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Fran Blinebury

Damian Lillard
Damian Lillard takes his clutch act against the Spurs, who will pose a stiffer defensive test than the Rockets.

Confident Blazers face test in San Antonio


Posted May 4, 2014 8:22 PM

Sure, it had been 14 years since the Trail Blazers last won a playoff series. Certainly, there were occasions and seasons when it seemed like the drought would never end.

But Damian Lillard fired in the dagger through the hearts of the Rockets and when the celebration finally stopped, it could only mean one thing.

Time to get greedy.

"We accomplished something, definitely," said Wes Matthews. "It was special. It was significant. But there's no reason for anybody to be satisfied with what we did and not think that we can't go on from there. This can be just a start."

Now it's the No. 1 seeded Spurs, the team that finished with an NBA-best 62 wins during the regular season. But the Blazers played the Spurs to a 2-2 in head-to-head match-ups and while San Antonio had to labor in going the seven-game distance against the No. 8 seed in the first round, Portland is brimming with confidence.

"I don't like putting limits on where we can go," said coach Terry Stotts. "I think the way the West is, anybody can win and anybody can lose. The important thing is the next game and going in with the expectation that you're going to play well and win the game."

It was one thing for the Blazers to tell themselves for the prior six months that this season things were going to be different. But when Lillard's rainbow hit the bottom of the net and all of his teammates were able to dance and hug and scream up and down the court, it was tangible proof.

The Rockets led for the lion's share of the total minutes in the six games of the series, but the Blazers always found a way to make the difference-making plays down the stretch.

"It's a constant test," said center Robin Lopez. "I think it really measures you when you face so many different games and so many possessions when you have to do the right thing. It's only natural that a team is going to get a boost in confidence when you win a playoff series.

"Right now, we know that we've got a difficult task and a very good opponent up next. But we're feeling good about where we are and who we can be."

Five quick questions (and answers):

1. Can LaMarcus keep burning? LaMarcus Aldridge is the leading scorer so far in the playoffs, averaging 29.8 points per game against Houston. He'll step up in class against the Spurs' No. 3-rated defense and so is unlikely to go off for 46 and 43.

2. Who's got the magic 3-ball? The Spurs were the best 3-point shooting team in the league, but as a group were often off the mark against the Mavs. The Blazers smother you with volume and we know that Damian Lillard only needs 0.9 seconds to strike big.

3. What's in reserve? The key to the success of the Spurs' run to the best record in the league this season has been the play off the bench of Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills, Boris Diaw and Cory Joseph that's given them the best depth in the league. But they underperformed in the first round. The Blazers' suspect depth didn't hurt them against Houston.

4. Parlez vous Francais? Give the edge to the veteran with teammates on the French national team on opposite sides in key roles. San Antonio usually has a steady and consistent hand by Tony Parker on the controls of the offense, while the Blazers endure Nicolas Batum's offensive ups and downs.

5. How's life out of the frying pan, RoLo? After finally putting the rugged task of wrestling with the sheer strength of Dwight Howard in the paint behind him, Robin Lopez now has to cope with a different kind of challenge — the veteran smarts of Tim Duncan.

When the Spurs have the ball...

As always, Tony Parker will try to push the ball up the floor in transition and go all the way to the hoop or hit one of his spot-up teammates for a 3-pointer out on the wing. Part of the Spurs problem against the Mavs was that supporting cast of Danny Green, Marco Belinelli, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills didn't deliver as consistently as the regular season.

For the Blazers, it all starts with keeping pressure on Parker and making him give up the ball before he can carve up their defense.

When the Blazers have the ball...

The first option is almost always to get the ball to LaMarcus Aldridge and let him work his magic going to the hoop or dropping an array of virtually unstoppable mid-range shots.

The Spurs don't have the twin towers potential of Houston's Dwight Howard and Omer Asik to bottle up Aldridge. But the versatile defensive vise Kawhi Leonard is a nice change of pace.

In the clutch

The Spurs have had all the same big weapons for more than a decade and any one of the Big Three can pull the trigger. But when the clock ticks down and they need a bucket, the ball is in Manu Ginobili's hands to make a play.

Is there any doubt after 0.9 seconds? Any question after Damian Lillard saved a game, maybe a series, and electrified a city? The second year guard wants the ball down the stretch and knows what to do with it.

Wild cards

Even at 36, even with all those miles on his legs from having played basketball around the world, there isn't a bigger wild card in any NBA deck than Ginobili. Still the difference-maker.

Wes Matthews plays with chip on his shoulder and fire in his belly that can burn things up at either end of the court on a given night.

Prediction

The Blazers can't expect the veteran Spurs to constantly come unglued in the fourth quarters and hold the door open like the Rockets. Blazers will challenge, but home court makes the difference. Spurs in seven.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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