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 today's Game 1 less than 48 hours after eliminating Utah in a rough six-game series.
Portland put the Jazz away Thursday night with a 92-80 victory, a game in which the Blazers made their last 22 free throws and shut down Utah's final, desperate comeback.
"We beat the Jazz at their own game," Portland's Jim Jackson said. "We kept our poise, we were patient and we outworked them. But it's all behind us. We've got to get ready for the Spurs."
Young, deep and exuding confidence, the Blazers brushed aside any concern about 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 yesterday 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.
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 have 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.
"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 against Brian Grant, who shut down Malone for much of the Utah series. Thursday, Malone had one of the worst postseason games of his career, scoring a career playoff-low eight points on 3-for-16 shooting.
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 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.
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," Spurs Coach Gregg 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."
CAPTION: Jim Jackson, here celebrating, said of win over Jazz: "We kept our poise, we were patient and we outworked them."