Whenever the Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs meet, J.R. Wilco of Pounding The Rock and I engage in a little back-and-forth over the two teams and their prospects. Since we're now embroiled in a 7-game series, we've decided to go into super-mode, giving you an inside, unscripted look at our thoughts about the series. Tune in after each game for the new installment!
May 9th, 2014 10:30 a.m.--13.5 Hours After Game 2
Dammit J.R.! I went to start typing this Frat and I found a SNAKE in my desk drawer!!! Did you put that there? Because I'm allergic to rattlesnake bites! They tend to...I don't know...KILL ME. If you're looking to throw me off my game with that cheap tactic, it's not going to work.
Don't act so surprised, Dave. It's just a Texas twist on the old standby playoff foul that you used to see all the time in the 70's and 80's. You remember, back when it wasn't unusual for a player to spend his entire career with a single team. When rivalries became personal and you never knew when someone was going to be clotheslined on their way to the basket.
And quit being so sensitive like you're special or something. EVERYBODY is allergic to neurotoxin. That's what makes it such a good deterrent. And if the Blazers were scared by the snake, I'd argue it was a good thing because it's possible that it might have been responsible for the fact that Game 2 was a game. Game 1 wasn't really. It seemed more like a strange new kind of performance art than a game proper.
But the locker room snake incident before Game 2 had a nip and tuck first quarter before the serpent-related adrenaline seemed to wear off around minute 13 of game time. Then again, it was a three-possession game in the fourth quarter. In between, there was a lot of the Spurs running rampant followed by the visitors slowly crawling back into the mix. I'm telling you that there were some nervous people in San Antonio on Thursday night as Thomas Robinson, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Damian Lillard went on a 10-3 run that cut the lead to 9 points.
Then the Trail Blazers stopped scoring. For four minutes and five seconds Portland went: blocked shot, miss, miss, turnover, miss, miss, turnover, miss. And that, besides four points from Will Barton in garbage time, was the end. And now a bunch of tall, athletic men are climbing into airplanes and heading up to the Pacific Northwest where I here snakes are far less common, and there are trails that need blazing and stuff.
Ha! The snakes are less active up here except in the Eastern desert regions. But I'd invite you to say hello to the dreaded Pacific Northwest Banana Slug! Banana slugs may not bite you, but they're huge and slimy and will make your tongue numb if you lick them! Imagine Pop trying to conduct timeouts after he's licked a slug 4-5 times!!! MWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAA!
And speaking of banana slugs, the Blazers would be in a lot better shape if LaMarcus Aldridge stopped playing offense like one. He had Splitter going a little bit in this game. Backed him down. Turned around him. Every time it's like, "Yes...Yes...YES...HERE IT COMES ...YESSSSS ... NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO OOOOOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooooooo." Missed dunks, taking weaker fades instead of keeping strong with the dribble, taking the hook a little too far out. The process was there, no finish. The Blazers cannot survive without Aldridge. Even if he's not the leading scorer he's the foundation of everything they do...the supporting structure that makes the contributions of his teammates count.
But Portland's main problem comes on defense. The Spurs are smart...I'll give you that. They know that Portland's secret kryptonite is that Robin Lopez HAS to stay near the lane and cannot come out to hedge or jump screens. If you move him out of the lane he becomes normal. After a shaky start where the Blazers managed to switch smaller guys against screens involving Parker, it was all at Lopez. He backed off towards the lane, the other defender went under the screen...Parker time. And when a defender from another position came to join the fun...THREE! That was sick.
The Blazers might have to put themselves in a position where they can switch on almost every screen, just keeping in one-on-one coverage in all situations. Technically they could field that lineup. The problem would be board-work. But the Blazers aren't exactly dominating the rebounding category anyway.
Honestly I think Portland's offense will get better. You already saw them scoring inside more in Game 2. If they keep that up buckets and foul shots will probably follow, plus open threes soon thereafter. But I worry about Portland's defense.
You chose a pretty apt creature to compare Aldridge to: an animal with no offensive weapon who can only harm you if you put it in your mouth for some reason. I attended Game 2 and I was astonished by LaMarcus' game. Not his GAME, which is fine, but the 41 minutes he put in on Thursday evening. It wasn't the slightest bit All-Star-esque and seemed to be lacking different parts of itself at different times -- as though someone had rubbed banana slugs all over it. "Hey, I can and spin around Tiago, but why is the ball on the back of my hand? I don't know how to shoot it like that. ... Buy that pump fake, Splitter! Now I'm free at the rim to du-- That was weird. Usually I'm able to avoid the rim, heel and backboard while trying to dunk. ... Okay, easing my way into the basket bit by bit. Just gonna give him a couple more shoulder bumps and then I'll be close enough to-- Joey Crawford? What are you doing with that whistle? Have you forgotten you hate the Spurs?"
Overall, I must say that it was overly weird. As was Damian Lillard's needing 20 shots to get 19 points and two freebies. Look, I know Pop is clever with his schemes and stuff, but you can generally see that on the court when guys aren't used to how little space (or how much, Lebron in the Finals) they're getting. But this was just poor performances for different and unknown reasons. Frankly, banana slugs make about as much sense as anything and I see no reason that Portland won't simply wake up from this funk when they crawl out of their own beds on Friday morning. If they scored 97 when they were out of sync to such a degree, I'm afraid to contemplate what they'll score on Saturday if they get themselves back together.
As you said, it's the defense that's the real problem, and it's not one that I can see being overcome by simply reverting to form. Before the series began you said that if the Spurs could move the Blazers around and make them react, then it would be trouble for your guys. That's what happened in the first game, and when the expected adjustment came in Game 2, it was the Switch Everything tactic that Dallas used to such great effect in the first round. Problem is that while the Spurs struggled against all the switching, they eventually figured out how to attack it and once Stotts' tweak was dealt with, there wasn't much besides a classic San Antonio Third Quarter Collapse (TQC, although much rarer than it used to be and possibly endangered) for Portland fans to celebrate. Sure, there was the aforementioned cutting of the lead to single digits, but as mentioned -- when 4th quarter comebacks attempts include 4+ minute long scoring droughts, they tend to stay attempts.
It made the game more interesting than the first, but with the result so similar (24 point loss, 17 point loss) what can you imagine to shake this series up? I'm sure you have something up your sleeve.
Yes I do, and you're not going to like it.
In addition to getting good shots and hitting the boards, the Blazers need to get mean. As I said during my Game 2 recap, if you can't win the chess game, tip over the board. Robin Lopez is capable. Wesley Matthews is capable. With a little encouragement Aldridge is capable. Thomas Robinson and Joel Freeland off the bench too. If the Spurs want to score inside at all in Game 3, there better be blood. They better be bruised from running into screens too. The Blazers have not been physical at all in this series. Timid is more like it. Dwight Howard and James Harden brought out their nasty side. If they can't summon it again being down 0-2, I'm not sure I can help them.
I guess I could understand playing a quarter straight up to see if the homecourt momentum could do anything, but the second this game starts to get out of hand some Spurs need to hit the floor. Hard. Obviously you can't do that the whole game, but the Blazers need them to be thinking and looking over their shoulders when putting up shots in traffic, not playing free and easy anymore. They need to be worrying about who's on their shoulder when going for offensive rebounds, not figuring out what they're going to do with all the extra points they put in. And I'll tell you the truth...if I have to send a defender flying at Belinelli, leaping for the block of course but laying out and landing on top of him on that corner three, I'd do it. I don't know that the Blazers would do it. They're not used to responding that hard. But I think the Spurs have had just about enough physical play advantage in this series and I hope the Blazers think so too.
Spurs fans can pontificate about the purity of the game here. That's part of the luxury of being up 2-0. You can't tell me that if you were down 2-0 instead Pop wouldn't be getting in his guys' ears to throw an elbow into somebody's ribs.
Beyond that, ALL the Blazers need to go at the rim aggressively when they get inside. They actually got position on the Spurs several times in Game 2. Unless the path was wide open, they didn't finish with any kind of gusto. Aggression signals the refs to start blowing the whistles for you. Aggression also generates more points. I want Portland angry, fighting for their playoff lives, with every drive to the basket, every low post attempt, and every rebound...especially the put-backs off of offensive rebounds.
If the Blazers try to squeak back into this series they will fail. Even if they don't fail in Game 3 they will in Game 4 or Game 7 or whenever the moment comes. Even taking every home game politely and cleanly won't give them 4 wins. The Blazers need to change the nature of this series and they need to do it now. That wasn't accomplished by being Mr. Happy-to-Be-Here in Game 1. It wasn't accomplished by being Mr. Try-to-Play-Smarter in Game 2. Game 3 better be no-holds-barred or I'm going to be disappointed.
Hey, I'm a fan of the team that employed Big Shot Rob during the Robert Horry Hip Check Game that will live in infamy in Phoenix even after the sport of basketball is a foggy memory. So I get playing physical. What I don't get is trying to harm the other team, and I'm sure you're not advocating that, right?
Suns fans would breathe fire every time Horry's name was mentioned, and when my wife was in Phoenix last month her cab driver responded with "They're dirty!" as soon as she mentioned the Spurs. But that's really because the play looked so bad what with Steve Nash selling the foul so well (something he's admitted to multiple times.) Of course, the irony is that in making it look so dangerous, a couple of his teammates felt the need to come to his aid and were therefore suspended -- but that's a different story. The point here is that tough is good. Spurs fans are used to tough. Tough is fair. We encountered some tough in the first round.
Manu beats Dirk and Blair meets him in the paint with an elbow to the face. https://t.co/oMZ24Mn2pj— J.R. Wilco (@jollyrogerwilco) May 4, 2014
Intending to injure, or playing in a reckless manner that could take a guy out of the playoffs -- that's something else entirely.
Am I advocating intentionally hurting someone and taking them out of the playoffs? No. I'd never do that. Am I advocating letting the Spurs know that I'm not trying to take anybody out? No. I want them to wonder. I want them in that gray area where they're not just thinking about running their stuff but thinking about me as well. Let's face it, they haven't had to think about the Blazers much yet this series. The Blazers have to shake it up. And as you pointed out, the Spurs know this. The Spurs have done this at times.
Spurs fans know this as well. If you let this moment slip by, you have to play 100 games just to get back to the same point you're at now. There's no reprieve, no second chance at it. All the work, all the plane flights, all the miracle last-minute shots get erased. You go back to start and do the whole thing all over again. The basic question the playoffs present, "Would you rather play 4 games with everything you've got and keep going or do you want to go back and play those 100 over again? Or do you just not care, in which case you don't really belong here to begin with." So far the Blazers have looked a lot closer to not caring--rather, looking happy just to have made it--than to putting their whole season on the line.
To the extent that the Spurs think this is going to be easy, that things are going to continue in the same way they were in Games 1 and 2, that has to change...demonstrably...right now....whatever it takes. The Blazers have to prove it to them. The Blazers also have to prove it to themselves.
Looping back to your original question, I'm not sure you have to worry. I don't think the playoff-inexperienced Blazers get this yet. I suspect they have to take that 100-game march another time or two before they figure out that you do whatever it takes to make sure the other guy walks it instead...that history doesn't remember how you won, only that you won. I'm not sure they have the reservoir to draw from to get nasty and physical. I'm not sure they're practiced enough in it to avoid getting obvious flagrant fouls. (After all, you can't just stupidly club a guy out in the open. That just draws whistles and incites the opponent. You have to work in the gray area, which means knowing where the boundaries lie and how to operate in them without crossing.) Most of all, I think they're still looking at the Spurs and thinking, "That's cool. This is where we'd like to be someday," without realizing that banishing that very thought and sacrificing whatever you have to in order to get there is the only way to do what the Spurs have done. "Liking to someday" will never make "someday" come.
Game 3 will be now or never time for the Blazers. I'm just hoping they're able to translate that moment into action on the court.
Tune in from now all the way to Game 7 for even more fraternizing!
--Dave email@example.com / @DaveDeckard