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Portland Trail Blazers vs. San Antonio Spurs: Where Did Portland's Swagger Go?

The Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs have been locked in a battle that isn't really a battle. Where did Portland's swagger go and what does its absence mean for this team's future?

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

I spent most of the day today talking about the Blazers-Spurs series, reflecting on Portland being down 0-3, answering the ubiquitous question, "Dude, what happened?!?"

Blazer's Edge readers will already know most of the answers to that question from various articles we've published in the last week.  Portland's All-Stars aren't shining.  The Blazers can't deal with screens, can't utilize their center outside of the lane, and are having trouble hiding Damian Lillard on defense.  The Blazers let the Spurs get offensive rebounds and get out on the break.  The Spurs have been able to single-cover the Blazers, forcing them into covered shots.  Portland's bench was shaky before they lost Mo Williams and now it's completely unreliable.  The Spurs were ready for this series while the Blazers were not.

Then, after rehearsing all of those, somebody asked the billion-dollar question:

What disappoints you most about the series so far?

After pondering for a minute, I decided that the answer was, "None of the above."  Losing to the Spurs is no big deal.  Even being down 0-3 isn't wholly unexpected.   How the Blazers are losing is another matter.  Game 2 looked pretty much like Game 1.  Game 3 looked pretty much like Game 2.  There have been minor exceptions--timing of runs, switching defensive assignments, and the like--but the feel of all three games has been similar.

That feel can be summed up in six words:  The Blazers haven't put up a fight.

If anything, Portland's performance has gotten more chaotic, less coherent, as the series has progressed.  Just when you'd expect the Blazers to step up and start correcting, they fall back and acquiesce.  It's like the Blazers lost themselves somewhere in the middle of Game 1, Half 1 and have never recovered.

If the strutting, composed Portland Trail Blazers who just played against Houston met the cringing, dodging squad we've seen against the Spurs, half the state would implode from the swagger/anti-swagger discharge.  If the milquetoast frontcourt of this series had shown up against the elbow-swinging, body-blow-rocking Rockets, the Blazers never would have made this round.  When Dwight Howard went up with the ball near the bucket, Portland took his head off.  When any random Spurs guard does the same, it's a timid and-one.  When the Blazers needed a big shot against Houston, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard vied for the honor while Nicolas Batum held his hands out in case they needed an outlet.  When they need even the smallest shot to start a mini-run against San Antonio, nobody has a clue.  Expected to come out with the ferocity of a cornered mama bear in Game 3, the Blazers showed all the ferocity of your average Muppet and all the intensity of a finely-aged Brie cheese.

We can advance multiple theories for this performance.  They're tired.  They were celebrating the last series instead of focusing on this one.  They're just happy to be in the second round.  San Antonio has more experience.

Personally I think the Blazers are stuck in a negative-feedback loop.  San Antonio anticipated their strategies...strategies that their personnel didn't allow them to change.  The less success they had, the more flustered they got.  The more flustered they got, the more they abandoned their offense, rushing into predictable panic solutions.  The more predictable and panicky they got, the more easily San Antonio could anticipate and defend them.

Even if all those things are true--all of them combined--any team entering the playoffs will find plenty of obstacles in their path.  You construct your team and execute your plan to avoid as many of those obstacles as possible but you'll never evade them all.  Talent being equal (which usually happens as you approach the apex of the bracket) the difference between winning and losing boils down to some teams meeting those obstacles head on as a challenge and other teams finding reasons to lose therein.  Situations like this might not reveal your potential but they do reveal your instinct.

A few months ago I heard a military trainer talk about the challenges of developing the next generation of soldiers.  He observed that in the old days when somebody got popped in the nose they usually popped back...a reflex developed from schoolyard tussles and bar fights solved with fists.  When you hit the new kids in the face their first reaction is to freeze up, stunned.  Their second is to cover up.  Apparently Mr. Instructor has to spend a decent part of boot camp getting his trainees over that response.

The Blazers are undergoing their own boot camp against the Spurs.  In three games they still haven't unfrozen, uncovered, and popped back.

Forget point spreads and Spurs grandeur and who has led for how many seconds of this series.  Those won't have much impact on the Blazers' future.  Unless changed, the personality and instincts they've shown as a team this week will.  They'll have a chance to develop to the point that fewer opponents can smash them in the jaw so effectively, but in four playoff rounds you'll always find one.  Until the Blazers react to this kind of situation with more fight than flight they'll remain at a disadvantage against opponents who have adopted and mastered the attitude.

Is this the whole equation?  No.  All of those things mentioned in Paragraph 2 above still apply.  But this is part of the equation as well...a part the team will need to address.  A good first step would be showing some of that long-lost intensity and swagger in Game 4, even if it is a supposedly lost cause.  Then somewhere along the line, either through trade or development, the Blazers need to integrate 1-2 intense, imposing, don't-give-a-rip, "won't take no for an answer" players into this lineup and nurture that spirit along with the teamwork, chemistry, and all the other intangibles we love about this team.

If you want to get far in the playoffs, you can't lose control of games, let alone lose control of yourselves the way the Blazers have in this series.  You don't let anybody take the floor away from you.  If they've got the talent to do it anyway, you make them pay dearly for the privilege and remember your name.  If you can't win 4 out of 7, you at least want the opponent looking back and saying, "That was the toughest matchup on our road to victory."  Even more than the 3-0 deficit, the Blazers remaining so far away from that point--and making no tangible progress towards it even in the most critical of circumstances--is the most disappointing development of this series.

Hear some of this teased out on audio with the Phil Naessens Show.  Obviously I appear with Chad Doing at The Flight 750 pretty often (Yay Winwoodophiles!) and some other venues too, but I like Phil's voice and style and Portlanders probably don't get a chance to hear him often, so I like linking his interviews.  Have a listen if you care to.

--Dave / @DaveDeckard