The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the San Antonio Spurs, 98-90, at the Rose Garden on Thursday night, improving their record to 10-12.
This was Portland's best win of the season, no question, and one that featured an exquisite blend of redemption and development. Let's take on both one at a time.
It was 33 days ago, against these same Spurs, that Nicolas Batum was scolded by coach Terry Stotts for launching (and missing) a potential game-winning three when down by two points, rather than attacking the basket for a better look. It was a bit of what they call "hero ball" and Batum was left to admit afterwards that he should "do different" by being more aggressive in similar situations in the future. He also offered this lament: "M.J. missed some shots too."
Thursday, Batum found himself in somewhat similar circumstances. This time, the Blazers were up three, rather than down two, with 14 seconds on the shot clock and the ball out of bounds after a Spurs kicked ball. Stotts, according to Batum, called the inbounds play from the sideline, a design that had four options but never made it past three. First: a look to Batum on a back screen. Second: a chance for guard Sasha Pavlovic. Third: Batum curling around on the same right side where he launched his November three, over his same right shoulder, right in front of the Blazers bench again.
"I was a little mad because I missed the shot a couple of weeks ago," Batum told Blazersedge. "That's exactly the same shot, same play. Come off [the] pindown, bang."
"Nicolas killed us with that three at the very end," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "It could have been anybody's game but for that three."
The legendary coach shook his head and pointed out that the Spurs lost Wednesday night on a walk-off three by Utah Jazz guard Mo Williams, only to follow that up with Batum's three on Thursday. "We've all been there on both ends of it," Popovich said. "We've just been on the [bad] end two nights in a row. Such is life. Go to dinner."
He smiled a "I've been here before, I'll be here again" smile and concluded his press conference then and there, surely heading in the direction of the nearest food.
Stotts didn't want to be reminded of his previous comments about Batum's lack of assertiveness in November and you couldn't blame him, not after a steady and complete (not to mention completely comeback gimmick-free) win over a team as great as the Spurs. Stotts said only that this three came in a "different situation" and under "different circumstances," which is true. This three, unlike the one in November, was not a make-or-break moment for the Blazers as Portland would have had at least one more possession had he missed. The feeling, though, was that perhaps the biggest difference between the plays was the result: Batum delivered this time.
"The three he hit on the sideline out of bounds was not an easy shot, but he had confidence to take it," Stotts said. "He likes coming over the right shoulder and he went up with confidence."
What better way to convince your new coach that you, operating in a new role, should be called upon to take your shot than by making it when it matters most? Is there any other way? The late three was the only one of six treys that Batum attempted Thursday that went in. He would finish shooting just four-for-11 on the night, scoring 11 points, dishing eight assists and grabbing three rebounds,
Batum, like Popovich, was smiling afterwards. A different smile, of course. "That's basketball," he said. "Sometimes you make, sometimes you miss."
Indeed. M.J. made a few too, didn't he? Batum followed up his three by shadowing Spurs guard Tony Parker on a drive, staying down as Parker went through a series of pump fakes and feints before blocking Parker's shot attempt in the paint. It was the type of disciplined defense that is most easily achieved through endless repetition. Parker and Batum are close friends and have been French national team teammates, and competitors, for years now. Batum knew exactly what was coming, likely because he's been beaten with the same moves time and again, and he was ready.
"I know it," he said. "I knew he was going to pump fake. I was scared about his floater but once he faked the first one and he didn't jump, after that I was OK. I thought he was going to pass it, actually." Parker didn't pass, Batum registered the block and controlled possession, and the Spurs were left to foul down the rest of the way, even if things got a bit hairy following a Luke Babbitt turnover.
There were plenty of worthwhile developments to recount prior to Batum's final minute redemption song but none was bigger than Blazers rookie guard Damian Lillard's handling of the Spurs' fourth quarter defense. Dating back to June, the table was set cleanly for this season: the top priority for all involved, and especially observers, was to catalog Lillard's improvements (or lack of improvements) as he progressed through a rookie season with massive expectations and the keys to the car.
The headlines from Thursday's game will go to his 29 points, a new season-high/career-high. He shot 11-for-22 from the field and added seven rebounds and six assists. The bigger picture, zoomed out story was his progress in reading late-game defensive pressure. The Spurs, the No. 6 defense in the league and always sticking tightly to scouting reports, elected to "wall" Lillard throughout much of the fourth quarter, defending high screen-and-rolls by instructing their big man to track Lillard and prevent him from shooting step-back jumpshots in favor of forcing him to make quick passes over the double teams at the top of the key, putting the onus on Portland's other players to beat them in scramble situations. The strategy makes sense: Lillard is a confident shooter, especially given time, and Portland was without guard Wesley Matthews due to injury and Batum hadn't been shooting well because of his back.
Here, unlike in the past and even the super recent past, Lillard responded perfectly -- or near-perfectly -- by stretching San Antonio's defense just right to create scoring opportunities for his teammates.
"We started to blitz him in the fourth quarter because we weren't handling him very well," Popovich told Blazersedge. "He was smart enough to get rid of it, get the first open man and play with his teammates. That's a sign of an intelligent player."
Stretching a defense in these situations is a bit like blowing a bubble with gum. Blow too hard and it goes splat. Blow too soft and it fizzles. Blow just right and you're in business. Yes, I fully realize those last three sentences will make a great out-of-context quote to use against me in all sorts of embarrassing ways.
Anyway, if Lillard stretches too hard by passing out of the double team quickly, San Antonio's defenders, especially the big, are able to recover back into the paint and provide help defense. If Lillard stretches too soft by taking too long to make his pass, the shot clock gets eaten up, he potentially risks picking up his dribble and exposing himself to a turnover, or he gets baited into settling for a long, contested jumper if he can't find the open man.
Lillard, time and again, stretched the defense just right. He waited long enough to force San Antonio's big men to commit to him without waiting too long to get himself stuck in n tricky situations. He waited long enough so that his big men, LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson, could watch the Spurs' defensive plans play out and react accordingly, but not so long that he didn't hit them when they flashed open. He was decisive in his passing and not sloppy, panicky, early or late.
"Just get the ball out and let somebody else make the next play," Lillard told Blazersedge regarding his goal in the situation. "If two guys are trapping me, that means I've done my job by pulling them out of the play. That means we have four on three. If I get the ball out quick enough, that means we can capitalize on that advantage."
After Lillard re-entered the game with 8:32 remaining, Aldridge and Hickson combined to score the next eight Blazers points. Lillard registered no assists during the stretch, but he made the pass that led to the assist, drawing the attention, creating the interior space to work with underneath the high screen-and-roll and then allowing Portland's wings to find the bigs before the Spurs could recover properly. Aldridge and Hickson did well to finish the plays but Lillard started them, and they appreciated it.
"When they trap him, we [J.J. and I] flash," Aldridge told Blazersedge. "They have to either take him or myself. I thought Dame did a way better job of finding guys tonight. He found me on two or three. He found J.J. also. I thought that was big for us, him making that read."
Aldridge continued: "It's a part of growth for him and us playing with him. I thought tonight he was very calm with it and made the right reads."
"Just don't run away from the ball," Hickson told Blazersedge about his thought process when Lillard is walled. "Don't run away from the ball. Make myself available. If I catch it, make a basketball play. If I have a shot, shoot it. If I have someone open in the corner, it's going to be three on four on the backside. It's all about making basketball plays and taking what the defense gives you. ... Coach can draw up all the plays he wants to but when you're out there, you have to play off of instinct and make smart basketball plays."
Making smart basketball plays hasn't necessarily been a Hickson staple. Energy, yes. Second efforts on rebounding, sure. Quickly finding the open man on a four-on-three to best capitalize on the advantage? Not always. This time, he did very well. So well, in fact, that reading about his double-double -- 12 points and 12 rebounds -- on Twitter wasn't even that annoying.
"J.J. may have won us the game," Stotts said.
"I thought the bigs stepped up great," Lillard told Blazersedge. "We have an action, for when teams try to do that to me. It's hurt us some games because we weren't ready for it. Tonight we were ready to make that adjustment."
Lillard adjusted so well that the Spurs gave up on the strategy with a little more than two minutes to play. Now free to operate one-on-one, Lillard read the opportunity properly, drove in control into the lane, and finished the drive for his 28th and 29th points of the night, giving Portland a five-point lead. One minute later, Batum would put the game to bed.
"I'm not very surprised about Damian right now," Batum said. "I was surprised a few weeks ago, but no more for me."
Random Game Notes
- Announced attendance was 19,118. This was a loud and, at times, angry crowd, especially when multiple offensive fouls were called on LaMarcus Aldridge in quick succession.
- One of my favorite qualities about Aldridge, who finished with with 22 points, six rebounds, three steals and two blocks, is his disdain for flopping. Earlier this season, I was helping gather quotes for a colleague's story about Reggie Evans. Asked about the Brooklyn Nets forward, Aldridge rolled his eyes and said that he "didn't have a lot of good things" to say about Evans because his flopping overshadowed the rest. Spurs big man Tiago Splitter left Aldridge exasperated on Thursday, so much so that he called on the NBA league office to review the charge calls and issue a flopping warning to Splitter. "Tough calls," Aldridge said. "I definitely hope they look at those. They were tough calls. I definitely don't think that last one was [a charge]. That was kind of laughable to me... I like [the anti-flopping policy]. Hopefully they watch one of those [calls] and hopefully they enforce that rule."
- Before the game, Popovich looked at the baby blue shoes worn by TNT's Craig Sager and said: "That's a need for attention, don't you think?"
- I got a bunch of people pointing out that the TNT broadcast incorrectly identified Blazers president Chris McGowan as GM Neil Olshey when they showed him sitting courtside next to owner Paul Allen. TNT, for the record, Olshey is the one whose mouth is moving while McGowan is the one sizing you up like you're a spreadsheet cell.
- Popovich was also asked about arriving late to the game. He explained the Spurs' second bus had been caught in traffic and replied: "What, am I going to get some demerits?"
- More Popovich on Damian Lillard: "I think he's a wonderful player. His skills are obvious, but I like his demeanor as much as I like his skills. He really plays within himself and that doesn't mean he doesn't play hard. He's aggressive, he's not afraid of contact, but he's got a real fine demeanor and understanding of what's going on out on the court. He can shoot it and he can drive it and I think he works hard on D. He's a fine young player for Portland."
- Here's a great .GIF, via Twitter buddy @CJZero, showing Lillard breaking the ankles of Spurs guard Patty Mills. He did another GIF, this one of Meyers Leonard's athletic missed dunk.
- Huge congratulations to ESPN.com's John Hollinger for his new gig as Vice President of Basketball Operations for the Memphis Grizzlies. How cool is that? It goes without saying that he leaves huge shoes to fill at ESPN.com. I can't wait to see who they tap to fill them.
- The Blazers held a pre-game moment of silence for the victims of the Clackamas Town Center shooting and victims of other "senseless violence."
- In the first half, the Blazers did a nice job of attacking a mismatch for once, going to J.J. Hickson repeatedly when he had Matt Bonner defending him.
- The Spurs run gorgeous play after gorgeous play but I particularly liked a Tim Duncan lay-up that came after he faked a high screen-and-roll for Manu Ginobili, dove to the block, and then reverse pivoted to keep Luke Babbitt behind him, sealing him off for the easy bucket. Big man camp stuff right there.
- During halftime, the Blazers showed a highlight reel of the top plays from around the league and Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dion Waiters splitting Portland's defense before throwing down a massive dunk was on the cut. Come on, guys. You gotta edit that out, right?
- Speaking of editing something out, Blazers game ops swung big and totally missed with a Jared Jeffries "Christmas CD" jumbotron bit that showed the veteran crooning terribly to various pop songs. Totally bombed.
- That awkward moment when a father absolutely berates a referee, turns to his left ninety degrees, sees his four-year-old daughter near tears, and then gives her the "But you know I'm not a horrible person, I love your mommy" puppy dog eyes.
- Huge congratulations to Blazers assistant coach Jay Triano. I thought, for sure, that Nolan Smith frustrated me more than he frustrated anyone else in the world but it turns out Triano has everyone beat. During that disastrous (and thankfully brief) stretch of the fourth quarter in which Damian Lillard got his requisite breather, Smith was called for an eight-second backcourt violation. Triano was on his feet, punching the air as hard as he possibly could. Totally unfiltered and uncontrolled rage. Beautiful.
- Damian Lillard didn't want to call this his best game. He was wrong, but here's what he said: "I've played better games. Minnesota, I think I played a better overall game. Houston I think I played a better overall game. First game against the Lakers."
- Batum said that this was "maybe" Portland's best win of the season. Aldridge said it was "definitely one of the bigger wins for us this season." Stotts also hesitated when asked if this was Portland's best win. Emotionally, I can see the argument for the opener against the Lakers as No. 1. Quality-wise, it's no contest. Portland only has three wins over plus-.500 teams right now: Chicago, Minnesota and this one. Of the three, this was easily the best.
- Aldridge said that he thought some of his teammates were a little extra hyped for the TNT game: "I think Dame and J.J. and those guys were up. I don't care honestly."
- Batum on the state of his back after the game: "Bad. Bad. I'm glad we have a day off tomorrow. It's worse than ever. I couldn't stay sitting on the bench. I had to lay down or stand up."
- Wesley Matthews did not play because of his hip flexor and was on the inactive list.
- Page four of this week's Sports Illustrated is pretty cool.
- Luke Babbitt had 12 off the bench on five-for-10 shooting. You know it's a busy night when Babbitt has a season high and he can't make the recap until the final bullet point.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
Obviously it was a good win. We did a lot of good things. Probably one of our better games this year as far as start to finish. We didn't have a lot of lulls. As I emphasized with the team before the game, San Antonio is a team that you can't let your guard down on offense or defense. They take advantage of it the minute you let up. I thought for the most part we did a really good job of staying the course and staying in tune on every possession.
Obviously it was terrific. Two fouls early got him out of it a little bit. Played the whole second quarter. Like you see most of the year, he's pretty much unfazed by the foul trouble. He was able to play the rest of the game. I thought he did a nice job of changing up jump shots and drives. Seem like he was kind of taking what the game gave him. 29, seven and six, it was a good all-around game.
Lillard's Rookie of the Year candidacy
It's December. We've got 60 games to go. To have a win against San Antonio on national television is good for the team and good for everybody. We've got 60 games left. I think it helps. I think he's the best rookie in the league right now. The season is only one/fourth of the way through.
Pick and roll defense was good
For the most part. We broke down a couple times and gave up some lay-ups, but I thought we were really in tune with what we wanted to do with our different coverages. We changed the match-ups sometime, Nic was guarding Parker some. I thought Sasha did a good job on Ginobili. The big guys were very active on our coverages. The people who were not involved in the pick-and-roll did a nice job of protecting the paint and forcing skip passes and turnovers.
Well, I don't know. Beating the Lakers opening night was really nice. I don't think anyone saw that one coming. That was good. Overtime wins, coming back from 18 on Charlotte, that was a pretty impressive win. Beating a team in San Antonio that's the best team in the West, maybe the best team in the league, it was probably the best just because we played the entire game. We didn't have to come back. We were steady and played well throughout.
Nicolas Batum hitting big shots despite struggling
I thought Nic made good plays. He didn't necessarily shoot the ball well but he made a lot of good plays. The three he hit on the sideline out of bounds was not an easy shot, but he had confidence to take it. He likes coming over the right shoulder and he went up with confidence.
Game means more for Batum playing against Tony Parker
I don't know if I got that sense, but I know he's good friends with Parker, Ginobili and de Colo and the [French] national team and all that. There probably is something special for him in this game but I didn't necessarily think he played any differently. I think it meant more but I don't think it affected his play that much.
Two recent wins -- importance to rest of season
I referred to our Cleveland game, going into our Toronto game. I didn't think the Toronto game was an ugly game. I was glad to win that game. You go through the course of the season and you don't know which games you look back on. Maybe we look back at this one, maybe we don't. There are turning points of the season, good and bad, that you look back in retrospect and point to. I don't know until some time passes.
Luke Babbitt and Meyers Leonard
We've been talking to Meyers about his rebounding. I'm glad he got the eight rebounds. He really put a lot of effort going to the boards. We needed him to do that. It takes a lot of energy to do it as often as he does. Luke was ready. Because of the game we were able to play him at four. Not only did Luke being on the floor making shots help, but it also helps Damian out in his penetration. It opens up the court a little bit. Just like San Antonio, when they go small, it's difficult to defend pick-and-rolls and I thought Luke provided the same thing when he was at the four.
J.J. Hickson down the stretch
J.J. may have won us the game. The rebound he got with a minute and a half, that extra possession was big. The running hook in the lane, I hadn't seen that one yet. That was a big play. The extra possessions he got us in the fourth quarter really made the difference. Whether he tipped one back, it was a team effort obviously. When you win games like this, you look at a lot of people. A lot of people did good things. Sasha's difference was good. Nic changing up our defense. I thought everybody had a contribution.
Contrast Batum's late three that was criticized against Spurs last time versus this three
Different situation. Timeout play. It wasn't set up for an iso. Different circumstances.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter