The San Antonio Spurs defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 111-109, at the Moda Center on Wednesday night, dropping Portland's record to 36-18.
"Bracing for the worst" was the only reasonable approach to Portland's first game of the season without its full starting five, its first game of the season without All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, and its first game of the season with only two healthy bigs. The Blazers were bound to look different -- very different -- with so many empty minutes to fill and responsibilities to redistribute.
Their outing against the Spurs was clearly better than "the worst" but this was a cut-and-dried example of context cutting off any possibility for glass-is-half-full reactions to the snow globe shake, at least for those directly involved. The Blazers officially notched their first three-game losing streak of the season and picked up right where they left off before the All-Star break when it came to inconsistency on the defensive end.
Frankly, coach Terry Stotts looked and sounded stressed out and a bit caught off guard by the dramatic changes to his available players.
"I don't know necessarily that I had a rotation," he admitted during his post-game session, adding that he wasn't going to commit to a particular starting lineup against the Utah Jazz on Friday night. "We're trying to figure things out."
Stotts utilized nine players, moving Dorell Wright into a small ball starting lineup and giving the often-inactive Victor Claver his first minutes since November, as Joel Freeland and Meyers Leonard joined Aldridge on the sidelines with injuries.
Portland put up 109 points -- including 31 bench points -- and six players hit double figures. There were noticeable differences without Aldridge on offense -- Wesley Matthews had much tougher looks, Damian Lillard had more room to attack the basket in the paint, Nicolas Batum's quiet offensive night was much easier to see, Mo Williams' season-high 19 points left a more forceful mark -- but the Blazers got by, even as they conceded a 13-1 run to start the fourth period and slogged through some choppy game segments.
The sans-Aldridge cracks were easier to spot on the defensive end, as we probably should have expected. Dane Carbaugh did an excellent job selecting clips to illustrate Portland's struggles defending the mid-range shot and pick-and-rolls situations, and San Antonio was sniping and pressuring all night. Patty Mills did most of the damage late but Marco Belinelli, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green all took turns attacking Portland's perimeter defenders one way (going hard off of pick-and-rolls to generate plays towards the basket) or another (making reads to set up and/or knocking down clean looks from deep).
The onslaught -- which occurred even though Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard were all out -- left the Blazers in a place that's becoming more and more familiar this season: able to identify the weaknesses, but not totally capable of envisioning the improvement. Also, Portland was faced with the knowledge that the prospect of stopping Parker, Duncan and the rest of the Spurs during a playoff series is fairly daunting considering this result against San Antonio's B-team. Mills thrilled by doing his best Parker impression, taking wrong-footed layups and hitting long-odds floaters, but he's no substitute for the genuine article.
"We let the ball get to the middle too much, we went under on shooters that we shouldn't have," Matthews explained afterwards, when asked about Portland's defensive shortcomings. "I don't think we were trying to take the easy way out, there were times when we were locked in but we couldn't hear our guys communicating. It's on us. We've got to get better."
He wasn't in the mood for an extended postmortem, though, instead choosing to admit defeat, at least for the night.
"We just broke down," Matthews, who scored 18 points (on 8-for-18 shooting) and grabbed five rebounds, told Blazersedge. "We broke down. We didn't play as well as we should have. We didn't do what we were supposed to. It happens. We have to stop that from happening. It's not a scheme or a talent issue, we've just got to do it."
Batum, meanwhile, was simultaneously falling on his sword and doing his best not to seethe after scoring eight points (on 2-for-8 shooting), committing four turnovers and watching as Mills poured in 13 fourth-quarter points to finish with a team-high 29 on the night.
"I had a very bad game," Batum said, after failing to hit a shot until the fourth quarter. "It's on me tonight. I don't make shots, I let Patty Mills do whatever he wants to do. It's on me, that's it. ... If I do my job on defense, we win the game."
The decision to start Wright, Stotts said, came down to two factors: the previous success of a shooter-heavy lineup and a desire to stagger the minutes of Robin Lopez and Thomas Robinson so that Portland would be able to play at least one big man at all times.
"We always need to have a big on the floor," Lopez told Blazersedge, noting that he plans to play more conservatively in the first half to avoid foul trouble because of the roster's temporary lack of depth behind him. "By doing that, we'll always have someone who can rebound, score in the paint. I think it's just something we've go to acclimate ourselves to."
All told, that lineup call looked like the right decision, and the offensive output put forth on Wednesday would have been enough to handle many lesser opponents. The Blazers held a lead when it was time for the first substitutions, nobody dealt with serious foul trouble, Wright competed hard (10 points and five rebounds), Robinson responded well in an expanded bench role (10 points and nine rebounds), and the Blazers managed to out-rebound the Spurs, who elected to play small themselves given their available personnel.
"I think I played solid," Wright said after his first start since Jan. 21, 2013. "I think I did what they asked me to do. Spread the floor, knock down open shots, just play solid. That was my whole main mindset going into the game. ... Just try to do what I do. I didn't try to do anything outside the box. It's different going down there, banging and battling with four men. I'm a little skinny guy, I just tried to do what I can do."
That, in conjunction with contributions from most everyone that saw time, was enough to keep the Blazers from facing any truly insurmountable deficits, and the two teams played an exciting fourth quarter and a zany final minute. Mills and Lillard went back and forth in the final period, trading nifty layups and knocking down jumpers, and the Spurs kept answering every attempted Blazers comeback. The poise and confidence Mills showed as he hit six of his nine shots in the fourth quarter made him look like a completely different player from the guy who spent his first two seasons in Portland.
"Patty was spectacular again," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He's a tough cover, he's a great competitor and he's helped us like that all year long. He's been very important."
Even though many of the Moda Center faithful gave up and went home early, Portland kept pushing, cutting San Antonio's lead to three in the game's final minute thanks to a Williams three-pointer. The Blazers then made things really interesting -- if only for a fleeting moment -- by briefly gaining possession of the ball with the chance to tie. Alas, Lopez was stripped under San Antonio's hoop before anything could develop, and the Spurs escaped with the road victory.
"I'm not concerned," said Lillard, who finished with a game-high 31 points (on 13-for-21 shooting), six assists and four rebounds, while matching Mills' 13 fourth-quarter points. "It's just a rough stretch. We're going to have to find a way to turn it back around. It's been a great season so far, teams are coming after us now. We're more of a target. We have to do a better job of accepting it."
Indeed, Lillard's style play didn't indicate any major concern. He called his own number more often in the second half and attacked the basket against San Antonio's smaller lineups, but he did well to avoid over-relying on his jumper or becoming too ball-dominant without his All-Star partner. That was the goal, he said afterwards, and it seems to bode well for the duration of Aldridge's absence.
"I think I can play the same game [without Aldridge]," Lillard told Blazersedge. "We've got guys who can come in and do a bit more. Instead of telling myself I need to do it all, we've got guys who can come in and equally pitch in a little bit more than they usually do to fill that void. Of course, I will have to raise my game [too]."
It's not often that I leave a game feeling like Portland fared significantly better than their own self-evaluation. This was one of those nights. Frustration was everywhere: Batum's personal angst at getting burned by Mills and going MIA on offense, Matthews' ongoing (unmet) hope that the team will show improvement on defense, Stotts' unexpected rotation dilemmas, and Lopez's locker room silence after the late turnover, to name a few. Losing to a team that took the court without its star players is never easy to swallow, nor is the knowledge that multiple injury absences make it that much more difficult to climb back up the standings after recent slippage.
But for this night, the first without the team's centerpiece, I didn't think things went all that poorly for Portland.
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced at 20,057 (a sellout).
- Nothing grinds my gears like fans leaving a game early. I'm on record from years ago saying that I don't see any reason to leave a basketball game early regardless of the circumstances. That people would leave a two-possession game when the Blazers have had so many crazy late-game scenarios this season is just baffling.
- LaMarcus Aldridge discussed his groin injury during pre-game comments with the media. He downplayed the severity of the injury but wouldn't guarantee that he will be back in exactly one week. He will be resting until he is reevaluated on Tuesday.
- The Blazers handed out the first round of this year's collectible DQ-style glasses, which bear Aldridge's likeness. They look as good in person as the preview photos looked online.
- Victor Claver didn't do much in his first playing time since November. He got just seven minutes but I suspect Stotts would like to go to him more if possible.
- Without Aldridge, Nicolas Batum got the honor of being introduced last during the starting lineups.
- Damian Lillard looked inspired by his Slam Dunk Contest performance on Saturday. He rose high for a putback slam and had a number of aggressive takes around the hoop.
- The Blazers executed a nice two-for-one before halftime with Lillard finding Mo Williams on a dribble hand-off for a quick layup.
- US Ski Team Olympian Jackie Wiles was in attendance. They played NBC's Olympics theme song over the sound system which is always good for some goosebumps.
- I asked Nicolas Batum point blank if he was locked in against the Spurs because he was catching so much heat for his performance on Twitter. His response: "Yeah. That was my first game in one week. My legs, I was a little tired early. I had a bad game, that's it."
- Batum said it's not just a matter of him looking to be more assertive with his shot selection: "It's not about taking shots, I just have to be more aggressive everywhere, offense and defense."
- Terry Stotts didn't take kindly to a question about whether Batum needed to be more aggressive (see below).
- Wesley Matthews continues to harp on Portland's perimeter defense: "[Thomas Robinson] and Robin [Lopez] are going to do their best, but it's only two of them. We've got to help them out on the perimeter and not put them in those situations."
- Finally, Matthews did agree that the Blazers acquitted themselves fairly well, considering the trying circumstances: "We played our asses off, battled our asses off. Offense is never going to be our problem. Although we have the best power forward in the game out on the offensive end, we can still score and find ways to score. It's going to be: Can we find ways to stop teams? If we're playing small ball, unconventional, we have to find ways to stop teams."
- Lopez had another "the room goes silent" moment when a reporter asked him whether he thought his late turnover was a key to the game. "Yes," he replied, before staring deep into the Earth's core.
- How about that late pick-and-roll pass from Marco Belinelli to Tiago Splitter? That looked like a central midfielder in soccer leading his wing into space. The beautiful game.
- On an otherwise forgettable night which included a technical foul, Batum did have a sweet touch pass late.
- Lillard on Patty Mills: "He came off pick-and-rolls hard and kept raising up. He made a lot of jumpers, we knew he would take jumpers but he got to the rim a little bit, started hitting floaters, he was in a good rhythm."
- Mills on his recent success: "I think it's understanding the system, it's understanding your teammates and your coaches, and once you have a good understanding about that, you tend to get a little bit more confidence and free-flowing."
- Jason Quick of The Oregonian has some extended thoughts from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich on coaching defense.
- The halftime show was a Red Bull-sponsored stunt bicyclist doing wheelies over Blazer Dancers as they laid down side-by-side on the court. The bicyclist cleared eight at once without a ramp. Brave young women.
- No new Chalupa/McMuffin developments. During his meeting with the media on Tuesday, Blazers president Chris McGowan said that McDonald's would be happy if fans came up with an "authentic" McMuffin-related chant but added that the Blazers and McDonald's have no plans to force the issue otherwise.
- Dorell Wright on taking advantage of his opportunity for real minutes: "I've been in this league for 10 years, I know what it is. It's a marathon, injuries, guys go down, guys have to step up. Patty Mills is a prime example, he went out there and performed the last two nights, guys go down and the next guy has to step up."
- Wright on the game's turning point: "I think we fought hard. We have to play a 48-minute game. We came out in the first half good. In the third quarter, Pop made adjustments, put [Manu] Ginobili in there as a play-maker. I think he did a great job of getting guys involved. I think they went like 10 straight possessions with him with the ball in his hands, making plays, finding guys and getting to the basket."
- Sorry to cut this one a bit short but the trade deadline is looming on Thursday. This has been by far the quietest deadline season in terms of rumors since I started writing for Blazersedge. That silence has almost been a bit disorienting. As always, we'll have full coverage regardless of what happens or doesn't happen, so check back early and often.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
Well, we tried to beat San Antonio at their game and they did it better than us. Their small lineup played more effectively. We didn't do enough defensively to get a win. While [LaMarcus Aldridge] and Meyers [Leonard and Joel [Freeland] are out, we are going to have to figure out ways to win games. Some good things we did tonight, San Antonio is used to playing these games without their guys, they plugged guys in and they played well. During this stretch we're going to have to figure some things out at both ends of the floor.
Our focus defensively. I thought we had just some mental lapses, going under shooters, not keeping the ball on the side, not coming up with some rebounds. The offense was OK but I thought defensively we could have done a better job.
Where did you feel you missed LaMarcus Aldridge the most?
Really? Everywhere. Everything LaMarcus does. Look, I don't necessarily want to talk about not having LaMarcus. We're going to have figure it out, when he comes back, he comes back. LaMarcus is an All-Star and everybody knows what he does for the team and how much better we are with him. That's not the point right now.
I don't know necessarily that I had a rotation. We're trying to figure things out. One of the things playing against San Antonio and [Gregg Popovich], he's unconventional, he had Matt Bonner playing center for a little bit. He had three guards. I don't know that every team that we play will play that style. Some of it will depend on who we are playing and how they are playing. I thought Thomas Robinson did a nice job with his minutes. We did a lot of good things, we lose a close game, it's easy to focus on what we didn't do. I think we'll have a clearer picture tomorrow after we watch the video and look at some things. We've got to figure it out for this short period.
He made big shots and that's what he's been doing. 29 points, you can look at it two ways. 29 points in 29 minutes is pretty good but he took 26 shots to get them. He made some nice floaters, some of them were contested, most of them were contested. That's what he's been doing. He did the same thing last night against the Clippers.
Mostly it was Mills. Mills did a nice job of changing things up as far as shooting behind the screen or shooting off the dribble. Attacking to the rim. They're an unselfish team. The roll guy is always a threat. I thought they executed their pick-and-roll offense really well. They took what was there. A jump shot, a drive, or a pass.
Do you want to see Nicolas Batum be more aggressive?
Do I want him to force things? No. I've been answering that for a year and a half, everyone wants Nic to be more aggressive, I want Nic to play basketball. Whether it means shooting, driving, passing, defending, we need everybody to be aggressive with LaMarcus out. Everybody has to be aggressive at both ends of the court.
I thought he did well. He made his shots. He competed against Boris [Diaw] on the block. I thought he did alright.
Starting Dorell Wright over Thomas Robinson
We had played around with that. A couple reasons. We had played with shooting lineup down in L.A. It looked like it was something that was promising. I wanted to give that a look. The other part of it was only having Thomas [Robinson] and Robin [Lopez] as bigs, I didn't want to risk foul trouble early in the game with one of those two guys and run up their minutes. I wanted to play a little more conservatively in the first half and feel how it goes in the second half.
Same lineup going forward?
I don't know right now.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter