Portland Trail Blazers fans who hate the stress and ambiguity that went hand-in-hand with Portland's 54-win season and tough playoff run so far, rejoice! Portland Trail Blazers fans who like success? Not so much. Tonight the San Antonio Spurs eliminated all of the former while granting almost none of the latter, taking Game 3 from the hapless Blazers, 118-103. The Spurs now hold a 3-0 lead and the series in the palm of their hands. The biggest question remaining for Portland isn't when it's going to end, but how. Will the Blazers be able to muster any kind of fight at all, or will this go down as the most lopsided demolition in franchise playoff history? That wasn't the question the Blazers were hoping to answer in their first trip to the second round in 14 years, but there it is.
Portland's situation entering Game 3 was akin to a Deadliest Catch episode...one of those where the skipper goes, "I've got $1.2 million dollars of crab to catch, an offload in 48 hours, it's -50 degrees out there with 30-foot swells and the deck is iced up." Most often the captain manages to squeak by with his quota as huge, last-minute pots send the crew cheering and high-fiving their way to port.
Not so much this time. Tonight, just as everybody went to sleep, the crab burst out of the hold, swarmed over the bunks, and pinched off every visible appendage. Meanwhile their friends below the surface cut holes in the hull and sent it to the bottom, yelling, "How do you like that, you pale-fleshed softies?!? Now your superstructure will serve as a habitat for our young who will tell the tale of this day as long as Crabdom rules beneath the waves!"
Long live Tony Parker, King of the Crabs.
Stunningly, considering it was an all-but-elimination affair, the Blazers came out soft once again in this game. They managed to plug some holes that had plagued them earlier--rebounds, turnovers, and fast-break points--but their defense remained paper-thin and they couldn't muster scoring to save their lives. LaMarcus Aldridge managed 9 points in the first period and Damian Lillard 4--72% of Portland's production--but neither scored in a manner that was going to threaten the Spurs long-term. Aldridge couldn't get inside. Lillard drove but couldn't hit jumpers. Nicolas Batum was the only Blazer showing real aggression. Most of the time the Blazers didn't look like they were even running plays, just getting the ball somewhere and hoping. They managed but 18 in the first period, San Antonio 28. The Spurs' lowest first-quarter output in the series so far still generated a double-digit lead. That's rough.
And speaking of rough, say hello to the bench minutes.
With Mo Williams on the sidelines with a groin injury the Blazers tried to mix in a variety of bench looks tonight. Thomas Robinson, Dorell Wright, Earl Watson, Will Barton, and Victor Claver all got a chance on the floor. Only Barton and Robinson stayed longer than 5 minutes. It wasn't a ballgame as much as Showtime at the Apollo with Terry Stotts wielding the hook to get the bad acts off stage. Portland's bench would combine for 6 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists. (4 of those 6 points scored came from C.J. McCollum in the final 2 minutes of the fourth, leaving a single bucket scored in minutes that mattered.) Since the Spurs make far more extensive use of their reserves the numbers were going to be unbalanced no matter what. But 40 points scored for their guys against 6 for Portland is really imbalanced.
Long story short, San Antonio's 10-point first-quarter lead ballooned to 20 in the second and that was basically the ballgame. Portland would mount a charge behind blistering run-outs in the third but they never discerned between a good quick shot and a bad one. Sublime layups and passes for three were followed by contested jumpers bad enough to blind the Pope. As a result the run went, "Yeah...Yeah...YEAH! NOOOOOOOOOO!!! ARRGGH!" More to the point, whenever the Blazers got within 8-12 points Gregg Popovich would call an angry timeout and that would be the end of that. It really wasn't close.
Despite the amazingly poor performance of Portland's reserves, the limp outing can be left at the doorstep of Portland's stars. The Blazers needed Aldridge and Lillard to step up. They could only manage fits and starts. 40% of the time they started their moves poorly. 40% of the time they finished their moves poorly. The other 20% looked great but wasn't nearly enough. Neither looked comfortable, neither looked in control of their own possessions, let alone the game. Aldridge shot 9-23 for 21 points, Lillard 7-21 and 0-6 from distance for 21 points.
Nicolas Batum, on the other hand, had the best Blazers outing of the series. He scored 20 on 8-13 shooting, 4-7 from deep with, 9 rebounds, 7 points, and some nice defense when finally assigned to Tony Parker during the fourth quarter.
Wesley Matthews also acquitted himself reasonably well, scoring 22 on 6-14 shooting but connecting on 4-10 beyond the arc. He pushed hard to fill the vacuum left by the All-Stars but that isn't his game, nor are the Blazers at their best when Matthews carries their offense instead of playing a supplementary role in it.
If there's a coup in this series beyond handcuffing Lillard and Aldridge, it's how ineffective the Spurs have made Robin Lopez look. He's a fish out of water. He's not getting enough rebounds (7 tonight) or interior buckets (4-5 for 13 points) to make a difference compared to the points the Blazers pay for having him on the court. It's not his fault. He's not built for what the Spurs are doing and the Blazers can't seem to turn his size into production on the other end.
[Tactical Note: The Blazers did emphasize the switch against screens tonight. But leaving Lopez in the game renders the tactic all but useless, as the Spurs maneuver him into the mismatch. If he sags back the jumper is open. If he steps up they blow by him.]
Normally you'd look at 4 starters scoring 20 and Lopez with 13 and think it was a good night. Not this time. With continuity, efficiency, and defense largely absent, the double-digit boxscore was more ironic than anything.
What's going wrong with Portland's offense? It looks like the Blazers have lost the battle in their own minds before they've lost it on the court. I'm not even sure the Spurs are defending as well as they did in Game 1 anymore. The memory of their defense seems to be enough to fluster the Blazers. They're rushing everything. Screens are dribbled by and ignored before they're even fully set. Shots get hurried when they don't have to be or not hurried when they should be. (The Spurs blocked 0 shots in this game. The Blazers pump faked and hesitated like they were facing five Hakeem Olajuwons.) Players pick up dribbles that could have continued. Shooters pass up shots they should have taken and take shots they should have passed up. And all of that happens after the possessions when the Blazers just look clueless and default to an isolation play that doesn't work.
Looking for controlled aggression and execution, the Blazers got frantic play instead. 14 turnovers doesn't seem like a ton but 22 points given up off them is. 43% shooting from the field and 35% from the arc doesn't seem that bad until you consider your 1st and 2nd options shot 36% combined, 0% from the arc.
Of the three games the teams have played so far, this one felt the most in reach for the Blazers. Playing a little smarter, a little more measured, and about twice as aggressively would have kept them in reach. Sadly, "not very close" is as much as they could manage.
Down 0-3, the Blazers now face their true elimination game on Monday. As a fan, mustering energy for that kind of thing is difficult, but keep the following in mind:
1. The series breaks down to 1 game at a time now, which is exactly where Portland's focus should be. You don't think about 4 in a row or doing something nobody ever has. You play this game and that's it. Fans can approach Monday the same way. Once the ball tips, context doesn't matter.
2. Sticking with it will be a way to honor the achievements of this team no matter what the final outcome of this series. The Blazers deserve to be applauded for 88 games more than booed for their last 4 and change.
3. In the end, any Blazers basketball is better than no Blazers basketball. They're still playing. Don't miss it.
Stay tuned for the Media Row Report and continuing coverage through the weekend!