By Jim Brighters, NBA Editor
San Antonio Spurs: 1st Seed, West (62-20)
Portland Trail Blazers: 5th Seed, West (54-28)
(SportsNetwork.com) - The San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers will meet in the postseason for the first time since 1999 when the two teams square off in the Western Conference semifinals.
Fifteen years ago, the Spurs swept the Blazers. Tim Duncan is the only player remaining from that squad. For Portland, none of its starting five was in high school then, so that sweep can't be counted on for much.
One could set his or her watch to San Antonio's postseason success. The Spurs have made the playoffs every year since Duncan's arrival back in the mid 90s. They've won four titles and are the measuring stick for every other franchise in the association.
The Spurs, however, needed seven games to get past the eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the quarterfinals.
Portland escaped the first round for the first time since 2000 with a 4-2 victory over the Houston Rockets.
"It's obviously one heck of a team. We had trouble with them all year long," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of the Blazers. "They have guys we haven't' guarded yet. They're very talented, young, energetic."
The two teams split two matchups this season with each team winning once at home, and once on the road. The Spurs are 5-4 in their last nine as the host in this series, while the Blazers are 9-2 against San Antonio in Portland.
San Antonio ranked sixth in the NBA in opponents' scoring during the regular season, which will be needed since the Blazers finished fourth in scoring. The Spurs should have an advantage on the offensive side, ranking sixth during the season. Portland was just 22nd defensively.
The Blazers came of age a bit during this postseason.
LaMarcus Aldridge is a multiple-time All-Star, but he scored 46 and 43 in the first two games against the Rockets. He cooled a bit after that, but that was the only direction he could go.
Damian Lillard was equally fantastic and hit the game-winning 3-pointer to take Game 6.
Portland closed out its series on Friday night, bringing up the age-old question come playoff time - does rest matter?
"Whenever you can gain some rest, no matter if you're young or old, it's certainly welcome, especially when you go deep into a series," said Blazers coach Terry Stotts.
Popovich was philosophical in his answer.
"If it was rest, you'd say that's great. Since you don't get the rest, you say, 'well, we're really ready to go.' Slice it anyway you want," said Popovich. "Psycho-babble."
BACKCOURT: The Spurs may be Duncan's team, but Parker has assumed the mantle of the best player. He averaged 19.9 points against the Mavericks and was unstoppable during stretches of the Game 7 drubbing. Parker scored 32 points in the deciding game and shot 11-for-19 and 10-for-13 from the foul line. Danny Green played his best in Game 7 with 16 points. He's a streaky 3-point shooter.
Lillard is breathtaking. He averaged 25.5 points, 6.7 assists and 6.3 rebounds against the Rockets and shot 47 percent from the floor and 49 percent from long range. There are very few limits to his game, although he did average almost 45 minutes per game in that Houston series. Wesley Matthews is the fourth option for the Blazers, but only shot 41 percent from the field and 30 percent from the 3-point line in the first round.
FRONTCOURT: Duncan is a marvel. Against the Mavs, he posted 17.3 ppg and 8.4 rebounds, all the while blocking almost two shots a game. He played 35 minutes a night, but he gulped from the fountain of youth. Kawhi Leonard quietly went about his way versus Dallas, posting very good numbers and playing very good defense. He'll have his work cut out for him, running around with Nicolas Batum, but Leonard was so brilliant last season, it would be easy to imagine we haven't seen the best from him yet. Tiago Splitter played very, very well in round one. He shot 62 percent, scored 10.7 ppg and pulled down 9.0 rpg. He's probably going to cover Aldridge to start, but after Dirk Nowitzki for seven games, how much harder can it be, right?
Aldridge against the Rockets - 29.8 points, 11.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 2.7 blocks while shooting 48 percent from the field and 67 percent from deep. That's massive. That's bigger than massive. His first two games of the Houston series were as good as a player can be. Aldridge will need that to get by San Antonio. Batum does everything very well and is the Blazers' version of Leonard. Except Batum's numbers are better - 15.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg and 5.2 apg. Robin Lopez didn't have his best series ever versus the Rockets, but one can forgive him since he was banging around with Dwight Howard for six games.
BENCH: This is the biggest mismatch you can imagine. The Spurs led the NBA in bench scoring during the regular season and play nine regularly, including Manu Ginobili, who scored almost 18 a game in the quarterfinals. Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli and Boris Diaw all contribute significantly.
Mo Williams is the only thing that separates Portland from being a total iron man team. He averaged 25 minutes in round one and is still very skilled. Dorell Wright can shoot it and Thomas Robinson had almost no impact, playing 10 minutes a night.
EDGE: SAN ANTONIO
COACHING: Popovich is the hero of all currently in the profession. To get this team to play as well as it did this season, after having its still-beating heart ripped from its chest by Ray Allen and the Miami Heat, is impressive.
Stotts finished sixth in Coach of the Year voting, where Pop finished first. He deserves a ton of credit for getting this Blazers team this far. They were considered a talented team, but not many people thought they'd be here. Stotts does play his starters obscene minutes, but it's what he has to do.
PREDICTION: Playoff experience may be a tad overrated, and in this case, the Blazers played a first-round series, so this group is well-versed in the pressure.
However, this San Antonio team knows every trick in the book, probably because Ginobili has used them all.
The Blazers are incredibly athletic, they're good shooters and skilled scorers. They have the blueprint for success in today's NBA with two superstars and a fringe third one in Batum.
It just doesn't seem like it's their time yet. Winning two road playoff games to open this group's career was eye-opening and since the Trail Blazers won in San Antonio this season, it could happen again.
But, it's hard not seeing this Spurs team be able to wear them down. The Portland bench is really an issue and the Spurs, especially Parker and Ginobili, are relentless. Any foul trouble and Portland's up against it in a substantial way.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: SPURS in SIX
05/05 10:09:58 ET
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