April 7, 2018, 2:29 pm
OPPONENT: San Antonio Spurs
RECORD: 45-34 (31-8 at home, 6-4 last 10 games)
MEASUREABLES: 105.5 offensive rating (17th), 102.2 defensive rating (third), +3.3 net rating (seventh)
INJURIES, ABSENCES: Kawhi Leonard (out – quadriceps tendinopathy)
WHEN, WHERE, HOW TO WATCH: 9:00 EST, AT&T Center (San Antonio), NBC Sports Northwest/FOX Sports Southwest
The stakes on Saturday night at AT&T are enormous.
With a win over the San Antonio Spurs, the Portland Trail Blazers can clinch home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and come within one more victory of securing the three seed – and a prospective date with the hobbled Golden State Warriors. Meanwhile, consecutive close losses have dropped the Spurs to 45-34, tied with the New Orleans Pelicans and Oklahoma City Thunder and just a game up on the ninth-place Denver Nuggets. San Antonio can’t clinch a playoff berth on Saturday, but needs a win to control its own postseason destiny with just two games left on the schedule.
The Spurs can take comfort knowing two of their final three games of the regular season take place at AT&T Center. They’re 31-8 at home this season, the league’s third-best record, and have a net rating of +7.4. San Antonio plays like a 65-win team from the friendly confines of the Alamo City.
Compounding problems for the Blazers is the presence and performance of LaMarcus Aldridge. Portland’s former franchise player is coming up big when it matters most, averaging 28.0 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.5 blocks on 55.9 percent shooting in the last 15 games. The Spurs’ offensive rating has dipped to 101.5 over that timeframe with Aldridge on the bench, per NBA.com/stats, a team-low barely skirting the last-ranked number of the Phoenix Suns.
Momentum might be irrelevant for Aldridge against the Blazers, though; they just don’t have a good matchup for his combination of length, strength and quickness on their roster, especially with Ed Davis still sidelined. Al-Farouq Aminu will get the call against the six-time All-Star on Saturday, and hopefully fare better than the last time these teams met three months ago. In Portland’s win over San Antonio on January 7, Aldridge went 8-of-13 with Aminu as his primary defender, scoring 22 of his 30 points. Jusuf Nurkic was more effective, but Terry Stotts would surely rather not risk the likelihood Nurkic succumbs to foul trouble if tasked with spending a majority of the game checking Aldridge; he’s just not quite mobile enough laterally to keep Aldridge in front of him on a possession-by-possession basis.
The Blazers’ matchup problems don’t end there. Dejounte Murray and Danny Green form perhaps the most underrated defensive backcourt in basketball, and will make life hard on Damian Lillard, returning from a left ankle sprain, and C.J. McCollum with active arms and relentless engagement. Pau Gasol, for all his problems moving in space, is one of the best rim-protectors in basketball; opponents shoot 50.5 percent against him at the restricted area, the league’s third-stingiest mark. Even if Lillard and McCollum are able to free themselves from the shackles of Murray and Green and crease the the paint, other deterrents await. The Spurs rank eighth in both frequency of 3-point attempts allowed and opponent’s 3-point field goal percentage, according to the Cleaning the Glass. This probably isn’t the game Portland’s long-range shooting woes subside.
San Antonio needs a victory more than the Blazers, but make no mistake – Portland wants a win on Saturday, too, as much to ensure home-court advantage as right the wayward trajectory of its finish to the regular season. The playoffs don’t tip off until next weekend, but the atmosphere at AT&T Center will suggest otherwise. Can the Blazers pull off a rare road win over the Spurs? Postseason ramifications will make doing so even more difficult than normal, but certainly not impossible.