermania.
Key Storyline for San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs lost in about as dramatic and heartbreaking a fashion imaginable in last year's Game 6 of the NBA Finals.
They were one rebound away from the fifth championship in franchise history. You all know the rest:
The Spurs came back to post the best record in the NBA in 2013-14 and squash the "too old" narrative for the umpteenth time.
The Blazers are the next obstacle in their path on the way to complete redemption from the losses in Games 6 and 7 that cost them the title last summer.
Dr. Jack, 40-point outbursts from Aldridge and the clutch buckets from Lillard have gotten the most press early in this postseason run for the Blazers, and rightfully so.
Flying under the radar is the always-steady play of defensive specialist and point forward Nicolas Batum. In the six games against the Rockets, he averaged 15.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists while being charged with defending Chandler Parsons, and at times, James Harden.
Against the Spurs, he'll spend some time defending Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili and Marco Belinelli while taking pressure off Lillard by handling the ball on the other end.
He's not talked about as much, but Batum's role is critical and requires serious versatility.
Picking the X-factor on the other side is tougher.
The 2013-14 Spurs were the first team in NBA history without a single player averaging 30 minutes during the regular season. They had nine players who averaged at least 8.2 points. With that kind of depth, you could make the argument that the Spurs have several, maybe even nine, X-factors.
Against the Blazers, it will be Duncan, particularly his defense.
Even at 38, Duncan is one of the league's best interior defenders. He received a few nods in this year's Defensive Player of the Year voting and was fifth in the league in blocks per game at 1.9.
He and Tiago Splitter will have their hands full trying to slow down Aldridge, who averaged 29.8 points in the first round.
Key Matchup: Damian Lillard vs. Tony Parker
The two players most likely to take over a game at a moment's notice are Lillard and Parker, who happen to be matched up against each other at point guard.
Both were excellent in the first round:
|Lillard and Parker in the First Round|
Parker took a while to get going in the first six games against the Mavericks, but unleashed a full-scale attack in Game 7 with a 32-point barrage that showed just how dangerous he can be.
Lillard is a lot of things, but defensive specialist isn't one of them. And staying in front of Parker is impossible, even for players who are known as such.
He'll do plenty to put pressure on Parker on the other end, though.
Lillard's ability to score has people comparing him to the last Blazers guard who was poised to become a superstar:
Portland fans have had to endure some tough times over the last few years with the injuries to Roy and Greg Oden, but Lillard may be able to make them forget all the pain.
The Blazers are dynamic offensively and will present the top-seeded Spurs with a variety of challenges. After eliminating the Mavericks, Ginobili talked about how Portland isn't your typical No. 5:
They're younger and more explosive than the Mavericks, who pushed the Spurs to seven games, but it was in that matchup that we finally saw the Spurs at full speed:
When faced with the pressure of a game that they legitimately had to win, the Spurs were a completely different team, one that Portland has to be worried about.
If the Blazers see that team, they'll have to play near-perfect basketball just to stay close. And they likely will see that team at least once or twice, as they have the firepower to win two or three games.
Ultimately, they don't have the experience to go with it and make them the favorites in this series.
Spurs win series 4-2
Andy Bailey covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.
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