The situation could be considered bleak. 0-12. O for Brandon Roy's career. o for LaMarcus Aldridge's career. Projected starting Center and Rookie of the Year hopeful center Greg Oden out. Sharpshooting projected Small Forward Martell Webster out. Perennial Championship contender San Antonino comes to town for the Blazers' home opener.
Yet there are some positives, as well. Just as Portland has lost Oden and Webster to injury, the Spurs have lost all-world Manu Ginobli and starting Center Fabricio Oberto. The Spurs looked vulnerable in their home opener loss to Phoenix. Their defense showed holes that were not there in the past.
On the other hand, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker look willing and able to step into the gap and provide the points that would normally come from Ginobli. Oberto is a great energy guy but not going to greatly affect the statistics one or the other. The Spurs have other advantages as well.
San Antonio has a better bench than people give them credit for. Kurt Thomas is a guy who does not put up huge numbers. He just puts up numbers that exceed what his playing time should show and does them in key situations. A lot of what he does never shows up in the box score. He will keep alive a ball on the offensive boards and the rebound will get credited to Ime Udoka who ends up with it. Or he will nudge a guy's hip on the way by, knocking the ball loose or the defender out of position. Thomas is the epitome of a role player because he finds his role, fills it, and doesn't need the spotlight. Nor is he the only role player help.
Udoka can stroke the three and play above average defense. Jacque Vaughn doesn't play huge minutes or put up big numbers (note the trend there) but doesn't need to...he just needs to spell Parker at key moments and that is what he does.
On the other hand, the Blazer bench has the potential to see some big numbers. Sergio Rodriguez has stretches where every time he passes the ball it creates an assist. Rudy Fernandez can score in bunches. Channing Frye can provide a surprise boost in points and rebounds when he gets time and his head is in the game. Of course, they are hurt by the move of Travis Outlaw to the starting line-up, which usually would be the headline for the game if not for other major events.
Naturally, the main storyline for tonight for the national media...and, to be fair, Portland media...is the Greg Oden injury. I call bollocks.
I am not going to argue the Blazers are better off long-term without Oden than with him. That would just be stupid. He is going to provide some great moments, some big numbers at times, and make a difference for this team. But I am going to argue they are still good enough to win without him. And that includes games like this one against San Antonio.
To be sure, Oden would have an advantage on the box in this game. Duncan will no doubt be watching LaMarcus Aldridge. That match-up alone is enough of a treat for Blazer fans. Here we have the past and present of the League, perennial All-Star and MVP candidate Duncan...matched up with young gun probable future All-Star Aldridge. Both forwards can post up, shoot well from mid-range, and play the pick and roll. Aldridge runs the floor a little better...not hugely relevant on a Blazer team that runs as seldom as this one...and Duncan is a better defender, though his expertise tends more towards off the ball help than matching up one on one.
Both players are a pleasure to watch because they are so skilled. Neither one simply runs over the defender. Instead, they use their quickness, agility, and intelligence to make good basketball moves. I have never been a fan of the "bull him over and score while he lays on the ground and picks up a foul" game guys like Shaquille O'Neal play. I would much rather watch skilled guys like Duncan, Aldridge, Chris Paul, etc. play. Still, there are people who prefer the power game that Oden would provide.
Oden has that ability to just overpower people that I am not a huge fan of watching. With Oberto out, he would theoretically have an even bigger advantage in this game...though I would argue that a crafty veteran such as Thomas could cause him a lot of problems.
Be that as it may, with no Oden Portland will switch up their offensive theory a little bit. Instead of pounding it in to Oden and seeing what happens, they will involve more people. Aldridge should get a few more looks on the box, Brandon Roy will have a bit more room to operate, and if Bruce Bowen is on Roy, Travis Outlaw will have some lanes.
This figures to be a low scoring affair where chalupas are not part of the conversation. The Spurs are very good at keeping things to their pace. With that in mind, Portland can withstand some cold-shooting stretches. Conversely, so can the Spurs. Look for a game in the 80s or 90s where both teams are within striking distance with a couple minutes to go.
I anticipate Aldridge and Roy bouncing back from brutal nights in L.A. If Rudy Fernandez and Travis Outlaw provide anything close to what they did in that game, the Blazers should have enough firepower to end their 0-12 skid against the Spurs, particularly in light of Ginobli missing the game.
For the Spurs to win they need everything to click; they need their defense to be on, Duncan and Parker to light up the score board, and a couple other guys step up into maybe the low teens.
This game might be more important for Portland than it is for San Antonio. The Spurs are a quality veteran team that has started slow before. They know it is a lengthy season and they will win their share of games by the end. One game won or lost will not alter their confidence.
Portland, on the other hand, faces what is almost a "must-win" game. Next up are games at Phoenix and Utah, the Jazz game being the front end of a back to back with the second game home against Houston. If Portland loses this game they face the probability of starting the season 0-4 or even 0-5. That hole would be pretty close to too much to climb out of. Conversely, if they can beat the Spurs, even if they lose to the Suns and Jazz, they stand a decent chance of parleying the home court advantage into a win against Houston.
This assumes, of course, that they follow the "young team" trend of needing confidence. Success breeds success, failure breeds failure, and so forth. So in theory, Portland should come out with a sense of urgency a little beyond that shown by the Spurs.
If it comes out in practice as panic, the situation, both the game and season, could get ugly. Portland could have another 34% shooting night, get blown out on their home floor and head on the road a broken team.
I just don't believe guys like Nate McMillan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Steve Blake, and Brandon Roy will allow that. Portland will play well tonight and pull out the win.
As an aside, one thing that will have no bearing on the game but is a fun marketing ploy would be tonight's "red out". Fans are being encouraged to wear red to the game. Because, you know, the "blackout" worked so well for...was it Georgia that got rolled? So if you are a Blazer fan, wear red, show up to the game, support the team, and cheer Oden when he is shown.
Remember, he is a 20 year old kid, he has given this city a lot of hope and excitement. Don't ride the guy, just enjoy what he brings to the floor when he is there.