Wednesday, May 14
Update: Mo Williams will not play tonight.
The Blazers return to San Antonio tonight to face the Spurs in Game 5 of their Western Conference semifinals series. After losing three straight games to open the best-of-seven set, Portland convincingly won Game 4 Monday night at home, leaving the series at 3-1 in San Antonio's favor.
After roughly two-and-a-half games of primarily defending Spurs point guard Tony Parker with guards Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews, Blazers coach Terry Stotts started Game 4 with wing Nicolas Batum assigned to the six-time All-Star defensively.
Many will say it was Batum's length that slowed Parker, who finished with 14 points on 6-of-12 shooting Monday night, series-lows for both scoring and field-goals attempted. Batum, on the other hand, downplayed that storyline, telling the Oregonian his familiarity with Parker's game allowed him to slow down his fellow Frenchman. Both play on the French national team, and Batum considers Parker his "big brother."
Either way, though, the defensive adjustment worked, and Parker was held to just one assist on the night after averaging more than eight per game the previous three. Batum finished with 14 points and eight assists of his own. And, as Dave Deckard mentioned in his post-game recap of Game 4, Batum could crash the boards fairly uncontested by Parker as he finished with 14 rebounds.
Some might point out that Parker still got the shots he wanted, they just didn't go in, and that his teammates were bricking wide-open shots. That's partially true; After attempting 24, 19 and 20 shots while being guarded mainly by Lillard and Matthews in Games 1, 2 and 3, Parker got up just a dozen field-goals on Monday night when defended almost exclusively by Batum, making half of them. His teammates weren't all exactly ice-cold from the floor, either: Forward Tim Duncan shot 6-of-13, wing Kawhi Leonard hit five of his 10 shots, guard Patty Mills went 4-of-7 from the field and backup big man Boris Diaw finished the game shooting 6-for-8.
Maybe Parker had a lack of energy, but Batum still deserves plenty of credit for knocking the 13-year veteran off his game, even if just for one night. Stotts will almost undoubtedly stick with the same strategy tonight.
Portland also switched power forward LaMarcus Aldridge onto San Antonio forward Tim Duncan on defense, putting center Robin Lopez on Spurs center Tiago Splitter. The Blazers defended the paint much better with Lopez allowed to stay closer to the basket, limiting San Antonio to 44 points in the middle.
With Batum on Parker, Stotts was forced to put Matthews on Leonard, who finished with 11 points, a series-low for him. Lillard was successfully hidden on defense by guarding wing Danny Green, who has conveniently gone through a second-round shooting slump -- he's made just 32.1 percent of his field goals and 22.2 percent of his threes this series -- finishing with nine points on 4-for-11 shooting in Game 4. Green's "backup," guard Manu Ginobili, is also struggling in the West semis, averaging 8.5 points on 26.3 percent shooting from the field and 16.7 percent from deep. As long as Green and Ginobili keep struggling with their shooting, Stotts should be able to continue cross-matching on defense without too much negative blowback.
Even though Lillard sank 11 of his 21 attempts and scored a series-high 25 points in Game 4, reserve guard Will Barton proved to be the offensive spark the Blazers needed to get over the hump and win a second-round game. He scored all but one of his seven made baskets in the paint, showing a knack for finishing at the rim and racking up 17 points.
For stretches, Barton shared ball-handling duties with Batum and guard C.J. McCollum as Stotts rested Lillard for about five minutes at a time with no true point guard on the court and backup guard Mo Williams out with a groin injury. With the Blazers pushing the tempo and quickly initiating the offense without a dominant primary ball-handler, they were able to score 62 points in the paint by employing the ball movement they became known for early in the regular season.
Williams is likely going to suit up for tonight's game, but you have to figure Stotts will stick with Barton as one of the first players off the bench after his offensive contributions proved so effective Monday. Backup forward Thomas Robinson -- who hadn't scored more than two points in any of the three games prior -- finished with nine points (on 4-of-7 shooting) and 5 rebounds. Coupled with Barton, Robinson finally helped Portland's reserves make a showing in this series after being decimated in Games 1, 2 and 3 by their San Antonio counterparts. Again, it seems unlikely that Stotts will mess with the formula that got him a Game 4 win, so expect to see plenty of Barton and Robinson with minimal time for forwards Dorell Wright, Victor Claver and center Joel Freeland off the bench tonight.
Aldridge did a better job of not forcing shots on Monday, finishing with just 19 points but making half his 16 shots. Sure, it'd be nice to see Portland's All-Star power forward have a truly dominant game against the Spurs, but if he can pick his spots and keep the ball moving otherwise, the Blazers can still find ways to win with others contributing. Aldridge is still Portland's go-to scorer on the low block and the team's best mid-range option, but the Blazers should continue whipping the ball around and attacking from all angles instead of just watching their star big man launch contested jumpers over competent defenders in Splitter, Diaw or Duncan.
Portland put in its best effort of the series on the glass in Game 4, out-rebounding San Antonio 53-46 but more importantly limiting the Spurs to just eight offensive rebounds, while pulling in 14 of its own. Lopez had six offensive boards alone, while Batum, Matthews and Barton contributed two each. Part of the reversal of fortunes for both teams on the glass can be attributed to the switch up of defensive matchups -- Batum on Parker, Lopez on Splitter -- but energy and effort also played a part against an older San Antonio frontline.
Batum went off for 14 total rebounds, Lopez got a dozen of his own and Robinson, Barton and Matthews all had at least 5. That effort clearly needs to be repeated tonight, and it would be nice to see Aldridge pull in more than the four rebounds he had Monday night. Still, if he's defending Duncan or Diaw further from the basket while Lopez is inside taking up space and fighting for boards, Aldridge's lack of contribution on the glass might not hurt the Blazers too much -- at least, it didn't in Game 4. The energy needs to be there from Lopez and the rest of Portland's secondary rebounders, though, because the Spurs have plenty of frontcourt depth to utilize.
Is Parker likely to score just 14 points and dish a single assist again tonight? Can Barton be an offensive force off the bench while Batum dominates on both ends of the court? These are questions any rational Blazers fan would ask after Portland's season was extended by at least one game Monday night when San Antonio's superstar point guard struggled and Stotts got some unlikely help from a bench that has been otherwise lifeless so far this series. The answers remain to be seen.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is a wizard at making adjustments and putting his team in position to win games, so there will likely be a wrinkle or two thrown into San Antonio's offense tonight to keep the Blazers on their toes. It's almost a guarantee the Spurs will come with a better effort in front of their home crowd, too.
History is certainly not on Portland's side -- 109 teams have previously tried to come back from an 0-3 deficit in a playoff series and 109 have failed -- but the Blazers got a burst of confidence Monday night when they finally took a game from the Spurs.
Passing the ball well, rebounding on both sides of the court, pushing the tempo and playing more team-oriented offense should be priorities tonight as Portland once again faces playoff elimination at the hands of San Antonio. Barton, Robinson and Williams all need to show up tonight off the bench, and a repeat performance of Batum's inspired defense on Parker -- not to mention the job Matthews did on the much-larger Leonard and the effort Lopez and Aldridge put in against the Spurs' deep frontcourt -- will be important tonight as San Antonio looks to finish the Blazers off.
Another spirited performance from Portland could allow the team to steal a game from the Spurs and head back to the Moda Center with some momentum. The Blazers need to take this series one game at a time, though, and will need to match their Game 4 execution on both ends of the court tonight if they want to keep their season alive.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter