Shortly before his fifth and final three pointer -- the one that gave the Portland Trail Blazers a 91-87 lead over the San Antonio Spurs with 22 seconds left -- Martell Webster hit his fourth three pointer. The fifth three pointer, from the right angle, ended with a joyous blown kiss to the crowd and Nicolas Batum charging over for a leaping back bump. But the fourth three pointer, from the left corner with less than 4 minutes to play, brought the Blazers to within one point at 87-86 and brought Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to a full boil.
As Andre Miller weaved his way into the lane, collapsing the Spurs defense, Webster spotted up, patiently licking his lips for an extra-long moment as Miller waited for a passing lane to open. Once the ball was in Webster's hands, the Rose Garden crowd rose with anticipation as the crowd immediately behind him, the Spurs bench, sank back, stunned that he was that wide open. Webster's shot was pure and Popovich's reaction was pure comedy. Lurching spasmodically towards the courtside press table, Popovich raised his hands to shoulder height and then slammed both palms down full force, as if destroying dual spiders in disgust. The force of impact even caused his body to recoil, which looked particularly awesome on TNT's slow motion replay.
After the Blazers finished off their 96-93 victory, Webster said he hadn't seen the Spurs bench react to that three. "But I could feel it." Surely he couldn't have missed Popovich? "Oh yeah, I saw that part," Webster told me. "That always feels good when you see that. He turned the whole 360 and slapped the scorer's table." Standing in the middle of an emptying locker room basking in arguably the biggest clutch shot of his career, the earlier memory of Popovich brought an extra smile to his face.
If his penultimate three was cause for some comedy, Webster's final three -- the game's dagger -- was all about pride. Again, Miller broke down San Antonio's defense thanks to some help from a screening LaMarcus Aldridge. This time it was Nicolas Batum who was spotting up in the right corner and Miller found him easily. As the Spurs' backside defense rotated quickly to Batum, the Frenchman wisely flipped a short pass to the angle, where Webster was already lining up his sights. Even though there were roughly 8 seconds left on the shot clock, and the Blazers often play deep into the shot clock late in games when protecting a lead, Webster stroked it mercilessly and without hesistation.
To the observer, the shot looked good before he even received the pass, if that's possible. To Webster, it was in the moment he let it go. "Yeah, it felt good [the whole way]," he told me. As the ball skipped from Batum, Webster's mind was already playing through his next moves. "Just stay in the shot, keep my follow through," he told himself. "Then I just let the ball go."
As for the shot clock, Webster says he never gave it a second thought. "It was an open shot. It's the right shot to take," he said with a confidence that has become a much more regular presence in his speech over the past six weeks. "I would have got a grilling [from Nate McMillan] if I didn't take that shot. It's the right shot, it was the shot we needed."
Indeed it was. And he followed that shot with four free throws in the final 10 seconds that were equally necessary. All told, Webster provided a steady hand in a somewhat shaky end game and McMillan praised that late-game poise. "For Martell to step up and hit those free throws down the stretch is big when he has not been in that position [before]."
On the night, Webster finished with 21 points on a perfect 5-5 from distance and 4-4 from the foul line and, along with Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge, keyed a strong team defensive effort that held the Spurs to just 19 fourth quarter points. Webster framed his overall performance and game-changing plays down the stretch as a personal redemption. "Me, personally, I take fault for last night's loss [in Utah]. I played terrible defense. My defense was nonexistent last night. It was embarrassing. I watched video clips of me defensively last night. That's not the style of defense I want to play and that's not the style of defense that this team wants to see me play. I took it upon myself to make sure I didn't let that happen again tonight."
Asked if perhaps his play Wednesday night was simply the result of a difficult matchup with Utah's Andrei Kirilenko, Webster flatly dismissed the idea. "It was just me being lackadaisical. That can't happen. That can't happen. I'm not going to allow it to happen any more. I'm going to stay on top of that. Gotta prepare myself, gotta really hone in on that scouting report."
Tonight it was the Spurs who drove their coach crazy by not remembering the scouting report. That's Martell Webster, after all, you can't leave him alone.
Random Game Notes
- Lost in Webster's grand finale was one of LaMarcus Aldridge's best performances of the season. 28 points, 13 rebounds, 2 assists, and a steal, not to mention some truly savvy play like the screen he set to free Miller on Webster's final three pointer. Aldridge nearly single-handedly outplayed the Spurs frontcourt tonight, going 41 minutes on the second half of a home- and-away back-to-back. Be sure to read McMillan's comments about Aldridge below.
- Brandon Roy will attempt to participate in practice tomorrow and hopes to play on Saturday night against the Los Angeles Lakers. Check back Friday for a full update on Roy from practice.
- Jerryd Bayless was in noticeable pain after the game. When it comes to post-game injury reports the exchange of information is often quick and dirty. The questions and answers between media and players regarding health updates are often closer to fragments than full sentences. An exchange might be, "Your knee?" "Day to day." Or, "Treatment?" "Just ice." This works well both for the players, who generally dislike discussing nagging injuries, and for the media, who feel a constant pressure to get the most accurate health information as quickly as possible under a tight deadline. Tonight, though, Bayless was wincing and limping to the point where I caught myself asking him, "Are you ok?" like you might ask someone who was slowly dusting himself off after jumping out of the way of a car. "It hurts," Bayless replied. "Like 'soreness hurts' or 'pain hurts?,'" I asked. "Pain hurts," he replied without hesitation. The real problem? It wasn't entirely clear what "it" was. Bayless has been playing with ankle issues, he sprained his wrist last night, both of his knees were covered in huge ice packs after tonight's game and Brian T. Smith is reporting that Bayless's thigh is bothering him too. Bayless told me he wasn't sure if he would practice tomorrow or play Saturday, a major departure from his usual response of "I'm fine" any time a question about his future availability is raised. He is, quite literally, day to day.
- Tim Duncan is so fun to watch warm up because he is locked in like it's the NBA Finals from start to finish. Because the Blazers have been opting for pre-game afternoon shootarounds rather than morning shootarounds, the visiting team must wait to enter the Rose Garden bowl until roughly 90 minutes before tip. Some guys like to warm up in relative peace and quiet and are used to getting out there two hours early (or more). What resulted tonight was a circus scene. All the ultra-early warm up guys had to warm up alongside the early warm up guys and, believe it or not, the Blazer Dancers, who also couldn't take the court until the Blazers had finished their private shootaround. More than a dozen young women noisily bounced along within five feet of Duncan, who was purposefully practicing 18 foot bank shots with an assistant coach. What kind of reaction did they inspire? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not even a sideways glance or a pause from Duncan. Just bonk-swish. Bonk-swish. Bonk-swish. Soon after, the choreographer started up the dance team's music, turning it up extra loud so that it could compete with the music already blaring through the PA system. What an intrusion, right? Duncan didn't change a single thing or stop for a second. Phil Ivey poker face. Nothing. Robot Duncan just continued to bonk-swish. Focus and fundamentals are the kind of attributes that you can't really turn on and off if you're truly serious.
- Through three quarters the Spurs had committed just 9 personal fouls as a team. They committed another 9 in the final quarter. Through three quarters the Blazers had attempted just 5 free throws. In the fourth, they attempted 13.
- There were bits of electric transition play from the Blazers tonight as Rudy Fernandez and Martell Webster worked a beautiful no-dribble give-and-go on the break and Andre Miller threw a touchdown pass to Nicolas Batum for a gliding lay-up. Batum has added a well-timed leak out to his bag of tricks. After the game he seemed a bit in awe of how much success he's enjoying in transition. " I know [Andre] is going to see me. When I see we get the rebound, I just try to leak out and they throw me the ball almost every time." He makes the over-the-shoulder catch, stop on a dime, coast to the basket, check your blindspot for the defender, finish softly on the glass layup look so easy.
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
LaMarcus playing through criticism?
I think that's just part of the world we live in. When things go wrong or you're not winning, there are going to be people who are going to look for someone to blame. Far as LaMarcus, he is doing the things we need him to do. He's being aggressive down there establishing a post up. For him to play 41 minutes tonight on a back to back and play against Tim and those guys who are just banging him, I think you're seeing growth from LaMarcus. He's been good. We need him to step up on both ends of the floor. His rebounding, his scoring, he had a great night tonight.
Biggest shot Martell has hit in his career?
I thought Martell, again, we're seeing some growth with these guys. For Martell to step up and hit those free throws down the stretch is big, when he has not been in that position being in a game late stepping up and knocking down four free throws. Just being calm in that situation and I thought the team the last five minutes started to calm down and worked their way back into the game down the stretch and we made plays to win this game.
It's a big win. It's a big win because we have so many pieces and what I mean by that is the different rotations and the different lineups and guys being out. Every night we are trying to put the guys out there that are working and the combinations that are working. After just getting embarrassed last night in Utah I thought we bounced back tonight and got this game against a team that we need to protect home court. They are a good team. Tony Parker is fresh, we stayed with our gameplan, he got off to a good start, we didn't go crazy. We did a better job in the second half of keeping those guys in front of us and making them shoot over the top. We talk about our three C's -- being calm, clear what we want to do and staying with it and being consistent with it.
39 made baskets; 30 assists
We wanted to force the tempo, we wanted to push the ball, at times I think we held on to the ball. We wanted to try to do something ourselves as opposed to getting back to playing team basketball tonight and moving the ball and making their defense move and we had a ton of assists doing that. That's the way we need to play. Good ball movement, pushing the ball and when you're open shoot the ball.
How did Manu get so wide open on that one shot?
I don't know. We weren't supposed to leave 3s. We were supposed to switch everything. I thought Coach Pop ran a great play and we scrambled and got lucky. We got a break there because he was wide open. And I'm sure that's the way they designed it up. You need breaks in this game.
Surprised by how many big wins this year?
If you play the game hard and you play the game together, and you play smart basketball, you have a chance to win games. We've been able to do that. I firmly believe that regardless of who you have out on the floor. Of course you need some players and they need to make plays, but we've been able to do that, play hard, play smart, play together. We've pulled some out.
All wins do [feel good].
DC has been good. He's physical. He works hard, he makes you work. He uses his body, he's not afraid. We put him on Tim and some of those other guys. I thought tonight he switched out on Tony Parker and did a great job. Tony couldn't go anywhere. I thought that was a nice possession for us.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter