At times like this that I'm reminded of the classic poem "Casey at the Bat" by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, the ode to a great and mighty slugger which ends thus:
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville - mighty Casey has...HIT IT OUT OF THE PARK! OMG! HE BLASTED THAT THING! MUDVILLE WINS!!! BY GOSH ALMIGHTY MUD...VILLE...WINS!!! YEEESSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!
Well, maybe that's not exactly how the immortal Mr. Thayer wrote it, but hey...this ain't Mudville, it's Portland. And these are the Trail Blazers. They surprise you with how poorly they deal with success, then they surprise you again and play like champs when you put their backs against the wall. That's precisely what happened tonight as the Blazers romped to a 103-92 victory over the San Antonio Spurs in an elimination game that they led by 20 and never once let out of their grasp.
Disclaimer on behalf of Spurs Fans and other Neutral Visitors: This win leaves the series tally at 3-1 for San Antonio. Realize it, said it, done with it. Having no other choice save admitting defeat before it happens, we're going to treat this win as if it means something to this series. After being forced to write up three blowout losses in a row, we're treating this like a victory should be treated.
The simplest way to describe the evening: Everything the Blazers have needed to do to stay competitive in this series, they did. The first three games were desert...desert...mirage oasis and...desert. Game 4 brought a big, fat flood of goodness that the Spurs weren't ready to handle.
The high points:
1. Portland's All-Stars played like All-Stars.
Neither Damian Lillard nor LaMarcus Aldridge dominated the ball. Those horrible, slow-down iso sets of Games 1-3 got pared down to strategic strikes. Instead Portland's stars took what the Spurs were giving them, which turned out to be plenty.
Aldridge hit a couple face-up jumpers and spin moves against Tiago Splitter. When the smaller Boris Diaw came into the game, Aldridge took him down low. It was like LaMarcus suddenly realized that each defender had weaknesses and that he could put pressure on all of them.
Lillard started the evening hitting open jumpers (Finally!) then parlayed the resulting defensive respect into a vicious driving attack resulting in layups and short shots.
Aldridge and Lillard getting hot forced the Spurs to send help in the lane, freeing up the floor for their teammates.
2. Portland's defense bent but didn't break.
Tony Parker still shot 6-12, scoring 14. But he managed 1 assist against 3 turnovers because he couldn't find any teammates open. The Blazers also bodied up inside, kept a hand in Tim Duncan's face, and closed out on shooters early. By the time San Antonio got open looks from distance they had already missed enough that their confidence was shot. They fired a semi-respectable 44% from the field but only 3-18 from range. In a series where 60-70 has become the norm for the Spurs at halftime, they didn't hit that 70 mark until 30 seconds into the fourth period. Nobody scored more than Parker's 14.
Changing defensive adjustments paved the way for the Blazers' success:
- Nicolas Batum guarded Parker from the get-go.
- Aldridge moved off of Splitter--a non-threat but a guy who kept him away from the heart of San Antonio's offense--and guarded Duncan instead.
- Lillard switched over to Danny Green. Damian may not be the world's greatest defender but he's capable of getting a hand up on Green's main weapon, the triple (1-7 for the evening).
- This left Wesley Matthews to watch Kawhi Leonard...a mismatch thus far in the series. But Matthews was able to throw his body against the bigger Leonard long enough for help to come...help which was now nearer because of the other defensive switches.
It wasn't an airtight system, but it worked far better than the previous matchups had. Every Spurs player got looks; few of them looked comfortable.
3. The Blazers REBOUNDED.
Watching Splitter instead of stuck in no-man's-land between the rim and Duncan's jumper, Robin Lopez was able to use his big body and long reach on the glass. He tallied 12 rebounds tonight, 6 of each stripe. Batum did even better, netting 12 defensive rebounds and 14 overall. Guarding Parker freed him to head to the lane when shots went up, knowing Tony wouldn't contest and couldn't do anything but run back on defense unless his team got the offensive rebound.
Speaking of...the offensive rebounding demon departed from Portland's shoulders for a night. San Antonio managed only 8 offensive boards tonight. The Blazers had a healthy 14.
4. Turnovers and fast breaks didn't scuttle the ship.
Portland turned over the ball plenty in a wild, weird first period. After that they settled down. When San Antonio was ready to make their big push in the second half to get back in the game, the Blazers didn't help them one bit. The Spurs totaled 8 points on the break, half of their usual output. The Spurs only got the points they earned tonight and they earned them hard.
5. Portland moved men and the ball more than San Antonio did.
The Spurs had 13 assists on 39 made shots. No player had more than 3. As they came under pressure San Antonio adopted Portland's former isolation matchup tactics. That plan didn't work any better for them than it has for the Blazers so far. It just made everybody easier to defend.
The Blazers dished 17 assists on 43 buckets tonight...a percentage only marginally higher than San Antonio's. But the true story shows when you consider points in the paint, a 62-44 advantage for the Blazers. You know Portland didn't score 62 points inside by giving it to one guy and letting him thump down low. Those points came against a defense moving the wrong way, out of position, vulnerable to anyone who beat their original defender. Portland's offensive rebounds didn't come against a cadre of set and stable defenders either. The Spurs spent the night moving and recovering instead of lying in wait.
Recall we said at the outset of the series that the first team to make the other abandon single coverage and scramble on defense would have a huge advantage. For three games that advantage belonged to San Antonio. Tonight it was Portland's. That's the key to the series as far as the Blazers are concerned. The experience gap may be vast but the vulnerabilities of these two teams aren't that different. What San Antonio exploited the Blazers can also exploit. The same principles work both ways.
6. The Blazers finally got contributions off the bench.
Let's get real here. Thomas Robinson and Will Barton didn't become reliable, veteran players this evening. They weren't that much different than they have been all season, give or take a few drams of confidence. Yet this game was far different than their past performances. In Game 4 Robinson and Barton came in against a scrambling, spread defense on its heels. They faced opposing bench players who were feeling pressure to fix everything all at once instead of comfortably taking advantage of their personal strengths within a team framework. Portland's starters created an opening and these two reserves busted through it.
Telling Robinson that his opponent might be a little rattled and that he should go get them is like waving meatloaf in front of the dog shelter.
Presenting Barton with a spread floor and a few fast break opportunities is like opening the door to the whole damn butcher shop.
One way or another, the Spurs were going to get chewed.
T-Rob grabbed 5 rebounds with a steal and a block in 24 minutes tonight. He also hit 4-7 shots for 9 points. Those aren't the best numbers of his season but his impact outpaced his numbers as he took open shots confidently and sowed chaos wherever he could.
Robinson did have 5 personal fouls in this game, not unusual for him. A critical juncture came in the second period when he picked up his 3rd foul clearing space for a rebound in overtly physical fashion. He walked over to the sideline with a look of, "Sorry, Coach. I know it's my third. I was bad and I have to come out now." Terry Stotts looked at him, nodded with approval, and told him to turn around and get back in the game. Stotts' look said, "Burn every foul you've got, kid. Just keep on doing what you're doing." Robinson's face lit up like a kid whose normally-strict dad had just told him that yes, he really could swing as hard as he wanted with his new Nerf battle axe today. It was a special occasion and besides, he wasn't really going to hurt anyone. Except the Spurs, that is. Given a pat on the back and thumbs up for his physical effort, Robinson bounded right back on the floor and proceeded to do just that.
But hang on. If you liked the Thomas Robinson story, you're going to love Will Barton.
In Men in Black, Will Smith famously ribs Tommy Lee Jones by saying, "You know the difference between you and me? I make this [black suit] look good." Replace "black suit" with "iso set" or "fast break" and Will Barton could say the same thing to his teammates.
In a sense Aldridge and company were blocking backs tonight, spreading the defense far enough that Barton found daylight everywhere he went. He took advantage of the seams and cracks for 17 points on 7-13 shooting plus 6 rebounds in 30 minutes...a back-breaker for San Antonio. Everybody else going off inspired the, "That figures..." shrug from the Spurs. Barton going plum loco caused them to throw up their hands and pull the starters.
Had Barton tried the same thing in the first three games of the series his line would have read 1-5 and 1 rebound before he got pulled for ineffective play. But the left hand washed the right for the Blazers tonight and vice versa and in the process Barton became a devastating weapon.
You could make an argument that tonight's game ball could go to Barton as the difference-maker off the bench. You could make a stronger argument for Lillard with his vicious second-half drives that kept the Spurs from mounting any kind of comeback. Lopez played his most dominating game of the series. LaMarcus Aldridge's more subtle 19 points provided the initial stress that set up all the rest. But when you combine 14 points, 14 rebounds, and 8 assists with the best defense we've seen on Parker all series, the highest honor for the game has to go to Nicolas Batum. Aldridge and Lillard made the space, but Batum made the most of it.
Whatever you say about him, this was a night where Nic provided everything his team could need and then some. If it wasn't for Batum the Trail Blazers wouldn't be in the playoffs anymore.
Perhaps the most telling reflection from this game comes in the way I've had to write this recap. I haven't been able to explain one thing about Portland's performance without linking up to two others that caused or flowed from it. I haven't been able to credit one player without mentioning how his teammates contributed to his success. That's Trail Blazers basketball.
It's not mistake-free. It's not constant and reliable. It's not 49 awe-inspiring points of overwhelming. Portland wins when their attack resembles a binary heap, each element feeding into another no matter which direction you travel. When the Blazers are rolling you don't get to choose whether they're going to hurt you, but how.
The Blazers also win when they play with the energy, physicality, and abandon they showed tonight rather than the turtled-up shock they displayed in Games 1-3. Whatever comes, they need to play this way every night that remains to them in this season.
As to how much this win means in the big picture, well...there is no big picture for the Blazers yet. This victory, however nice, did not allow them the luxury of thinking in terms of a series again. The conditions remain the same Wednesday night. One loss brings the end. There is no Game 6 yet. No light shines at the end of this tunnel. The Blazers have one more night to prove they can be better than the Spurs. That's it.
But that's not necessarily a bad thing. We don't often see the best out of this team under favorable conditions. As soon as they think they can win, they don't. When no sane person in the universe would give them a chance, they create their own fortune and escape. Eventually that'll catch up to them. Likely Wednesday night, in fact. But if the Blazers do go down in San Antonio, at least let it be swinging like they did tonight. That's all we can ask.
And hey...tonight you got everything you could possibly ask for, Blazers fans! Not only did you see a sweet win from your home town club in your own arena, you gained 100% of the spoils available from this game. Neither a series lead nor real competitiveness were at stake in this one. The only thing up for grabs was one more night, one more chance. And you got it! Go ahead and celebrate unabashedly, as if you just won everything. If you narrow the focus down to just this game, you did.
Timmay's Instant Recap and GameDay Thread Review (Infinitely happier than the past three.)
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--Dave email@example.com / @DaveDeckard