Portland Trail Blazers vs. San Antonio Spurs: Mills, Belinelli Win Battle of Depleted Rosters

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs fielded half-full rosters tonight but San Antonio's guard play and superior execution overcame Damian Lillard's resplendent magnificence.

The Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs went down to the wire tonight in a game that turned out crazier than your hot ex, alternating between entertaining and downright frustrating before concluding with a 111-109 Spurs victory.

Here's the list of players who didn't dress tonight: Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard, Meyers Leonard, Joel Freeland, and LaMarcus Aldridge.  That's two All-Stars, three franchise pillars, four starters, San Antonio's multi-purpose spark plug, and 60% of Portland's big man corps sitting courtside in suits.  (Or, in Tim Duncan's case, artificially distressed jeans that looked like they came off the rack at The Gap.)  So maybe you'll understand when I tell you that the first quarter of this game was like watching a guy try to hit a goldfish with a spitwad.  Even when the aim looked true results were lacking and the whole thing ended up a soggy mess.

Early on the Blazers took advantage of Robin Lopez, his height, his girth, and his ability to knock around Tiago Splitter like a pinball.  Lopez rebounded, scored inside, fed shooters, and generally made a big ol' nuisance of himself.  Once San Antonio got past a turnover problem they struck back on the other end, drawing Lopez to one side of the court or the other and attacking with penetration.  The Blazers winning the rebound battle handily ended up making the difference in a 24-18 opening frame.

Side Note:  The refs pulled out the old "5 seconds while closely guarded" call in the first quarter tonight which is kind of like going to your grandmother's and seeing that dish of hard spun candy that's been sitting on her coffee table for 28 straight Christmases.  You know it exists but you don't really want to see it, let alone have it foisted on you.  There's no reason for that.

But San Antonio learned from their early experience.  If penetration was going to win this game and if Robin Lopez was the main thorn in their side, they had a couple ways to address that.  The first was simply waiting him out, counting on his bench time to give them an opening.  The second was to attack before he, or any other Blazer player, could get down the court.  As the second quarter commenced the Spurs picked up the tempo something fierce, running  like a Gap-jeaned banshee was chasing them down the floor.  A few layups along with post-ups against smaller defenders closed the gap.  Meanwhile the Blazers drifted to mid-range.  They hit those shots but the Spurs were about to teach them something about efficiency.  As the Blazers shot between 6 and 20 feet Marco Belinelli started bombing away from 23 and beyond.  Damian Lillard spearheaded a flurry to close the half but triples from Danny Green and Boris Diaw pulled the Spurs right back.  Portland led 52-51 at the half.

Having established that going through big men might bring a matchup advantage but wouldn't advance the game that much, both teams turned over their second half offense to the guards.  The game picked up big time.  Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Green, and Belinelli fired up the oven, alternating vicious drives and splashes for three.  Lillard, Wesley Matthews, and Mo Williams accepted the challenge, Lillard in particular slaughtering San Antonio's defense at the rim.  Every once in a while the little guys would hit a power forward or center for a courtesy layup, but mostly it was dashing and splashing all the way to a hotly-contested, 29-28 quarter from which Portland emerged the leader by 2, 81-79.

Through all of this, though, the Spurs were just getting a little more than the Blazers.  They hit threes while the Blazers hit twos.  They freed up shooters and drivers with solid screens while the Blazers had to manufacture off the dribble.  They made adjustments while the Blazers made do.  Portland's one, solid advantage--Lopez and the offensive rebounds--began to play less of a role.  San Antonio's execution, while imperfect, started to show through.

That played out in spades in the early fourth period as the Spurs blasted their way to a 10-point lead behind an inside-out, layup-and-triple game followed by some insane pull-ups off of drives by Mills who made Portland's defenders look slow by comparison.  For a while the Blazers forgot that penetration had been the key to nearly every advance in this game.  At the same time the mid-range jumpers which had fallen in the third started clanking off iron in the fourth.  Down 10 with 6 minutes remaining, the Blazers made it a game again by attacking the lane.  Lillard went as crazy as Mills had.  Thomas Robinson poked his head up long enough--and kept it straight enough--to play good defense.  The Spurs panicked, turning over the ball, missing free throws, taking bad shots.  When Matthews picked the rock from Green and converted a dunk with 1:51 remaining the Blazers had tied the game at 101 and the Moda Center went out of its mind.

Sadly, that would be the last really good moment for the Blazers in the game.  Belinelli hit a three on the next possession followed by a Splitter layup and Portland was playing catch-up again.  The Spurs only had to play a minute of good defense and they managed it.  The Blazers had chances.  Splitter hit 1 of 2 free throws with 32 seconds remaining, leaving the Blazers down 6 but with a two-possession opening.  Following a timeout Nicolas Batum caught the ball wide open at the arc on the ensuing inbounds play with Portland needing nothing but a three.  He either didn't recognize or refused to take the shot.  The Blazers eventually got a three on the possession off a scramble following a blocked shot but the clock had hit 24 seconds by then, forcing Portland to foul for possession instead of play defense for the chance at a tie.  Even then Portland got a reprieve as the Spurs went brain-dead, Splitter trying to convert a layup with 19 seconds remaining when he should have gotten the ball to a free throw shooter so they could run clock.  Splitter missed the attempt.  Lopez rebounded.  Then he threw a pass into the hands of Boris Diaw.  Then the Blazers managed to force a jump ball as Belinelli didn't cover up well enough while waiting to get fouled.  But Marco won the tip over Lillard.  A couple free throws later and it was all over but the shouting.  Damian hit a three at the buzzer to turn a 5-point loss into a 2-point loss but it still looks the same in the standings.  Portland drops three straight for the first time all year as San Antonio wins 111-109.

For all the odd lineups this game had a familiar cadence to it.  When they moved well enough to keep Lopez in the middle the defense worked.  When Lopez moved nobody else covered and the opponent carved them up.  The offensive end mirrored: when offensive rebounds (again Lopez) came fast and furious the Blazers succeeded.  When those dried up, they had to fight hard just to keep even.  The Spurs set solid screens and used them well.  The Blazers couldn't compensate.  Portland set sloppy screens, didn't use them correctly in most instances, and defaulted to individual play from the guards.  That play was impressive but in the end it wasn't enough.  San Antonio shot better from the field, shot better from the arc, and the Blazers couldn't generate enough advantage from second-chance points or foul shots to make up for it.

Individual Notes

Damian Lillard was fantastic tonight, shooting 13-21 for 31 points, 6 assists, and only 2 turnovers.  Earlier in the year people were wringing hands about his finishes at the rim.  We urged patience.  That patience paid off tonight as he butchered every defender the Spurs sent to top him near the cup.

Robin Lopez had a brilliant first quarter and a good game overall.  He shot only 4-11 but he grabbed 14 rebounds, 6 offensive, and added a couple of blocks.  Again, his teammates give him a choice on most tricky plays: help them or stay home.  He usually opts to help them.  They don't reciprocate with the same fervor.  Also Lopez's impact fades as halves drift on.  Sometimes he doesn't get the minutes but sometimes he's facing stiff competition and looks like he's out of gas.  But if Robin doesn't do it, who will?  That's a question the Blazers will need to answer eventually.  The guy's not a cowbell.  You can't just demand more of him without end.

Wesley Matthews went 6-18, scoring 18.  His scoring would be more efficient if he'd just hit the 1-2 open threes per game that seemed like easy money to him earlier in the year.  His master-stroke tonight was 3 steals.  He also missed 3 of 7 free throws which the Blazers could have used.

Nicolas Batum played like a deflated balloon tonight.  Folks will point to the passed-over three mentioned above but his problems started way before that.  He missed defensive assignments, set up wrong, got caught looking...it was a nightmare.  The most demonstrative moment of his whole night came when he got called for an offensive foul for hooking on a drive (the correct call, but coming directly after Ginobili chucked him and didn't get whistled) and went ballistic, earning a technical.   It was Batum's worst game of the season on a night when the Blazers needed slightly more.  2-8 shooting, 8 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 turnovers, 2 blocks.

Dorell Wright started in place of Aldridge.  He hit a couple threes but he's not built to defend bigger guys and he can't be a cog in the offense.  His stat line was good, though, with 50% shooting, 5 rebounds, and 2 steals in 20 minutes.

Whatever faults you attribute to Mo Williams, you can't accuse him of not knowing what time it is.  Understanding that somebody besides Lillard had to step up tonight, Mo did.  He took plenty of shots--14--but they were smart and he hit 8 of them for 19 points.  Had people played better around him those points would have been tabbed as a key to Portland's victory.

I want to praise Thomas Robinson's fourth period and his overall stat line of 10 points and 9 rebounds on 4-7 shooting in 23 minutes.  I will also add that Robinson has not figured out what he is doing, that you can flip a coin whether sets and spacing will be passable in any given possession, and every second he's on the floor feels like walking a tightrope.  Could be spectacular, could be disaster.

C.J. McCollom and Victor Claver had tough nights, playing 14 and 7 minutes respectively.  McCollum went 1-4 and Claver missed 2 three-pointers badly.  Neither made an impact.

Utah comes up next so there's a reasonable chance the Blazers will not end up with their first 4-game losing streak of the season.  Hopefully.

Boxscore

Timmay's Instant Recap and Gameday Thread Review in which many Blazer's Edge readers were no doubt chronicled jumping up and down on the couch screeching like a mash-up of Tom Cruise and crazy Aunt Helga.

Pounding The Rock

I apologize for not posting a Jersey Contest form for this game but you can find Friday's form HERE.

Stay tuned tomorrow for complete coverage of the NBA Trade Deadline and Portland's part in it, if any.  Don't forget to follow me on Twitter @DaveDeckard and to get every article posted on the site @Blazersedge.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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