How Long Can Paper-Thin Portland Trail Blazers Survive?

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How Long Can Paper-Thin Portland Trail Blazers Survive?
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The San Antonio Spurs attacked the Portland Trail Blazers' psyche with a mentally exhaustive effort built around shredded pick-and-roll coverage, extra passes, minimal mistakes and maximum support.

The Blazers didn't put up a fight in their series-opening 116-92 loss Tuesday, May 6. They couldn't.

They don't have the bodies to contend with Gregg Popovich's well-oiled machine.

Portland hasn't had that kind of help all season. No team received less support than what the Blazers got from their second team (24.0 points per game), via HoopsStats.com.

And no team is better equipped to exploit such a vulnerability than the Spurs, a muscle they flexed early and often in their complete dismantling of the Western Conference's No. 5 seed.

"While Blazers head coach Terry Stotts was coming to terms with just how few of his reserves seemed at all playable in this series, Popovich was drawing a 10-point, seven-rebound performance from Aron Baynes—a bottom-of-the-barrel center who logged all of six minutes in the first round," SI.com's Rob Mahoney observed.

Patty Mills chipped in with another 10 points off the pine. Marco Belinelli, who averaged just 3.1 points in San Antonio's first series, added 19 on 7-of-9 shooting.

"Those are the kind of players that play in different situations and win games and playoff series for you," Tim Duncan said of Belinelli and Baynes, via Mike Tokito of The Oregonian. "It’ll be great for us."

That luxury simply isn't available to the Blazers.

Their reserves combined for just 18 points on the night—32 less than their counterparts. Will Barton provided half of them, and he didn't hit the hardwood until there was 3:26 remaining in the third with his team down 22 points.

Portland's lack of depth didn't prevent it from rattling off 54 wins in the regular season. It didn't stop Terry Stotts' team from dispatching the fourth-seeded Houston Rockets in the opening round, either. 

But this isn't the regular season anymore. And the Spurs aren't the Rockets.

Stotts survived to this point by taking a Tom Thibodeau-type, heavy-handed approach to his minutes allotments. All five starters averaged more than 31 minutes during the regular season—Tony Parker led the Spurs with 29.4.

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Both sides have upped the ante in the postseason, a troubling trend considering how little room Portland has to move.

Three of Stotts' starters (Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum) have logged more than 41 minutes a night in the playoffs. Wesley Matthews isn't too far behind (39.1).

Short on energy, players will look for the easy way out.

Forced shots are becoming more appealing than tough drives to the basket. Off-ball cuts aren't taken with the same speed and precision. Defensive rotations get slower or skipped altogether.

The 28-year-old Aldridge is the senior member of the starting group, so they do have more wind for this workload than an aging roster. They've long ago accepted this fate, so it's not as if they're adjusting on the fly:

This isn't just an issue with fatigue, though.

It's about having a protection plan in place for the nights Murphy's Law surfaces. It's having another option to rely on when everything that can go wrong does go wrong.

As good as Portland's starters have been, off nights are unavoidable. Tuesday proved as much.

"Lillard stopped creating. Aldridge got frustrated," John Canzano of The Oregonian wrote. "Wesley Matthews started to reach on defense. Nic Batum lost his confidence. The bench players came in and looked wide-eyed after being so effective against the Rockets."

Eric Gay/Associated Press

The Spurs do a masterful job of taking primary options out of the equation.

They made Dirk Nowitzki look human in the opening round (19.1 points on 42.9 percent shooting). They turned Stephen Curry into a volume contributor over the final five games of the 2013 conference semis (18.2 points on 36.3 percent shooting).

Those disappearing acts resurfaced in Game 1.

Lillard needed 15 shots to get 17 points, tossed out three assists and coughed up six turnovers. Aldridge managed 32 points, but he shot just 6-of-17 in the first half. Matthews was invisible at the offensive end (eight points, 2-of-6 shooting), Batum was noticeable for the wrong reasons (seven points on 3-of-12, zero assists and three turnovers).

The Spurs led wire-to-wire, opening up a 13-point advantage in the first frame and doubling it before intermission. The Blazers desperately needed a lift from their reserves, but no one's in place to provide one.

Mo Williams had six points on 11 shots. Thomas Robinson and Dorell Wright combined for three points in more than 13 minutes. Stotts eventually emptied his bench to close the contest, but these three players make up the extent of his usable subs—a term applied loosely to Robinson and Wright.

History says this simply isn't enough to contend for the title.

Each of the past five NBA champions had at least eight players see 13-plus minutes a night. The Miami Heat got that much playing time out of 10 different guys last season.

The Blazers have six: the starters plus Williams.

Their margin for error is paper-thin, and the fully loaded Spurs will use that to their advantage. If Tony Parker (33 points, nine assists) can make an elite-level impact, the top-heavy Blazers might topple over.

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That's assuming their depleted fuel tanks are on empty, though. 

Expect a more competitive series from this point forward. The Blazers won't often shoot 25.0 percent from deep, and any gains made beyond the arc will help them lessen the damage done by their lack of depth.

It can't completely deflect that blow, though. Not against a team as deep, determined and driven as the Spurs.

Portland's youthful roster might not handle the mental tests San Antonio throws at it, anyway. Depth couldn't have sealed all the sieves that popped up in the Blazers' defense Tuesday night.

The Blazers are left to rely on talent alone, a challenge compounded by just how little exists on their roster. That shouldn't keep them from snagging a win or two in the series, but they'll fall several fingers short of knocking off a Spurs team with all hands on deck. 

 

Statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.

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