Trail Blazers-Spurs Preview
The San Antonio Spurs appear to be turning the corner after winning six of their last seven, but it's tough to find an impressive victory in the bench.
Beating the defensive-minded Portland Trail Blazers, even with their rash of injuries, would certainly count.
The Spurs look for a rare win over an above-.500 team Wednesday night when they host the Trail Blazers, who will be down another big body as they try to end a grueling four-game road trip with a third straight victory.
Many wondered what was wrong with San Antonio (15-10) after coach Gregg Popovich's team struggled to a 10-9 start, but some of those concerns have been alleviated after it's outscored its opponents by an average of 10.4 points in going 6-1 over the past two weeks.
Those six wins, however, have come against teams that are a combined 36 games below .500, including two against the Los Angeles Clippers. Six Spurs reached double figures in a 115-90 rout in Los Angeles on Dec. 13 and seven scored 10 or more in a 103-87 win Monday, led by Tony Parker's 19.
Parker had been held to 13.3 points on 41.8 percent shooting in his previous six games.
"He looked fresher and more aggressive," Popovich said. "For us, Tony has to be at the top of his game. It's always been that way and always will be."
Parker didn't get much of a chance to help San Antonio when it visited Portland on Nov. 6. The 2007 Finals MVP left with a sprained ankle that kept him out for four of the Spurs' next five games, and the Trail Blazers won 96-84 - their third straight and fourth in five games over San Antonio - behind 24 points from Brandon Roy.
The Blazers (18-12) haven't been the only contender against whom the Spurs have struggled. San Antonio is 2-8 when facing teams above .500, including four straight losses.
Both teams will be without their starting center from the first meeting. Matt Bonner, San Antonio's best 3-point threat, is expected to miss a month with a broken finger on his shooting hand, while Portland's Greg Oden's promising season is over due to his fractured left patella.
Portland has maintained its position as the West's best defensive team without Oden (allowing 92.3 points per game), but suffered another blow in an otherwise encouraging 85-81 win Tuesday at Dallas, its third in four games over an above-.500 opponent. Joel Przybilla, one of the NBA's leading rebounders per 48 minutes, ruptured his right patella tendon in the first quarter.
"I couldn't believe that somebody else got hurt," said LaMarcus Aldridge, who had 19 points and 12 rebounds.
Roy, who had a team-high 23 points - his 11th straight game with at least that many - and is averaging 26.5 in December, hurt his shoulder late in the fourth quarter but said he should be able to play Wednesday.
"We keep losing guys and it's nerve-racking just to take the floor,'' said coach Nate McMillan, who's on crutches while recovering from a ruptured right Achilles' tendon. "This was a great win for our group under the conditions.''
Sixteen-year veteran Juwan Howard will start Wednesday for the Blazers, who are left without a true center on the roster. Already missing Oden, Travis Outlaw, Nicolas Batum, Patrick Mills and Rudy Fernandez, Portland was granted a hardship exemption last week, allowing it to sign a 16th player.
With no Oden or Przybilla, Tim Duncan should have plenty of good looks at the basket. The two-time MVP has averaged 10.7 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 35.1 percent during the Spurs' three-game slide against Portland.