The Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs met in a high-energy bout on Friday night, trading blows like prize-fighters scrambling after a title and glory. Momentum swung several times during the evening but neither team could land more than jabs and the occasional solid hook until the fourth quarter. The Blazers opened up San Antonio's guard with repeated LaMarcus Aldridge body blows down the stretch then Wesley Matthews put them away with a stunning flurry of three-pointers, sending the former champs to the canvas with a 109-100 loss.
You could tell at the outset that both teams were hyped up for this contest. Each side ran the ball up the court seeking the quick score. If you blinked after any rebound you missed the initial offensive set-up. When the early shot wasn't available each side probed the other's defense, either directly through penetration or by reversing the ball to shooters. With Tony Parker and Damian Lillard driving, LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan setting up mid-range, plus Kawhi Leonard, Marco Belinelli, Nicolas Batum, and Wesley Matthews lining up from distance you could almost swear that they'd installed a gigantic mirror at halfcourt and each team was playing their own reflection. The quarter was far from perfect, especially in relation to the amount of energy spent. The Blazers committed turnovers and failed to attack the boards strong. The Spurs drifted too easily to the perimeter when their drives were working. But you barely had time to breathe, most every shot looked like it had a chance to go in, and the two sides retreated to their respective huddles after one tied at 27. Wow.
The second quarter looked to be a worry for Portland initially as their bench failed to show up. Patty Mills started the period baking Mo Williams like a Shrinky-Dink. But the Spurs got cursed by a combination of collapsing Portland defense and unkind rims. They got inside and collected reasonably good, albeit crowded, looks at the hoop but almost all of them trickled off. This hastened the retreat to their more-familiar jump-shooting ways, a development which favored the Blazers. San Antonio couldn't hit from range either and those mid-range jumpers put them right in Portland's parlor. The Blazers were no great shakes on offense themselves but they shut off the flow of turnovers from the first period and that was enough to keep them afloat. Portland repeated their 27-point effort while the Spurs managed only 22 and the Blazers led by 5, 54-49, heading into intermission.
With both teams familiar with the benefits of starting and finishing quarters strong it seemed like the advantage in this otherwise-close contest would belong to whichever team could make a surge coming out of the halftime locker room. That team was Portland...by a mile. The Blazers walked onto the court with confidence and proceeded to shish-kabob the Spurs with the two-pronged fork of Aldridge and Matthews. Aldridge scored on Boris Diaw on the strong side while Matthews canned jumpers on the weak. Meanwhile the Spurs looked like somebody had spanked them with a wire hanger at halftime. They hesitated and double-clutched on multiple shots, almost cringing as they released. Nothing much went in and before you could say, "A pound of barbacoa" the Blazers were up 10. This quickly became a dozen as Gregg Popovich, perhaps irked at the officials and perhaps trying to break his team out of the blahs, drew back-to-back technicals during a timeout and got ejected. If motivation was the...errr...motivation, it worked. Belinelli assisted to Duncan and then canned a three to cut the 12-point lead to 7 and then Manu Ginobili started walking on water, scoring 18 straight points in the final 5:18 of the period. Most of Ginobili's damage came from beyond the arc, a facet missing from Portland's game in the third. But the Blazers played tortoise to Ginobili's hare, relying on Aldridge to provide a diet of mid-range shots over, and spins around, Diaw or Duncan or whomever the Spurs sent against him. The blizzard of points from the Spurs was plenty nasty, as was losing control of a game after the opponent had been badly shaken, but at the end of the quarter San Antonio still only led by 1, 78-77. After all of the back-and-forth, this was the same even matchup it had been heretofore.
That almost changed as Portland's second unit got a cumulative case of Spazmoid Fever trying to give the starters a breather at the top of the fourth. The first 2 minutes ran generically with a C.J. McCollum 20-footer as Portland's only tally. But between the 10:08 and 8:33 in the fourth the Blazers drew six whistles and committed 2 turnovers on top. Mo Williams and Thomas Robinson each drew a pair of fouls while Robin Lopez collected one, most of which were wide open on the court for all to see, nearly criminally negligent. It almost seemed like the bench defenders tried to apply energy and instead ended up having seizures. "I'll just try to poke the ball and GABBAGABBAGABBAGABBAFOUL!!!!!"
Um...what the heck just happened there?
Besides putting the Spurs in the penalty instantaneously the parade of fouls looked to put Terry Stotts on the edge of blowing a gasket...partially at the refs, partially at his own guys, partially at the universe in general. He reinserted Aldridge for Robinson which steadied things down. Lillard dished a couple dimes, Aldridge hit a couple shots, normalcy returned to the defense. The Spurs scored a couple times as well, Duncan and Belinelli still doing damage, but San Antonio never got rolling in the period. Worthy of note: the Spurs attempted exactly zero foul shots after putting Portland in the penalty with more than 8 minutes remaining in the game. Their attack was slowing down and they didn't have the juice to put the Blazers in peril. Meanwhile Aldridge continued his methodical dissection of San Antonio's defense, keeping the Blazers on the positive end of a narrow lead. That all ended when Matthews returned to the game. While his teammates were keeping even with the Spurs' scoring Wes hit 3 long balls in the final 3:45 of the game. San Antonio had no answer. The farther out they shot the more they missed, like the boxer looping wild punches in the 15th round. They stood dazed, hands at their side as Matthews delivered headshot...headshot...headshot...and the fight was over. Portland wins by the exact margin of those lightning triples, 109-100.
The impression that this game was played while staring in a mirror is confirmed by the boxscore. Not much separated these teams. They each got 20 foul shots, 21 assists, 38 points in the paint, and hit 8 three-pointers. Offensive rebounds went 8-7 for Portland as did turnovers, 11-12. San Antonio got more steals but the Blazers scored more points after TO's. The only serious gap was Portland's 16-3 edge in fast break points but as fast as the offenses were setting up the designation could be dubious. It's not like the Blazers were getting unopposed dunks all night while the Spurs were plodding. The Blazers shot better from the field, 48% to 45%. The Blazers also shot better from the foul line, 19-20 against 16-20 for San Antonio. That amounted to 3 more field goals made plus 3 more free throws made.
Despite momentary flaws the Blazers also played slightly better defense than the Spurs did tonight. San Antonio was a hair slower closing on shooters than Portland was, perhaps due to scheme and perhaps due to athleticism or age. Portland wasn't up in the grill of the Spurs all night...San Antonio still got plenty of open shots, many of which they missed. But the Blazers contested more than the Spurs were able to and that edge probably proved enough. This might be one of the few games this season where you can say the Blazers' extra efforts on defense throughout the game paid off. That edge had to come from somewhere, else this game could have gone to centuple overtime.
Two greater themes emerged from this game:
1. If you had any doubt that the Blazers are serious about staking their claim in the West, this game showed it. San Antonio wanted it. The Blazers took it. They didn't take San Antonio's best shot but they took as good as they gave and ended up on the positive side on the road against a good team playing with motivation. The Blazers will not back down from anyone. It's time to put to rest the question of whether the Blazers are "for real" or "this good". They've justified everything they've done.
2. If you doubt in any way, shape, or form that the Blazers need more help off the bench to sustain that success through--and especially beyond--the regular season this game should have answered that doubt. It wasn't even Portland's worst bench night of the year. Mo Williams scored 13. Then again he took 13 shots to do so, hitting only 4, committing 3 personal fouls, getting burned on defense, and he was by far the best player off of Portland's bench tonight. San Antonio was missing Tiago Splitter, Danny Green, and got Matt Bonner's nose broken on a spastic T-Rob head bump before Bonner could contribute and their bench still outscored Portland's 40-21. Yes, most of that was Ginobili and yes, the Spurs' bench is the highest scoring in the league, but that's the point. Those reserves do exist and you cannot trust Portland's bench players against them on a nightly basis, especially in the critical games one hopes Portland ends up playing. Every time he substitutes it's like Coach Stotts is tossing a live grenade on the floor and you don't know whether it's going to explode on the opponent or end up friendly fire. The correct answer is, "Probably both." Acknowledging that the Blazers have staked their claim to playing at an elite level one must also acknowledge that the difference between success and failure at that level is both razor thin and subject to manipulation by talented opponents who know what they're doing. If the Blazers leave that much uncertainty to be played with it's a sure bet that somebody along the line will figure out how to turn it to Portland's disadvantage.
Following his usual Texas pattern, LaMarcus Aldridge was brilliant tonight. He made hash out of the older, slower defenders San Antonio offered up, shooting 11-22 and scoring 26 with 13 rebounds. He was the only Blazer unaffected by quarter, circumstance, or defensive pressure. LaMarcus just did LaMarcus and it was good.
Damian Lillard was not as steady as Aldridge but when he hit he left a mark. His greatest success came from the foul line where he was a perfect 8-8, insurance against his 6-16 shooting night and 1-5 from distance. But Lillard started the game going inside, made the Spurs think twice about leaving the lane unguarded, and kept Tony Parker occupied enough chasing him that Parker never controlled the game. Lillard also had 8 assists against 2 turnovers, a good night. 21 points, 5 rebounds too.
Wesley Matthews was like a migraine headache tonight. He didn't show up all the time but when he did...OUCH. He shot 6-7 from distance with as pure of a stroke as we've seen in a month. He scored 24 and, as mentioned before, put the Blazers ahead to stay.
Nicolas Batum had some rare defensive slips in this game, one of his weaker efforts in that department. Those included turning his head at the wrong time, getting to rotations late, and not moving his feet against drivers. But he was more aggressive looking for his shot early (though that faded) plus he had 9 rebounds and 7 assists with no turnovers. 3-6, 9 points.
San Antonio took Robin Lopez out of this game but at least they had to spare a guy to do it, freeing up Aldridge for rebounds. A nice pick and roll with Batum was the highlight of the evening. Lowlights included 5 personal fouls and 3 total rebounds.
Mo Williams has already been mentioned. You like his 13 points in the abstract but oy, it was a rough way to get them.
Thomas Robinson had a block and 3 rebounds plus a couple nice offensive plays (inlcuding a nice pass) in 10 minutes but his energy also went into 3 personal fouls and the usual unpredictability.
Joel Freeland showed real effort on the boards tonight, grabbing 5 boards in 13 minutes. It seemed like he was trying to re-establish his presence there. He also had 3 personal fouls, missed 2 shots, and got swamped on defense though.
C.J. McCollum hit a couple shots but defensive troubles plagued him too.
The Blazers turn around and play Dallas tomorrow night.
Pounding The Rock will be pounding their foreheads against a wall and wondering what their team has to do to get a win against the Blazers.
Jersey Contest will resume after the Dallas game.