Originally Published: March 12, 2014

Spurs Know The Way. Blazers? Not So Much

By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

SAN ANTONIO -- The San Antonio Spurs are experimenting, the Portland Trail Blazers are being tested, and the difference between those two terms is even greater than the 6½ games that separate them in the Western Conference standings.

The Spurs are at eight consecutive victories and counting, sitting atop the conference, winning games with enough ease as of late that coach Gregg Popovich can afford the luxury of trying different in-game lineups fueled by curiosity, not necessity.

Spurs
AP Photo/Darren AbateManu Ginobili and the Spurs drove their way to an eighth straight win.

The Blazers have lost four straight and are at risk of becoming embedded in the lower half of the West playoff bracket. They sent out a lineup of Damian Lillard, Dorell Wright, Will Barton, Meyers Leonard and Earl Watson for the first time this season at the start the fourth quarter, simply because they had to. All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge was back in the trainer's room, having bruised his back after a hard fall in the third quarter. Mo Williams was out with a hip strain, depriving the NBA's least productive bench of its top scorer. Williams said he's day-to-day, while the Trail Blazers did not provide a timetable for Aldridge's return. The only postgame update was that X-Rays on Aldridge's back were negative.

That patchwork Portland group was only on the floor for 36 seconds, but that was enough time to record a minus-six efficiency after back-to-back jumpers by the Spurs' Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli. The Spurs led by 15, the ballgame was pretty much over, and the Blazers were headed for a lengthy conversation in the postgame locker room, which stayed closed for well more than the mandated 10 minutes after the 103-90 defeat to San Antonio.

"I think this is the first time that we've been tested at this level, where we're losing some of our better players and we're losing games and letting leads slip," Lillard said. "It's one of those points of the year where it's, 'All right, it's test time.' I think it's another test that we'll pass."

The Blazers were the one who sprung a pop quiz on the rest of the league in the first half of the season. As in, "What are these guys doing up near the top of the Western Conference?" That's no longer the question. They had five losses through Christmas and still had a single digit in the loss column on Jan. 19, but have dropped 13 games since Jan. 20. The query now is ... what happened?

"Our rhythm has been kind of off," said Lillard, who struggled with 9-of-22 shooting after scoring 32 points in 39 minutes in Memphis the night before. "That makes everything harder. We're playing against good teams, closing in on the end of the season, and teams are fighting for their playoff lives."

The natural response would be to fight back, but Lillard had this telling quote: "We've kind of given ourselves some room for error, or some room for a time like this."

True, their strong start means the recent slump probably won't drop them out of the playoffs. That doesn't mean they can afford that mentality going forward. They're fighting for home-court advantage, which could very well determine their playoff lives. At the moment they're in the fifth spot, 2½ games behind Houston and a game ahead of Golden State.

The bigger picture: Aldridge told me before the game that his standard for considering this season a success and the franchise making the progress he wants to see is if they win at least one round in the playoffs. Something to keep in mind as his 2015 free agency approaches.

First the Blazers need to get Aldridge back on the court. He couldn't put weight on his right leg as he slowly made his way back to the locker room. Even the fastest possible return won't leave many games to get back on track before the playoffs start. Very unfortunate timing.

"Now it's just time for us to make our own luck," Blazers guard Wes Matthews said. "Get the 50-50 balls, turn these games around, stop waiting for it to happen and just compete like we were earlier in the year."

In other words, the future needs to be like their early-season past, or they'll be first-round history.

The Spurs, meanwhile, are drawing on their collective consciousness (or "corporate knowledge," as general manager R.C. Buford calls it), sharing the ball instinctively, looking much like the group that won the Western Conference last season.

In the fourth quarter, Tim Duncan didn't have to play and Manu Ginobili spent only 46 seconds on the court. Popovich sent Tony Parker back in for three minutes, mainly to see how a smaller lineup featuring him would look.

"We played physically, we moved the ball well and got a lot of people to play, so I think we are staying pretty fresh," Popovich said.

The words of a coach and team who don't need tests, because they've already demonstrated their knowledge.

Dimes past: Feb. 20 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27 | March 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 9 | 10 | 11

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