SAN ANTONIO -- San Antonio and Portland were not supposed to be in the conference finals when this abbreviated season began. Five months later, they are right where they deserve to be.
The Spurs, rested but maybe rusty, haven't played since they swept the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday. The Trail Blazers go into Saturday's Game 1 less than 48 hours after eliminating Utah in a rough six-game series.
Young, deep and ebbing with confidence, the Blazers brushed aside any concern over fatigue.
"I think it's to our advantage to keep playing because of our youth and enthusiasm," the Blazers' Greg Anthony said. "It's beneficial for us to keep our momentum going."
The Spurs practiced Friday finally knowing their opponent. Now the question is whether the long layoff will sour their sweet run that began when they got off to a 6-8 start. Since then, counting a 7-1 mark in the playoffs, the Spurs are 38-6.
"I have no idea is the most honest answer," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said when asked about the layoff. "I don't think anybody has an idea. We just have to see how we look when we get out on the court."
San Antonio beat the Blazers three out of four during the season, but the margin was never more than eight points, and that was in overtime. The Blazers believe they've learned a lot about poise since.
"Just to have gone through what we've gone through, I think that takes your confidence level up another notch," Portland coach Mike Dunleavy said.
The Blazers withstood all of Utah's wily tactics. Portland won a critical road game in Game 2, then put the series away with a strong finish in Thursday night's 92-80 victory at the Rose Garden.
"Playing San Antonio will be a similar situation to playing Utah," Portland's Jim Jackson said. "We lost the season series against them, too. But we've learned some things since we last played them."
The biggest concern for the Blazers is the twin towers of Tim Duncan and David Robinson. Robinson averaged 21.3 points against Portland, nearly five more than his season average. Duncan added 20.3, just below his average.
"We've got a whole lot of work ahead of us, dealing with those two big guys," Rasheed Wallace said. "Against the Jazz, they really have one big guy, Karl Malone, but the Spurs have those two cats. ... We just have to play them tough all the time -- never let up."
Relentless defensive pressure made the difference against Utah, and the Spurs expect the same treatment.
"It's going to be intense, I'm sure," said San Antonio's Sean Elliott. "These guys have got to be riding a wave of confidence right now. They just beat the team that everybody picked to win the NBA championship."
Duncan has been magnificent in the first two rounds. Against the Lakers, he scored 25, 21, 37 and 33. He often will go up against Brian Grant, who shut down Malone for much of the Utah series, including a 3-for-17, career-playoff-low eight point game on Thursday night.
But the Spurs have shown they are much more than a two-man team. Point guard Avery Johnson has averaged 14 points and 7.5 assists while shooting .527 from the floor in the postseason. Sean Elliott is again a big scoring threat after an off year. Mario Elie, Jerome Kersey and Steve Kerr give San Antonio maturity and depth.
Jaren Jackson, who once played for Portland, has been effective off the bench at off-guard and scored 20 in the Spurs' clincher over the Lakers.
An important matchup looms at off-guard. Isaiah Rider has backed up his chest-banging bravado with strong, controlled performances against Phoenix and Utah. He will go against Elie, one of the league's toughest players.
"I think I've got the No. 1 challenge on the team, contending with J.R. Rider," Elie said. "He's a terrific young player."
On a team with eight former lottery picks, the Blazers have no one star player. Nine different players led the team in various statistical categories. All five starters have averaged double figures in the playoffs.
"They create problems all over the place," Popovich said. "They've got, it seems like, five or six people they can stick on the post and create mismatches for you. They're very, very deep, very, very talented. There will be mismatches all over the place and we'll have to take care of them."
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