The San Antonio Spurs defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 112-109, at the Rose Garden on Saturday, dropping Portland's record to 2-4.
Nicolas Batum, a man who has repeatedly pledged his desire to become a star-type player, turned in a star's effort in this one, finishing with a career-high 33 points, shooting 5-for-7 from deep, and adding seven rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block in 39 minutes. He made a star's decision to launch back-to-back late three-pointers, making one and then missing a potential game-winner, and then compared his plight to the brightest star any galaxy has ever known.
"M.J. missed some shots too," he lamented, after failing to connect from the angle with seven seconds left.
Blazers coach Terry Stotts, however, wasn't giving Batum the star treatment, not by a long shot. "The last shot he took was for him, it wasn't for a three," Stotts said. "It was for him coming off [the screen], but he caught it and shot it instead of driving."
So you wanted him to attack the basket? "Yeah," Stotts said, not missing a beat. "I was hoping for a closer catch, there was enough time for him to attack, yeah."
Prior to that three, Batum was 5-for-7 in the fourth quarter, including a pretty three with 40 seconds left that tied the game at 109. Batum inbounded the ball, received a hand-off from LaMarcus Aldridge and opted out of a two-man game with the All-Star, stepping back to hit the trey in rhythm instead. His next attempt, the miss, was a clean look, set up off of a pindown screen. A clear decision was made: spot-up rather than drive.
"I figured that I was going to shoot anyway, so I was going to try to shoot a three because I didn't want to go to overtime," Batum said. "I was too tired for that."
Batum later clarified that this wasn't meant as a complaint about his workload, that he was happy to be on the court so much. But he stood by the assessment of his thought process at the time: ending the game early had been preferable to the alternative. After reviewing the tape in the team's video room, he agreed with Stotts that he had made the wrong decision.
"I rushed it," he told Blazersedge. "I had enough time to drive and kick it, draw a foul, I don't know. I should do different. I would do different next time."
Aldridge, meanwhile had no issue with Batum's shot or the fact that his own number wasn't called. "[Batum] was hot, he took the shot, it didn't go in," he said simply.
"I thought it was a poor call on Damian," he said. "I watched the replay, at best it was a no-call. I thought it could have been a charge but I didn't think it was a foul on him... I didn't agree with the call on Damian."
For Stotts, who tiptoes like an art thief through questions about his team defense and his putrid bench after every game, this was compelling honesty. That Batum took the second-guessing assessment in stride and without offense was a positive sign. That he brought up playing time, six games into the season after getting relegated the past two years, was a genuine surprise, but equally honest.
Batum has yet to play fewer than 35 minutes this season; he's topped 40 minutes three times. He's being asked to do more in his minutes, too, and in the last two games he's clearly asked more from himself during key stretches. He referred to his expanded role as his "new situation" and said that he was glad to be utilized in late-game situations, pointing back to experience gained playing in France during the lockout, saying that he was 2-for-3 on game-deciding shots for Nancy.
The simplest assessment here is for Batum to suck it up and play 38+ minutes a night. Last season, only five NBA players saw that much time, and all five were All-Stars. Yes, it's an extraordinary load, but the players behind him are Sasha Pavlovic, who can't play, Luke Babbitt, who can't really play three, and Will Barton, who should play more but will be most effective when played strictly as a two with length around him. The three is the deadest spot on this depth chart; the Titanic's deck chairs are so wobbly they're barely worth shuffling.
That brings us to the larger storyline of the moment: Portland's awful bench and how it can be fixed. The Blazers' bench was comically outscored, 63-4, even with Patty Mills moved from the reserve unit to the starting lineup because Tony Parker was out with an illness. The turning point, clearly, was the middle portion of the second half; San Antonio went on a 20-2 run to take an 8-point lead.
"The bench was a positive in the first half and we had a bad stretch, a horrible stretch," Stotts said. "We scored enough points to win. It wasn't about bench production."
Kudos for defending his guys, but it's an issue. To be clear, Stotts knows it's an issue. He also understands the concept of a bus, and throwing poor players under it, and he's intelligent and experienced enough to avoid that like the plague. But it's obviously an issue. When you play the Spurs without Parker, win the turnovers +6, out-rebound them, have Lillard and Batum combine to shoot 9-for-15 from deep, that should be a win with any reasonable contribution, on both ends, from the reserves. Reasonable is just too high of a bar, night in and night out, for this group.
I ventured to ask Spurs coach Gregg Popovich for his thoughts on Portland's ability to generate 105 out of 109 points with its starting lineup. He glanced around the small group of reporters and then settled on a total dodge.
"That's for you to say," he said.
Indeed. If you can't say anything nice, don't kick a defeated opponent while he's down, all of that. So here are a few thoughts, in place of Popovich's witty slams.
One: every Blazers loss to date has come to a Western Conference playoff team. There are months and months ahead to juggle lineups. Staying the course, when it comes to the starting lineup, is the correct approach for now.
Two: it's time for GM Neil Olshey to do his coach a solid and strongly remind the world what expectations are for this team, and the bench in particular. The group is full of untested imports, cast-offs, young picks, and, yes, at least one or two busts. Some management-level guidance on what the organization is looking to see from these guys would save Stotts a lot of hassle; more specific thoughts on building out the bottom half of the rotation wouldn't be the worst idea either.
Three: the idea of swapping J.J. Hickson for Meyers Leonard in the starting lineup will happen before this season is over. It's just too obvious from a long-term standpoint. The key factor in making that decision should not be balancing scoring between the units; it should be Leonard's readiness to assume the starting position. Through six games, the rookie has shown an amazing ability to finish plays above the rim. He's also shown a total inability to score from outside two feet. No exaggeration, he is oh-for-the-season on shots that aren't attempted at the rim. That, plus his unfamiliarity with officiating and occasional moments of bad defensive positioning, are good reasons to make that change slowly.
Fourth: there are no other starting spots to swap and Stotts has already come up with a fairly complex substitution pattern to ensure there are sufficient scoring options on the court at all times. Other than giving Babbitt, Barton, Freeland and Claver some looks, there's not much room for nitpicking. And, even then, there will be time for that over the next five months.
With all of that said, I'll hand out the Capri Suns and orange slices. Good job, good effort. There was no folding, no resignation; instead, lots of fireworks. The Spurs, as they have done for a decade-plus, found efficient ways to score late. Duncan, who finished with 22 points and nine rebounds, got to the free throw line. Manu Ginobili got to the free throw line. Gary Neal, who finished with a team-high 27 points off of San Antonio's bench, got to his spot. Duncan found himself in the right place at the right time for a fortuitous bounce and a dunk. Ginobili got to the line again. That's direct, intelligent late-game execution, and it plays the percentages.
"I thought our activity in the fourth quarter in our comeback was outstanding," Stotts said of Portland's ability to push back in the game's closing six minutes. "We wouldn't have been in a position to win the game if we didn't do it like that. We got deflections, we got rebounds, we did the things we needed to do."
Those things almost worked. The Spurs almost lost here, but didn't. The Blazers almost won here, but didn't. A clean look bounced off, as it will 60-something percent of the time. There was a better play available and there will be similar game-deciding moments in the future, perhaps the very near future.
"I want to be in these situations," Batum said. "I want it."
Random Game Notes
- There were some empty seats at this one but still a solid crowd, quite loud during the exciting back-and-forth second half. It was declared a sellout. Many eyes, in the press and otherwise, were trained on the Oregon/Cal football game.
- Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to Blazersedge on Damian Lillard: "I loved his pace. He's really got a good head. He doesn't ever seem to be in a hurry, but he's still got great pace about him. He makes good choices on shooting and passing and plays solid defense. For a rookie, he looks really complete and he looks really at home." Lillard finished with 20 points, six assists, three rebounds, two steals and four turnovers, shooting 8-for-16 from the field and 4-for-8 from deep.
- The Spurs had 14 turnovers in the first half and just seven in the second half. Popovich wasn't going to take the credit. "There's no halftime drill for fewer turnovers... This year we've had a little bit of a turnover problem. Hopefully it will pass like the flu." Parker, of course, had the flu.
- LaMarcus Aldridge, like Stotts below, defended his team's overall defense, despite conceding 57 percent shooting to the Spurs: "Neal made some one-legged runners, we didn't give up just open looks. I thought tonight we made them take tough shots. They just made big shot after big shot."
- The jumbotron has a humorous new feature that was unleashed after Lillard took an early charge. The video cuts to Blaze the Trail Cat ringing the famous bell at the practice facility before making the official's sign for a charge with his paws.
- Portland went to a 1-4 look for Lillard to close the first half, which will likely become the norm. He executed a nice series of fakes and made his jumper, although he left a few extra seconds on the clock.
- Manu Ginobili had one gorgeous bounce pass to Tiago Splitter, who finished it on the reverse side for a lay-up. This was not Ginobili's best game, he had three turnovers and some other moments of confusion, but he still finished with 17 points, four rebounds, four assists. His drive right down Hickson's neck late, drawing free throws, was big.
- Another new jumbotron feature that you knew was coming: Gangnam Style. The camera did a nice job finding kids who were willing to let loose and the kids did a nice job of executing the dance. That's probably too generous. You could teach a hamster to do that one.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
Well, for the most part, we played a good game. The end of the third quarter, beginning of the fourth was a problem. They made that run with their bench guys, Gary Neal got it going, we got back into it. Disappointing loss though.
Nicolas Batum's two late threes, was he the No. 1 option?
The first one that he made, it was Nic, it wasn't necessarily a three. It was Nic and L.A. -- get the ball to L.A. on the block to L.A. or hand it back to Nic if we could do that. Those two guys were going to be involved in the play.
The last shot he took was for him, it wasn't for a three. It was for him coming off, but he caught it and shot it instead of driving.
Would you prefer he attacks the basket in that situation?
Yeah. I was hoping for a closer catch, there was enough time for him to attack, yeah.
What allowed them to go on big fourth quarter run?
Well, they got hot, they were playing small ball all night, which opens up the court. Gary Neal got hot, their bench guys got a nice rhythm, I don't know how many threes they hit during it but those quick threes changed the game. One of the things when you play small, it allows you to score points. It becomes a different type of game.
Thought about Damian Lillard getting the ball into the post to avoid ball denial?
No, we haven't.
Lack of bench scoring, can you address it or is it not your concern?
We've got to find ways to win games. The bench was effective in the first half. We were a positive in the first half with the bench guys on the floor. I'm more concerned about what happens on the court when they're in the game than the actual numbers, points, rebounds. The bench was a positive in the first half and we had a bad stretch, a horrible stretch. We scored enough points to win. It wasn't about bench production. We scored points.
Giving up 57 percent shooting
The second quarter, we defended really well. I think we held them to under 40 that quarter. When teams go small, it's an offensive move. It opens up the court with a lot of three point shooters. It changes the dynamics of the game. Five out of six games over 50 percent, it's hard to do that, it's really hard to do that. That being said, I have a hard time faulting effort. It's got to be more deliberate, more attention to detail in some of our coverages. We've got to go back to work tomorrow.
Wesley Matthews fell down in third quarter
I didn't see the replay. It sounded like he landed awkwardly but I didn't see the play.
Bad luck with late deflection and then a tough foul call on Damian Lillard late
I thought it was a poor call on Damian. I watched the replay, at best it was a no-call. I thought it could have been a charge but I didn't think it was a foul on him. The other time, we did get a deflection, Damian and J.J. both had it in their hands, deflected from each other and Duncan gets a dunk. One where we're down two, we get a stop and the ball ends up in their hands, that was a killer. I didn't agree with the call on Damian either.
Defense was good enough late to beat a quality opponent?
We're down nine and we played good enough defense to get us back into the game. We wouldn't have been in a position to win the game if we hadn't defended. A possession where we actually get a stop and it ends up being a lay-up. I thought our activity in the fourth quarter in our comeback was outstanding. We wouldn't have been in a position to win the game if we didn't do it like that. We got deflections, we got rebounds, we did the things we needed to do.
He played alright. He missed some shots but you guys ask me how every guy played. He was out there, he competed, he tried, he didn't make his shots, made some defensive plays.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter