The San Antonio Spurs defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 118-103, in Game 3 at the Moda Center on Saturday, taking a 3-0 lead in their Western Conference semifinals series.
Making a list can be a helpful process, but it's never a perfect solution in an of itself. Our brains crave order, and a list can help accumulate a group of necessary tasks, rank them in terms of priority, and arrange them in an efficient manner. Sticking with a list can provide regular positive feedback in the form of a check mark next to an accomplished item. Every computer program, smart phone and tablet comes equipped with untold methods for creating and tracking lists; you could probably make a list of the best list-making apps if you wanted to and, now that I think about it, someone surely has already done that.
Kindergarten teachers and adult psychologists alike see, and regularly preach, the benefits of list-making. A list can focus attention, reduce stress, help with time management, and ensure accountability. But lists aren't fool-proof. If you turn to a list and ask for help with item No. 6 on the list, that list will just look back at you, in a mocking monotone, and let you know that item No. 6 remains unfinished. If you realize that you won't have time to complete all of the items on your list before a deadline, your list will hit you with upturned palms and a shoulder shrug. You're Cliff Robinson, and the list is always Michael Jordan. If new tasks pop up while you are completing items on your list, the only solution the list offers is to make the list longer, prolonging the process and potentially requiring a reordering or reorganizing of what's left.
There often comes a moment, under the weight of a too-short ticking clock or a too-tall mountain of tasks, when we turn on our lists. Who among us hasn't incredulously repeated a GPS navigation's instructions back to the automated voice when the dang thing made you take a wrong turn? Turn left on Mulberry Street... you idiot. If I did that my car would be in a lake. Who among us hasn't, in the heat of a contentious phone call, ripped off the next five very important things that need to be done, as a way to end a debate and release some rage? I need to pick up the dry cleaning and mow the lawn and buy food for next week and perform surgery on the cat and call the cable guy and and and ... so don't hassle me with whatever it is you think is important. Who among us hasn't crumbled up or deleted an impossibly long list in hopes of escaping its clutches? Bleep this. I'll figure it out tomorrow.
Whether it becomes an object of scorn, or a conversational weapon, or a haunting memory, a list can certainly have a dark side, something the kindergarten teachers and adult psychologists tend to gloss over. A list is better than chaos, after all, it's just not always perfect.
The Blazers have reached the point -- after three straight double-digit losses to the Spurs -- where they have turned on their lists. You absolutely cannot blame Portland for this, given how well San Antonio has played, and they have done so without a single player losing his composure. But they've turned nonetheless.
The talk is no longer about specific areas of needed improvement. The talk is no longer about positives to build upon. The talk is no longer about statistical benchmarks that could lead to victory. Instead, the Blazers' lists have become vehicles for the expression of respectful frustration, as a way to explain how thoroughly they are being taken apart by the defending Western Conference champions.
"They move the ball, they share the ball," Blazers guard Wesley Matthews said, beginning innocently enough before diving into his checklist. "[The ball] is not going to stick in anybody's hands. Houston might have been a little easier to defend because you knew where they were going to go. This time, Marco [Belinelli] comes into the game, they run floppy action for him. They run a hammer action for Patty [Mills]. They run angle screens for [Manu] Ginobili, they run angle screens for [Tony] Parker. They've got so many weapons."
Not included in that quote are the sighs and the exasperated voice inflections.
There are just too many items on this list, and too many items that the Blazers simply haven't been able to handle simultaneously. They haven't been able to cover Parker's pick-and-rolls while also paying full respect to San Antonio's shooters and covering the popping big men. They haven't been able to defend for a full shot clock while also clearing the defensive glass. They haven't been able to maintain the effort and intensity that's needed to stop the Spurs' attack for a full first half.
Damian Lillard, much like Matthews, found himself jumping head first into a list that dragged on longer than he probably anticipated.
"Being a championship-level team, a team that just played a [Mavericks] team that runs a lot of the same stuff we run, understanding what it takes to get it done, they've done a better job," Lillard said. "I think we've really competed, fought hard, we haven't given in. It's a handful to be able to guard guys off pindowns, guard the pick-and-roll. Push the ball back at them and then they push it back at us. Screen after screen. They execute really well, use the full shot clock a lot of times. It's tough. There's a lot we could do better, along with all of those things."
He stopped there, but the sense was that his list was even longer than that.
The "wave after wave" talk that was the central piece of Portland's Game 2 reaction was back again for Game 3, and for good reason. San Antonio won the first quarter by 10 points and then won the second quarter by 10 points. Through three games, the Spurs have won the first half by a cumulative 195-130 total. They have won all six first-half quarters individually, including five by double figures. They have scored at least 28 points per quarter in all six quarters, while never conceding more than 26 points.
On Saturday, San Antonio scored a 40-6 bench scoring advantage over a Portland team that was without Mo Williams, due to a groin injury. The Blazers received scoreless performances from Will Barton, Thomas Robinson and Earl Watson, the only reserves to log at least five minutes. Through three games, the Spurs now hold an astonishing 140-43 bench scoring disparity, more than tripling the output of Portland's reserves. Everyone knew it would be bad, but that is unspeakably bad.
"They never stop playing," LaMarcus Aldridge said, and you could hear the list formulating in his head, just like all the others. "If you guard their first option, they've got a second option. If you guard their second option, they've got a third option. That's one of the biggest things I've learned about this team. They're persistent. They're not going to change. They're going to run their stuff over and over and over. Once you mess up, they're going to make you pay. They ran their offense, if we tried to cheat something, they ran a backdoor. We give up an offensive rebound, they make a big three. They're consistent, they play championship basketball."
Lest you think Matthews and Lillard were venting over matters that were specific only to Portland's perimeter players, Robin Lopez was right there singing the same tune, just in a different note. The Blazers bigs were able to square the rebounding numbers in this game, and they actually outscored the Spurs on second-chance points. But they couldn't contain Tony Parker (29 points and six assists) in the paint, they couldn't defend Manu Ginobili's drives without fouling (14 points, including 10 free throws), they couldn't prevent the occasional back-breaking bucket from Tiago Splitter (nine points and seven rebounds), and they were only able to watch and hope that Tim Duncan (19 points on 8-for-18 shooting and seven rebounds) missed his mid-range jumpers.
"There's no question, they were watching that series against the Rockets," Lopez said, seguing without warning from a list of problems San Antonio poses to Portland's defense into a list of problems San Antonio poses to Portland's offense. "They saw how we had success against [Houston], and they changed it up. I've noticed defensively, I've only guarded Tim and Tiago on the block maybe once each. They aren't throwing the ball into the post. They are moving the ball around offensively. [They're] trying to disrupt us, packing it into the key, and running us off the three-point line."
By now, the sheer volume of the items placed on these various lists has gotten so large that it's probably time for a condensed master list of Spurs' strengths, advantages and headache-inducing attributes: offense, defense, specific play types, specific play styles, preparation, playoff experience, consistency, mental sharpness, strategic adjustments, clock management, and depth.
This is what the Spurs do: they whip you so thoroughly that you can agonize all night and still not come up with all the different ways that they beat you.
So much of what happened in Game 3 was covered in Games 1 and 2. Parker was sensational, the Spurs' depth advantage was critical, and Aldridge (21 points on 23 shots) and Lillard (21 points on 21 shots) were held well enough in check that Portland -- even when it narrowed the gap to seven points in the second half -- never truly threatened. The Blazers couldn't get the timely stops, they couldn't get momentum-swinging shots to fall, they didn't play crisply enough to generate premier looks, they didn't protect the ball well enough to keep. Here we go, again, making these damn lists.
Three games was sufficient time for Portland to process the strength of its opponent, to understand that the deck is badly stacked in this series, and to realize that San Antonio has absolutely no plans of easing up on the gas pedal.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich refused to even say that he was "happy" when told of his team's 25-for-25 night at the free throw line. Here he was -- presented with perfection and the most free throws without a miss in a playoff game since 1989 -- and he chose to hassle a reporter about the question, rather than admit satisfaction. In his mind, being "happy" with 25-for-25 in a blowout would be akin to surrendering a shot at 26-for-26 or 30-for-30 or 60-for-60 sometime in the future, when he might really need it.
To circumvent a temper tantrum, a kindergarten teacher might tell an overwhelmed student: "Don't worry about what Bobby is doing, just mind your own manners." To appease an over-worked patient, a psychologist might gently recommend: "Don't dwell on the external factors. Control what you can control."
Portland -- drowning in its unfulfilled lists and staring straight at the possibility of a four-game, season-ending sweep -- found itself at that point on Saturday night.
"Our sole focus is on [Game 4]," Matthews said. "Forget everything else, forget Game 1, forget Game 2, forget tonight. We've got to get Monday. We're a prideful bunch, and we've been through a lot together. We owe it to ourselves, to our fans to not go out like this."
Lillard added: "It's pride. We don't want to come out here and get swept. ... We're not going to lay down. We don't have that in us."
No one got chippy with a media member, and no one ducked out early. No one mocked the GPS voice. No one made excuses, rejecting even the notion that fatigue is revealing itself in these blowouts. No one listed their burdens in the imaginary telephone fight.
By turning on their lists, though, the Blazers more or less disposed of their original goals. By opening up about their many shortcomings they indirectly admitted that they are in too deep here. Too many tasks, too many opposing weapons, too little time, too little ammunition.
Replacing the original list? A new, shortened list, one that is composed entirely of items that the Spurs cannot influence.
"We're going to show our character, show our pride and come out and play our asses off on Monday," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said.
Everything this team has done so far this season, including in this series, suggests they should be able to go 3-for-3 on that list, even if so many of their previous check marks will go unused.
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced at 20,321 (a sellout).
- The Moda Center crowd began the game so amped up that there were actually competing "Dee-fense" chants in various parts of the arena. Everyone was trying to help!
- You guys have heard me rant about fans leaving games early for years, so you can imagine how I felt about people hitting the exits during a Western Conference semifinals game. If we're lucky, we get to see a team play as well as the Spurs at this stage of the season once every five years in Portland. What possible activity in the state is better than experiencing greatness in person, even if that greatness comes at the expense of your own team. OK, I've convinced no one. Rant over.
- Somehow, showing an inspiring video of Damian Lillard's three-pointer against the Houston Rockets on the JumboTron had absolutely no impact on the first-half momentum. Who would have guessed?
- If I had to boil down the entire series into one sequence, I might choose a pair of plays from the first quarter. After struggling to get open shots throughout the series, Damian Lillard unleashed a series of beautiful crossovers to lose Tony Parker, nailing a step back move and then draining the jumper. His patented facial reaction and bounce was in full effect. The bench was buzzing as the Blazers took a rare lead. Just 17 seconds later, Tim Duncan drained a mid-range, face-up jumper and showed no visible reaction as he ran back down the court. The Spurs would lead for the rest of the game. That is why they are always referred to as a "well-oiled machine." Ruthless.
- As you surely noticed in the write-up above (and can see in Terry Stotts' comments below), the Blazers were quick to refer to the Spurs as "champs" or "championship-caliber."
- Here's more from Wesley Matthews (team-high 22 points on 6-for-14 shooting, four rebounds, two steals) on that subject: "They're making us pay for every mistake that we have. They're capitalizing. That's what champs do. We've got to take care of the ball a little bit better."
- Damian Lillard on the lessons from the first three games: "It's just growth. Understanding what it takes to get it done, not only one round, but three or four. We're just seeing them put on a clinic on how to execute, how to guard every option of our offense and to be consistent at it. I don't think we've been consistent enough. I think we're competing really hard. It comes down to being able to play smart also and I think they've done a better job of that."
- More Lillard respect for the Spurs: "They're a well-oiled machine. Constantly moving, making good passes, defending really well, everything is just flowing for them. It's like they've seen this movie before. They've done it. A lot of it has to do with us and Dallas being so similar. I think that helps too."
- Lillard on how the Spurs are defending him so well: "Everything I do, they're crowding the area. There's not really a lot of things to do, other than pull up for a jumper with a lot of guys there, get to the rim there's a lot of guys there, it's really tough. They're crowding space a lot more than they did during the regular season."
- Lillard on the Blazers sticking to their defensive guns when it comes to the pick-and-rolls: "The way we've guarded their pick-and-rolls is the same way we've guarded it all season and [Tony Parker's] been knocking down mid-range jumpers. That's the lowest percentage shot in the league. We're contesting it. They're doing a great job of setting screens, we've been living with it all season, so why change now?"
- LaMarcus Aldridge (21 points on 9-for-23 shooting, 12 rebounds) on the Spurs managing their minutes so carefully during the regular season and what that allows them to do in the playoffs: "They understand. [Gregg Popovich has] done a great job of understanding that their level of play from regular season to postseason has to be 10 times better. Every guy on that team that comes on the floor understands Pop. Pop wants this level of play, you know your job, there's no confusion as to what your job is. If you don't do it, you don't play. They're definitely more locked in, more into schemes, it's easier when you play one team seven times to guard guys better, but they're definitely more locked in during the postseason."
- Tony Parker on Game 4: "It's always the hardest game. The close-out is the hardest. I think our team is ready. We understand that we went all the way to seven against the Mavericks. It will be nice if we can get it, but we know Portland is going to come out [strong], they're not just going to let down. They're going to play with a lot of motivation. They have nothing to lose. I'm sure they want to win a game in front of their home crowd. So we will have to match their energy and be ready. As a team, I think it would be great if we can get it and get some rest."
- Gregg Popovich on San Antonio's big first-half leads: "The only thing worse than [being up 20 at the half] is probably being down a lot. It's hard to keep a lead in the NBA. [Our] third quarters have not been good. They've come after us."
- Another really strong night from Nicolas Batum (20 points on 8-for-13 shooting, nine rebounds, seven assists, two steals) that goes for naught.
- Before Game 3, John Schuhmann of NBA.com did a pretty thorough breakdown of Tiago Splitter's success defending Aldridge. The post is still totally relevant, given Aldridge's 9-for-23 shooting night.
- Celebrities in the crowd included Jimmy Goldstein, Russell Wilson and Carrie Brownstein.
- Following the "snake in the locker room" fiasco before Game 2, the Blazers handed out some stuffed snakes to make light of the situation. Casey Holdahl of Blazers.com got a good picture of one here.
- Before the game, the Blazers had live music out by the fountain in front of the Moda Center with a whole carnival-style set up with booths for fans to make signs, paint faces, take pictures, etc. Even two hours before the game, a good-sized crowd had gathered.
- Longtime Blazers writer Wayne Thompson, who was covering the team before I was born and still makes it out to just about every single game, told me on Saturday night that he couldn't remember a team playing better defense or playing more intelligently than this Spurs team. San Antonio committed one turnover against 12 assists in the first half.
- The Blazers handed out red and white "We are Rip City" shirts. The shirts were laid out in such a way that they spelled out "We Are Rip City" in white with the red as the background. It looked really cool entering the arena, but it might have been better to just go with the solid red out once the game started.
- So many good signs: "May the Enforcer be with you," "I May be Blind but I still Believe," Lillard is a beast," "Make it rain," "Let's BBQ the Spurs," "No Parker Zone," "This is our year, Blazers believer," "Rip City Messes With Texas," "Play Like it's 1977," "Golden Girls Love Blazers," "Rock it Robin," "Our Town, Or Team, Our Time," "Don't Mess with Mr. O," "T-Rob is a heart Throb," "All my ex's live in Texas," "I've got the hots for Terry Stotts," "I skipped prom for this," "Portland: Where 0.9 seconds happens," "Oregon is Proud Again," "You can't rattle us," "Stomp the Spurs," and "Dame could make Reebok look good."
- I gotta say, as a native Oregonian, I love a good Reebok joke.
- This guy had a great sign, and a pained, guttural moan when Patty Mills opened the fourth quarter with a three-pointer.
This guy is ready for Blazers/Spurs Game 3 pic.twitter.com/hvv1SSRFfD— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 11, 2014
- As Dane Carbaugh pointed out here, there was a large soccer-style tifo display in the 300 level.
- After the rough second quarters, booking a good halftime show was a must. The Blazers delivered with an amazing group of back-flippers. One of the participants, who appeared to be close to 300 pounds, rattled off something like 10 straight back flips. Remarkable, physics-defying work. The last time my foot was above my head I accidentally pushed the front brake on my bicycle while riding downhill and I wound up on the concrete dazed, embarrassed and glad I didn't break any of my lungs or anything.
- Rob Mahoney of SI.com suggests the Blazers throw out their standard approach and get crazy during Game 4.
- Nothing doing with Chalupas/McMuffins. Anyone leaving early should be denied his or her free coupon.
- Happy Mother's Day, Mom. Enjoy the flowers and remember to read the post, not just the comments.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
In some ways, this is very similar to Games 1 and 2. Obviously we get down big in the first half, play hard, compete in the second half but the hole is too big. It's disappointing to have a game like this. The crowd was great. We made it interesting in the second half but against San Antonio, if you put your guard down they take advantage of it. They're good because they have a lot of options, everybody is ready to play, everybody is a threat. When the opportunities are there, they take advantage of them.
It is frustrating. You've got to play through the frustration. It's part of the game, part of the playoffs. We're playing a championship-caliber team, you've got to play through that. It's frustrating to get down 20 in the first half. You look at the scoreboard and it's a hole. I think in all three games, we get in the hole, we keep competing. As a coach, that's all you can ask.
Inexperience is a factor?
Playoff experience? That's an easy answer. I think they're a good team and it's experience -- you can chalk it up to experience, I don't know. Experience is valuable.
Watching tape, have they played better than this?
Well, Game 7 against Dallas. This is as well as I've seen them play all season. But Game 7 against Dallas, they came out of the gate and they haven't stopped since.
What do you tell guys, down 0-3?
We're going to come out and have a great effort on Monday night. That's the most important thing. We're going to show our character, show our pride and come out and play our asses off on Monday.
Second half: Nicolas Batum on Tony Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge in pick-and-pops, those help you going forward in Game 4?
I thought Nic did a very good job in the second half. Most likely he'll start on Parker on Monday. Monday is going to be a long game. L.A. has had opportunities in the pick-and-pops in the previous games. We're not going to change a lot of what we do. L.A. has been in pick-and-pops all season, he'll be in those same situations.
I don't think we can force it. When the plays are there, they've got to be ready to make shots and make plays. I don't necessarily run a lot of plays for those guys but I think when we play in flow and make plays for each other, being ready to knock down shots, being ready to drive to the basket, get out on the break, I think our tempo has been good. I think that favors some of our reserves.
We're giving up a lot of points. Our defense needs to be better. You can look at the bench production as not having enough points, but we give up 60 in the first half and 70 in the first half in Game 2, if we defend better, we get the rebound and get out and run, it takes pressure off our halfcourt offense.
Damian Lillard's shooting struggles -- Spurs defense or confidence?
I doubt it's a confidence thing. Damian is a confidence player. He's going to keep taking the ball to the basket. He's going to look for his threes and look for his shots. Some nights the ball goes in, sometimes it doesn't. I don't think he necessarily changes the way he plays, he took threes, he takes the ball to the basket, he shoots mid-range, he does a little bit of everything.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter