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Media Row Report: Blazers 98, Spurs 96

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The Portland Trail Blazers pulled off the Rip City Rip Off on Friday night, stealing a 98-96 buzzer-beating victory over the league-best San Antonio Spurs thanks to a series of absurd late-game plays that will run on loop for decades, guaranteed. Rubbing your eyes in disbelief doesn't do this fourth quarter justice; you're better off rapping on your forehead like it's a doorknocker to make sure you're still on this planet. 

The Blazers should have lost this game for so many reasons but, given the circumstances, I don't even have the heart to list them in full. In short: San Antonio moved the ball better than any team Portland has faced this season, San Antonio hit its shots from deep after moving the ball so well, the Blazers got next to nothing from their bench, settled for too many jumpers and didn't find as much success feeding LaMarcus Aldridge as they had hoped. 

In the end, that potentially crippling set of factors mattered not because the final forty seconds of this game happened.

With the Spurs leading 96-92, the Blazers set up forward Nicolas Batum for a corner three, which rimmed off. The Spurs got the ball to point guard Tony Parker, who looked to milk the rest of the clock and ice the game away. Before Parker got to halfcourt though, Blazers guard Andre Miller, who finished with 21 points, six rebounds, eight assists and four steals, pounced on him like a cheetah, picking him clean of the ball and taking it to the house for a layup.

"You've got to make plays," Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. "This is what I'm saying to our guys. We've been in this position the last few years. We're trying to get ourselves into the playoffs. Once we get into the playoffs getting to that next level -- you've got to make plays. It's as simple as that... Dre came up with a big steal."

But that steal, against one of the league's elite point guards who has been at the top of his game in recent weeks, was only the first course.

Now leading 96-94, the Spurs put the game in the hands of guard Manu Ginobili, who finished with 21 points and had been red hot down the stretch, scoring nine fourth quarter points on 3-5 shooting (3-4 from deep). Blazers guard Wesley Matthews drew the defensive assignment as Ginobili dribbled down the clock near halfcourt.

"I thought it was going to be a pick and roll but it never came," Matthews told me. "He was dribbling and dribbling and dribbling. At that point I was peaking back behind me, it looks like he's going one on one."

Matthews said that once he knew that there would be no screen, Portland's scouting reports and situational tendency analysis let him know Ginobili was likely to crossover and look for a stepback jumper. 

"I'm thinking, 'OK, this is what he likes to go to.' And I was able to get the stop. It's just scouting," Matthews explained. "We know what Ginobili likes to do. He's strong and dominant going left but when it's time for him -- game point -- he likes that step back going right. I just tried to play the play."

Play the play Matthews did indeed, ripping the ball as Ginobili brought it across his body, picking it cleanly and heading off to the races with just seven seconds remaining on the clock. 

Watch the tape back and you'll see Matthews, who finished with 15 points and two steals, as locked in as an NBA player can be.

"It's focus," he told me. "It's will, more than anything. Just wanting to get that stop and knowing you have to get the stop." 

With the ball secured, Matthews headed downcourt as quickly as possible, only to find Ginobili and the rest of San Antonio's defenders hustling back. "[I was trying to] beat him down court, get a layup," Matthews said. "[Ginobili] cut me off, I saw Andre flying on my left. So I passed him the ball. He didn't really have anywhere to go after that so he kicked it back to me. I was buried amongst trees, trying to get the ball up and Nic came in and sealed the deal."

Batum corralled an offensive rebound with less than a second left on the clock, doing his best to get up a shot attempt in traffic. In the scrum, a foul was called on Spurs big man Matt Bonner, sending Batum to the free throw line with a chance to tie the game at 96.

Pressure busts pipes. But not tonight. Batum paced himself and stuck both perfectly. "I took my time," he said. "I didn't rush it ... Relax, you're by yourself, nobody's here. It's just you and the rim."

"I haven't seen him in that position too many times," Miller said. "Those two free throws were big. That's a lot of pressure and he knocked them down."  

"It was big time," Matthews said. "It's big time. You can't say much but that it's big time. He was huge stepping up. For him to trail the play the way he did and put us in that position, it was huge."

"That's part of making plays," McMillan said. "That's getting to the next level. Pressure situation. Calm down. Take a deep breath. Step up there and knock it down. No doubt about it."

Even with both free throws going through, however, San Antonio still had the opportunity to set up a side out of bounds play for a last-second shot at a game-winner. That's when the unlikely turned into the unthinkable. The league's best executing team threw the possession away. Steve Novak, who played less than two minutes on the night, sailed the inbounds pass straight out of bounds, without it touching any Blazers. Turnover. Blazers ball. Timeout to advance the ball near halfcourt.

Then, history was written and repeated thanks to a play that recalled the historic last-second lob to Billy Ray Bates from decades ago.

The Blazers set up a gorgeous inbounds play with guard Brandon Roy coming to the ball as if to receive a catch-and-shoot jumper, only to have the inbounds pass come in as a lob over the top to Batum. Miller threw the pass and, I promise this to you, the instant it left his hands the Rose Garden crowd -- with a clear view of the off ball action, with the understanding that Batum was very open and with a good idea that the pass looked to be on the money -- knew what was about to happen.

Batum, who lost Ginobili and then skied over Parker, caught the lob and tucked home the layup for his 20th and 21st points on the night. Buzzer. Ballgame. Pandemonium.  

"I don't know how it got there but it did," Miller said. "Good catch by Nic."

"Dre just threw the ball and I had to put it inside," Batum said.

"Just a play that we work on," McMillan explained. "Special situations, [we work on those] as much as we can. I wouldn't say every day but we walk through them. That's just a last second shot play that we've had. One of my scouts gave it to me -- Larry -- perfect timing for it. It was executed perfect. I thought Miller threw the right pass and put it right in front of the rim and all Nic had to do was catch it and put it in the hole. Well executed play."

"It was designed perfectly," Matthews said. "Everybody cut hard, Nic was able to get his slip. Dre threw a perfect pass and Nic put it in."

Asked if he had ever scored a game-winner before, Batum was adamant that it was the first of his life. "Never. First time ever. Never. Ever. First time ever."

Miller, usually so shy, was beaming from ear to ear, clearly proud at the execution of the play and the quality of the win over a top team. "That's number one," Miller said when asked by Jason Quick of The Oregonian to compare the final play to his career's worth of assists. "That's number one right there to me. That team is the best team in the league, that type of situation, losing by six points, being able to make plays against a championship team, championship guards that play high-level basketball all the time." 

I don't have much in common with LeBron James, but I do share his faith in karma. If you sit through enough pointless blowouts over tanking teams, if you survive enough mid-season brickfests, if you write about enough injuries and break down enough tape, if you memorize enough stats and come up with enough "clever" talking points and sound bytes, sometimes you get to sit on the edge of your seat and watch professional athletes delight themselves by doing something they've never done before, by doing something better than they've ever done it before, by doing something they had no business doing, and loving every last minute of it.

"It was just a hell of a win," McMillan concluded. "A hell of a win tonight."

Random Game Notes

Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments

Initial thoughts

How about that? Wow. Wow.

Final play

Well, just, a play that we work on, special situations, as much as we can. I wouldnt say every day but we walk through them. That's just a last second shot play that we've had. One of my scouts gave it to me -- Larry -- perfect timing for it. It was executed perfect. I thought Miller threw the right pass and put it right in front of the rim and all Nic had to do was catch it and put it in the hole. Well executed play.

 How did Batum get open?

It was basically, in situations like that, you know teams are going to switch. Basically, you switch and Brandon was a decoy in that situation and Nic goes to the rim. Just put it at the rim. You hope that they do switch and I think Parker or Ginobili, one of those guys, were underneath Nic. But Andre threw a perfect pass to execute that.

All-Timer

For me? Yeah. We knew that team was going to be tough. And they were. You talk about fast and ball movement and man movement and trying to protect the paint. The zone didn't disrupt enough. Ginobili and Parker, those guys are great. They give up the ball when guys are open. IF you give them single coverage they make you pay. We made some adjustments second half defensively which helped us. We got a few stops, enough stops, to give ourselves a chance. I thought that was a big play when they threw the ball out of bounds and our guys didn't touch it to give us that last possession.

Miller's steal

You've got to make plays. This is what I'm saying to our guys. We've been in this position the last few years. We're trying to get ourselves into the playoffs. Once we get into the playoffs getting to that next level -- you've got to make plays. It's as simple as that. You've got to get stops defensively, you've got to execute offensively, you've got to go even harder. You saw that with San Antonio tonight. We got enough stops to give ourselves a chance. Offensively we were able to execute but we've got to be stronger and better than we were in the fourth quarter. Dre came up with a big steal, some big plays tonight. In situations like that, you've got to make plays.

Nic clutch at the free throw line

You've got to make plays. That's part of making plays. That's getting to the next level. Pressure situation. Calm down. Take a deep breath. Step up there and knock it down. No doubt about it. In order to get to the next level, you've got to make those plays.

How many times have you practiced that play?

We've walked through it a lot. 

10 times?

Possibly. We've walked through it from the start of the season to now. We go through our special situations. That particular play, we haven't walked through that in probably 2-3 weeks. It really worked out. For that amount of time. A catch and a lob, or a catch and shoot play. That play came to me and it was the right call.

Locker room scene afterwards

It was just a hell of a win. A hell of a win tonight. We hung in there, we didn't panic late, we had to get stops and make plays. We didn't drop our heads. We continued to play, of course we got some breaks. We were able to take advantage of those breaks.

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter