San Antonio has experience, depth — but Portland has X factors

by: COURTESY OF JOHN LARIVIERE - Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge is a happy NBA first-round series victor as he leaves the court at Moda Center after Game 6 against Houston. SAN ANTONIO — Phil Jackson said a couple of weeks ago that he wouldn’t call the San Antonio Spurs a dynasty.

“But they’re a force, a great force,” the new president of the New York Knicks said. “They haven’t been able to win consecutive championships, but they’ve always been there.”

The Spurs have been to the playoffs 17 straight years. Have won championships in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007. And were on the verge of another title last June, until Miami’s Ray Allen cut their hearts out with a 3-pointer that forced overtime and paved the way to a 103-100 Game 6 victory, leading to the Heat’s dramatic seventh-game win and second straight title.

Until Miami wins it all for a third successive time in June, Gregg Popovich’s Spurs are as close to a dynasty as it gets in the NBA these days.

And they’re the next challenge for the Trail Blazers, who visit AT&T Center for tonight’s opener of their Western Conference semifinal series with the defending conference champions.

The second round of the postseason is a new experience for Portland, which hadn’t won a playoff series since 2000 before knocking off Houston last week in six games in the first round.

It’s old hat for the Spurs, who were pushed to the limit before routing Dallas 119-96 in Game 7 of their first-round series.

“They’re the best of the best,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said after Sunday’s elimination game. “They have a great chance moving forward.”

Brent Barry thinks so, too. But the former Oregon State great, who enjoyed a 15-year NBA career, isn’t giving the Spurs a pass against the Blazers.

“It’s a coin flip,” Barry, a studio analyst for NBA-TV, tells the Portland Tribune. “Homecourt advantage could win the Spurs the series, but it’s not going to be easy for them to do.

“The Spurs woke up (in Game 7). They gained respect for the Mavericks as the series went on, but they respect the Blazers going in, knowing how well they play against them.”

Barry played four seasons in San Antonio, makes his residence there and was on a pair of title teams with the Spurs. But he feels a strong connection to Portland because of his college roots, and holds a healthy dose of respect for the Blazers.

Portland and San Antonio split four meetings this season, the Blazers winning the first two matchups, the Spurs the last two. Over the past six years, though, Portland has held a 14-7 advantage in the series. Until the Spurs’ 111-109 win Feb. 19 at the Moda Center, the Blazers had won nine of 10 at home.

“But go back and look at all the games over that period, and there are weird circumstances in some of the Spurs’ losses,” Barry says. “There were occasions where it was the last game of a five-game trip, or ‘Pop’ rested some guys. I don’t look at (the disparity) and say, ‘Portland has their number.’ “

The presence of LaMarcus Aldridge — who averaged 29.8 points and 11.2 rebounds in the Houston series — is the No. 1 problem for San Antonio, Barry says. He believes Popovich will use 6-11 center Tiago Splitter to guard Aldridge, leaving veteran Tim Duncan to defend Robin Lopez.

“Splitter is one of the best interior defenders in the league, but he is going to have his hands full with LaMarcus,” Barry said. “He’s a young Dirk — athletic, creates space, draw fouls, is a good foul shooter. That’s an issue for the Spurs. They’ll have to slow him up, which they haven’t done a great job of in the past. They’ll try to protect Timmy and not get him outside the paint (defensively), because it takes away from his rebounding.”

The Spurs have done a decent job this season on Aldridge, who averaged 21.3 points and 8.0 rebounds in three games against them (missing the Spurs’ Feb. 19 win at the Moda Center). Point guard Damian Lillard has averaged 25.0 points and 6.3 assists in his four appearances versus the Spurs, while San Antonio’s Tony Parker was sub-par in his three games in the series, averaging 14.5 points and 6.0 assists while shooting .356 from the field.

But Parker was his best in Sunday’s Game 7 against Dallas, going for 24 of his 32 points in the first half.

“It’s a great matchup of 1-2 players,” Barry says. “It’s going to be cool to see. LaMarcus and Lillard would love to beat Duncan and Parker. Speed hurt the Spurs in the Dallas series. Devin Harris had great success. Maybe Damian will find some ways to be even more successful.”

Barry gives San Antonio a decided edge in bench strength, with Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills leading the way.

“The Spurs have the No. 1 bench in the league,” Barry says. “It can carry that team for quarters at a time. That’s not something Portland is doing. They have Mo Williams for points and Thomas Robinson for toughness, but the Spurs have the advantage there. You need your bench to step up in a playoff series.”

Ginobili, in particular, could make things difficult.

“Manu causes some guys problems,” Barry says. “He’s fiery and competitive, and he’ll force you to foul him, and that can get guys off their game. That’s something Terry (Stotts) will address with his guys, not letting Manu play head games. You can’t get frustrated. He’s like (James) Harden, but he’s worse. He will get the contact (from the defender) and sell it. When Manu has good games, it gives confidence to the starting unit.”

Barry gives San Antonio the edge defensively, too.

“The Spurs will force Portland to score in many different ways,” Barry says. “Against Houston, the Blazers were content to have a shooting match, to outscore them and duel them offensively. The Spurs’ disciplined defense presents a switch the Blazers will have to flip on. The Spurs will force them to play deeper into the shot clock on a lot of possessions. They play an accordion defense, where they come out and force you to spread out your shooters.”

Barry’s NBA-TV partner, ex-Blazer Steve Smith, wonders if Stotts will choose to use Nicolas Batum to defend Parker. “The length could help tame Tony,” Smith says.

From a San Antonio standpoint, Smith says, “the one area of concern is how much Tim Duncan has left. How much can he dominate at both ends of the court? The first ‘big’ off the bench is Diaw. Tim has to do so much offensively and defensively. If he has any letdown, it puts a lot of pressure on Splitter and Diaw. Maybe they’ll choose to go small, because their guard strength is deep.”

Barry says an X factor will be Portland’s Wesley Matthews, who defended Harden well and had his moments offensively against Houston.

“If Matthews takes a page out of the last series and plays in attack mode, it would help Portland’s chances considerably,” Barry says.

Playoff experience creates a big advantage for the Spurs. Duncan (218) and Parker (180) have played more than twice as many games in the postseason as the five Portland starters combined (89).

“The Spurs have seen everything over the years,” Barry says. “They have the experience of adjusting to the pace of games, whether they’re in the 80s or high-scoring affairs where they have to muster 115 to 120 points. Portland is a younger team, with great talent and chemistry, but they haven’t been through variances like that. The Spurs’ execution in the halfcourt could be enough for them to win.”

Popovich — a three-time coach of the year, including this season — holds a 137-86 record (.614) in the playoffs.

“Pop will find ways to pick on what he sees Portland having a tendency to do and come up with wrinkles to sets and offenses he likes to run,” Barry says. “That will make Portland have to defend in a little different way. Terry can do it, too, but it’s tougher because the Spurs have seen a lot of what happens over the years.”

Barry sees San Antonio advancing, but expects the Blazers to be very competitive.

“I really like this series,” he says. “Portland played incredible basketball against Houston. Portland and San Antonio are similar in several ways. They both have good 3-point shooting, they can play inside-out, they have good point guard presence. In the end, I think the bench, experience and that Ginobili kid give the Spurs a slight advantage.”

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