The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the San Antonio Spurs, 103-92, in Game 4 at the Moda Center on Monday, narrowing San Antonio's lead to 3-1 in the Western Conference semifinals series.
Darryl Dawkins and Will Barton might defy just about every conventional basketball comparison: they play totally different positions, the former has roughly half a foot on the latter, and Dawkins could easily weigh twice as much as the gangly Blazers wing. But when Barton gets it going, as he did on Monday, Dawkins sneaks his way out of the memory bank.
The one-word description for Barton is "audacious." If Barton doesn't "show a willingness to take surprisingly bold risks," then no one on the planet does. The magic of Barton -- as it was with Dawkins, at least in the stories passed down over the years and cultivated by his own quirkiness -- is that "one-word descriptions" are the absolute last thing he inspires.
Who could stop at "Wow" when Dawkins was shattering backboards with his sheer power? Who wants to leave it at "unpredictable" when Barton hits the open court? These guys demand words, plural, lots of them.
Dawkins famously nicknamed one of his dunks "The Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jam" and I find myself unable to describe any of Barton's biggest Game 4 plays with less than a rambling run-on sentence's worth of descriptors.
On the night, Barton finished with 17 points (on 7-for-13 shooting), six rebounds and two assists, marking his third-highest point total of the season. To get there, he unfurled...
- The ball-faking, jab-stepping, dipsy-doing, glass-banking, shot-putting runner,
- The rebound-tipping, transition-breaking, slow-motioning, high-dribbling, Euro-stepping, double-pumping, leg-kicking, rainbow-arcing bucket,
- The screen-curling, defense-prodding, tentative-leaning, underhand-tossing, Hovercrafting, off-the-backboard-bouncing scoop,
- The loose-ball-corralling, sprint-bursting, boom-dribbling, extra-hanging, easy-breezing floater,
- The open-court-leaking, Hail-Mary-catching, gather-dribbling, patient-hesitating, contact-absorbing, soft-tossing banker,
- The backdoor-cutting, Bonner-beating, high-flying, gravity-defying, clean-catching, alley-oop-finishing, hanging-pointing-and-screaming power dunk, and
- The pass-catching, thought-processing, Why-not-rationalizing, front-rim-catching, yo-yo-bouncing, glass-rocking, fist-pumping three-pointer.
That list isn't "based on a true story." No names, places or details were changed for the benefit of the narrative. Objects in Barton's mirror are exactly as they appear.
I love Synergy Sports -- the video breakdown and stat-compiling service -- but Barton regularly makes a mockery of their categorizations. "Transition Layup" and "Spot-Up Jumper" just can't capture how he moves, how he thinks (or doesn't), how he shoots, and how he impacts games when he is playing well. It can take 25 carefully-chosen words to describe everything that happens between the time Barton picks up the ball and the time a shot leaves his fingers.
Barton found himself trending worldwide on Twitter during Game 4, his unlike-all-the-others persona, everyman-appeal, wide smile, fearlessness and unexpected contributions combining to generate global interest.
"People's champ, man," Barton told Blazersedge, when informed of his Trending Topic status. "It's the fans. I love them. They do it. Not me."
"Was he [trending]? He's supposed to," Wesley Matthews added. "He's The Thrill."
Monday saw Barton make the big leap from "cult hero/curiosity" to 'impact player in a postseason win." Seldom-used during the first-round series against the Houston Rockets and a footnote in San Antonio's dominant victories, Barton found that the win-or-go-home nature of Game 4 perfectly played into his eager hands. The Spurs' decision to let him enjoy life as a non-priority for their defense opened the door even wider.
There were a whole host of keys to Portland's first victory of the series, but near the top of the list were: 1) A general advantage in energy, 2) The ability to dictate the pace, and 3) the discovery of points in transition. Barton had a role in all three.
"We got the tempo we wanted, we wanted to get out and run, easy buckets," Barton told Blazersedge. "That all starts with defense. If we lock up, get stops, we can go out there before their defense is set. They're real good when they're set in the half court, it's tough, they make you keep moving the ball and keep working. They've got good help defense and they stay true to their principles. We wanted to get out and push a little bit. Make them work and keep them on their toes."
The Spurs were kept on their toes, for sure, and they spent some time back on their heels, too. The Blazers' 11 fast-break points were their most in the series, and Barton's ability to push the ball himself and finish plays of his own making helped maintain a team-wide confidence that had been lacking in the first three losses.
"We needed to run at them more," Aldridge said, after scoring 19 points (on 8-for-16 shooting) and grabbing four rebounds. "[In the first three games], we let them run at us and walk back. I thought tonight we made them get back and we ran at them."
Controlling the pace of play -- and getting opportunistic baskets on the break -- produced auxiliary benefits. San Antonio found itself with fewer opportunities of its own in transition, and fewer early-clock situations to exploit. The Blazers were able to set up defensively and on the glass. They didn't lose shooters while going from offense-to-defense and they were able to limit San Antonio to eight second-chance points and eight offensive rebounds by being in better position. The Spurs finished 3-for-18 from deep, tied for their second-fewest made three-pointers of the season. They left some open shots on the table, to be sure, but for the first time all series San Antonio wasn't enjoying whatever it pleased, whenever it pleased.
"A good offense is always the best defense if they've got to take the ball out of the net," Matthews told Blazersedge. "We were definitely more cognizant of their three-ball. We were trying to take them out of rhythm, take them out of what they do. Everything just came to the surface, fighting over screens, getting under screens, cracking back, rebounding, hitting, chucking cutters, all that just amounted to them finally missing. We did a good job."
Name virtually any area of the game and the Blazers were justified in giving themselves the "good job" tag. Before Barton's jolting presence, it was Nicolas Batum who got things going, flying around the court, embracing the challenge of defending Tony Parker, picking up some ball-handling duties in a tweaked rotation, and stuffing the boxscore with 14 points (on 5-for-11 shooting), 14 rebounds and eight assists.
"I thought with Nico playing the way he played, the game came a lot easier," said Damian Lillard, who finished with a team-high 25 points (on 11-for-21 shooting), five assists and four rebounds. "He was attacking and making plays. I didn't have to bring the ball up a lot."
The game came easier, and steadier, especially at the start of the second quarter. During the first three games, the Blazers looked like businessmen standing on the curb with their hands up, watching in vain as taxis flew past them without stopping. Here, they were in the middle of the road, playing a game of chicken with the cabbies. The Spurs never put together the type of back-breaking runs they found time and again earlier in the series, and the Blazers were fully braced for this crucial stretch.
"We were barraged and blitzed in the second quarters in the first three games," Matthews told Blazersedge. "They had to cool off at some point. I hope!"
In a twist, Blazers coach Terry Stotts used LaMarcus Aldridge, Thomas Robinson, Batum, Barton and CJ McCollum to start the period, slapping together a non-traditional unit that offered energy, length and improved match-ups with the Spurs' strong reserves. Stotts turned to the group as he rested Lillard and made due without Mo Williams, who was sidelined with a groin injury for the second straight game.
"Coach changed some things up," Aldridge told Blazersedge. "I stayed in, I guarded [Boris] Diaw so that gave us that balance that we needed, so we didn't need to put [Robin Lopez] on him, so he doesn't go isolation."
The Diaw-led push that defined Game 2 never materialized here. Although the Blazers' lineup didn't include a traditional point guard, Barton's scoring spark and Batum's play-making helped Portland play the second quarter nearly even.
"I wouldn't call it a gamble," Stotts said, of playing without a true point guard. "We had three ball-handlers, we had CJ, Will and Nic, they can all handle the ball and run our motion action, where anybody can initiate it."
Lillard added: "The first three games it seemed like nothing worked for us. Coach wanted to switch it up, put Will out there early, put CJ out there early. He changed up a lot of things in the rotation to give them a different look. Those guys brought it."
The game blew open for good in the third period, when the Blazers scored 35 points, their highest total in a quarter in this series. Six different Blazers scored in the period, including Barton and his fellow reserve Thomas Robinson, who finished with nine points (on 4-for-7 shooting) and five rebounds. Batum provided a rare comfort buffer by scoring seven points in just 37 seconds, when he followed up a four-point play with another three-pointer.
At this point, the Moda Center crowd was regularly topping 100 decibels and remaining on its feet throughout timeouts. Many in the building noted how the game had a November/December vibe: the Blazers were +7 on the glass, +4 on three-pointers and +4 on assists against a team that won three straight by raining down shots and sharing the rock.
"This was definitely the first game that we looked like the Trail Blazers," Aldridge said. "Moving the ball, making the extra, extra pass, guys getting to the basket, guys making plays. I thought guys played more easily."
Batum's seven-point sequence stretched the lead to 11, and Robinson added another exclamation point with a strong dunk to push the margin to 13 points. Shortly thereafter, Parker and Tim Duncan went to the bench for rest, and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich elected not to bother bringing them back for the fourth quarter.
"[The Blazers] played with a passion that we didn't match," Popovich said. "I don't think that we had the energy, the focus. We didn't accomplish our defensive tasks the way we had the first three games. Both mentally and physically, we played at a lower level than we have."
The lack of shooting around him made life more difficult for Parker, who finished with 14 points (on 6-for-12 shooting) and just one assist. Portland essentially took away his paint scoring opportunities, and he was left to try to beat the Blazers from the mid-range. He shot well, but he never got the Spurs' offensive machine up to full speed. Afterwards, he was reluctant to bestow too much credit on his countryman's defensive effort.
"He did a good job but I got the shots that I wanted," Parker said of Batum.
That's the shoulder-brushing confidence of a champion who understands the impossible odds still facing the Blazers. Down 3-1, Portland will need to win twice in San Antonio, and once more at home, to become the first team in NBA history to dig out of a 3-0 hole in a seven-game series.
"Why not us? It's never been done before," Batum said.
Matthews chimed in: "Someone has to make history at some point."
At the same time, just about every Blazers player interviewed after the game used the phrase "uphill battle" and "tough" when describing the team's predicament. Snakes or no snakes, Portland has a clear understanding of how imposing the AT&T Center can be. Whether or not the Blazers' season ends on Wednesday, Portland delivered on its Game 3 pledges to play with character, to play with pride and to play their asses off.
"The Spurs are a championship-level team but we didn't want to be that team that gets swept," Lillard said. "We weren't ready to go home. ... I was embarrassed about how they won the three games. It was a 20-point lead at halftime of every game, we'd fight back in the second half. We just weren't in range of winning the game, even though we made runs. That was the more embarrassing thing, just looking like we didn't belong in this series. I thought tonight we played our basketball."
That ball-moving, three-bombing, expectations-defying, Moda-shaking, pulse-pounding, hardwood-crashing, primal-screaming, never-say-dying, audacious basketball.
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced at 20,141 (a sellout). The Blazers handed out t-shirts and glowsticks again and the crowd did not show any early-game jitters. The "dee-fense" chants were in effect from the start and, boy, did everyone leave satisfied after Saturday's disappointment. There were also some call-and-response "We Are -- Rip City" chants, which are always awesome.
- Here are the game highlights via YouTube user NBA.
- Here's the dunk of the night from Damian Lillard via YouTube user NBA.
- Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com reports on Twitter that Mo Williams (groin) will attempt to come back for Game 5.
- Wesley Matthews (10 points on 4-for-14 shooting and eight rebounds) on extending the series: "It's going to be extremely tough but there's absolutely no pressure on us. ... We have a long uphill battle but we've had long uphill battles all season."
- Will Barton on the cause for the Blazers' early confidence: "We felt like even though they were up 3-0, we were doing good things, we just could never put it all together. We figured, 'Hey, we're due for one if we play hard and give it our all.' We played with a lot of energy and passion and good results came out of it."
- Barton on the approach going into Game 5: "It's a one-game series now. Forget what happened. Move on to the next one, go in there with positive energy. We have nothing to lose."
- LaMarcus Aldridge on Will Barton: "Will played great. Got to the basket, he's that X-factor. He can come in and change a game offensively. Getting to the basket, getting offensive rebounds, making plays."
- Aldridge on Game 5: "We know winning down there isn't easy, but we see how we have to play."
- Gregg Popovich on whether Nicolas Batum guarding Tony Parker threw off the Spurs: "No, no, no. They played with great passion and physicality. ... That's why they won."
- Parker on the Spurs: "The energy was weird tonight. ... Just overall, the whole game, we just didn't have it tonight."
- Parker on Game 5: "We have to treat Wednesday's game like it's a Game 7."
- Signs: "No sweep tonight," "Blaze your way to the top," "There's no R.I.P. in Rip City," "Where Amazing Happens," "Roll on RoLo," "We Believe," "Break Their Brooms," "Clap if you Believe," "Get Ur Dame Face On," "Don't Stop Believin," and "Lill the Thrill."
- Sam Amick of USA Today Sports with some insight into Damian Lillard's lucrative new shoe deal with Adidas.
- Joe Freeman of The Oregonian writes that multiple Blazers assistant coaches could find themselves getting interviews for the many open head coaching positions around the league.
- Louisa Thomas has a thoughtful, detail-rich essay on the Spurs for Grantland.
- Thanks to the great Katherine Cook of KGW for passing along a photo of one of the Spurs' buses hitting a TriMet bus before the game. No one was harmed and discussion of the incident didn't really carry over into the post-game.
- Bruce Ely of The Oregonian with a wonderful picture of Blazers founder Harry Glickman, who was given a standing ovation on his 90th birthday.
- Jamie Francis of The Oregonian got a great shot of Will Barton's alley-oop finish, described above.
- Rick Bowmer of The Associated Press with a phot of a happy Barton and Aldridge.
- Here's Kevin Pelton of ESPN.com (Insider) on Game 4.
- Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was in attendance and he got a big cheer. One of the members of the Portland Thunder arena football team was in attendance and he did not get a big cheer.
- The Blazers showed JumboTron video of Clyde Drexler dunking over Isiah Thomas during the 1990 Finals to get the crowd going. Good times.
- Mike Barrett and Mike Rice -- who are not calling games this round -- also got a lot of JumboTron time. The crowd responded enthusiastically whenever they were shown on the board.
- If you missed Donald Sterling's mind-blowing CNN interview that aired Monday night just before the Blazers game, this is the worst of it.
- Nothing new on the Chalupas/McMuffins.
- One final thought as I rush out the door to PDX: The quick-hitting nature of the playoff schedule has a major impact on the post-game reaction. There seemed to be a little dampening effect caused by the knowledge that the Blazers would be off to Texas so quickly after their victory. Yes, this was surely exacerbated by their 3-1 deficit. Still, it's so much easier to dwell on a loss during the playoffs than it is to savor a win. Full credit to the Blazers for picking themselves up after a rough Game 3 and for taking advantage of the many opportunities afforded to them by the Spurs in this one.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
We did what we needed to do. We're looking forward to going to San Antonio. Keep competing, play our basketball. We had a lot of good performances out there tonight. Will [Barton] and Thomas [Robinson] off the bench were terrific. Nic [Batum] was aggressive, as a back-up point guard he got us through the spells when Damian [Lillard] was out of the game. I thought it was a very good all-around team effort. Defensively we were solid. We didn't have very many lulls that has enabled them in the past to have their runs. We were pretty solid defensively and locked in. It was a good game, but we still have another few to go.
Wish this had come out earlier in the series?
That's the NBA. That's the playoffs. It happens. You have to give credit to San Antonio, they played three really good games. They didn't shoot the ball well tonight. They've been shooting the ball really, really well, from two and from three. They've been on a four-game roll offensively. They didn't shoot the ball well tonight and that was the biggest thing.
Game 4 more to do with you or the Spurs?
It's both. It's always both. There are two teams out there.
Well a lot of times, when you have playoff basketball or teams that are evenly matched, a lot of those extra possessions matter. In the first two games of the series so far, they got those and were able to convert at a very high rate. Those in the first two games, that was the difference, how they converted in those situations.
His energy, his aggressiveness with the ball, he helped with the ball-handling, he was relatively solid defensively. For him to have 17 [points] off the bench, that was big for us. Because of those two guys, we were able to keep the starters at a decent number.
I trust him now, that's why he was out there. I trusted him the last two games.
More minutes for Will Barton in this series
Houston was a different match-up. Mo [Williams] being healthy, that's 24 minutes. We kind of stuck with the rotation that got us into the playoffs. With Mo being injured, that freed up some minutes for Will. CJ [McCollum] got in during the first half. It's kind of the way the series is going. When you're down 0-3 you have to try to do some things.
Nicolas Batum guarding Tony Parker
I thought he was very persistent on [Tony] Parker. I think his length was able to, and the fact that he knows Parker well enough, to get a rhythm as far as when he's going to drive or pull up for a jump shot. More than anything else, I thought he was persistent. He didn't have any letups.
Staying with Batum guarding Parker
Did you have better energy than Spurs?
I don't know about from their side, but we had good energy. The crowd was terrific. We fed off the crowd. We came out in Game 2, we had good energy. But it's a long game. More than anything else, in tonight's game, we were able to sustain our level of play, sustain our focus, sustain our energy for longer periods of time.
Can you take that on the road?
We have to.
Winning after three losses
When you get blown out in three games, you can't say that a lot went right, but we did good things, we just got in a hole. Those things were kind of overshadowed. With San Antonio -- you've got to stay persistent. That's my biggest takeaway. It's not necessarily Xs and Os. They know what we're running, we know what they're running, just staying persistent throughout a possession until you get the ball. The fact that we cut our turnovers down to three turnovers in the second half was very important for us. I don't think there are any new revelations.
No point guard lineup
I wouldn't call it a gamble but we had three ball-handlers, we had CJ, Will and Nic, they can all handle the ball and run our motion action where anybody can initiate it. I felt like any one of those three guys. Not all of them would be pressured so I thought we would be able to initiate offense. You still have good length and a good defensive presence as well.
Start to second quarter, carry that into Game 5
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter