The San Antonio Spurs defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 104-82, in Game 5 at the AT&T Center on Wednesday, advancing to the Western Conference finals and eliminating Portland from the 2014 playoffs.
A twenty-something goofball with his face painted black and white bobbed around the court after the final buzzer, holding a sign with three simple words. Who knows why life brought him to this place and time? Perhaps he found out that a girl he had a crush on was part of the spirit team. Perhaps his college buddies had all joined the squad together. Perhaps he realized this was the easiest and cheapest way to get to see the unbelievable Spurs play on a regular basis. Whatever the reason, here he was, jumping up and down, waving his sign like a picketer, urging the crowd to cheer the home team off the court after clinching its third straight trip to the Western Conference finals.
"Thanks for coming," the sign read. Depending on how you wanted to interpret it, those three words were a dollop of honest-to-goodness Texas hospitality, one final pleasantry aimed at maxing out season ticket renewals, or a polite goodbye to yet another vanquished foe, a Blazers team that came, saw and got exhaustively conquered.
Thanks for coming, Blazers. Do you need us to call you a cab? Do you know how to get to the airport? Check out time is noon.
This was a harsh dismissal, one made that much harsher by -- of all things -- a hamstring injury to Tony Parker. Had LeBron James exited the court and not returned against the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday, one shudders to think how the Miami Heat would have held up. And when Parker -- a fringe MVP candidate -- departs? The ready-and-waiting, productive-all-series Patty Mills steps into the second half starting lineup, refusing to miss a beat and helping to blow open a game that was separated by just seven points at halftime.
A bit of bad injury luck that would have shifted a series for most teams didn't impact the Spurs in the slightest, they kept on rolling. What's more, the Blazers, having already been beaten soundly three times in the series, expected nothing less.
"We heard that [Parker] might not come back, but we didn't think anything about taking advantage because Patty has played great all series," LaMarcus Aldridge said. "He played great against us during the regular season too. He's not Tony Parker, but he's been good against us. You really don't get no break. We heard about [the injury] but it didn't change anything."
You really don't get no break against the Spurs, from tip to buzzer. Afterwards, there are handshakes, hugs, compliments and best wishes, but there are no breaks while the result is still to be determined.
San Antonio made two different runs during the second-quarter, but Portland hung around despite not playing its best basketball. Their grasp finally slipped for good in the third, as Kawhi Leonard came up with two steals that he turned into dunks. Those plays had it all -- positioning, instincts, burst, confidence, flair, fury, grace -- and they reinforced the lesson the Blazers have been talking about for the last few days: you simply can't let up against a championship-caliber team. If you're not fully aware, a game and a series and a season can slip away in the split-second it takes Leonard to jump a passing lane or to hound a ball-handler.
"It's the little things that win," Wesley Matthews said, slouched in his locker for one final interview. "It's the hustle stats, the rebounds, the sustaining of energy and the edge for 48 minutes. There's no let up. Every time we let up they made us pay."
San Antonio was clinical again in this one, turning 18 Portland turnovers into 20 points and finding 33 fast break points. A cold-shooting Game 4 was a distant memory, at least after a slow start, as the Spurs knocked down nine three-pointers, with many of them coming in transition situations.
"They certainly outplayed us in this series," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "You look at their 12-for-15 [shooting] in fast break opportunities, in Games 1 and 2 and tonight, they were very efficient in their opportunities. Not only were they efficient, they would throw a three on top of it for good measure."
Leonard (22 points, seven rebounds, five steals) hit in transition, Mills (18 points, two assists, three steals) hit in transition and Danny Green (22 points, nine rebounds) hit in transition, delivering knockout blow after knockout blow until Stotts finally decided that it was Meyers Leonard Time.
"We made some mistakes and they got hot," Robin Lopez said. "Danny Green just dribbled the ball up the court, he was 0-for-3 [and then he hits it]. What are you going to do about that? Pick him up a little bit earlier, I guess, but when stuff like that is falling..."
His voice trailed off. The Leonard/Mils/Green trio represented San Antonio's top three scorers; the Spurs had handled the Blazers, taking a 28-point lead in a do-or-die game, with just 25 combined points from the Big 3 of Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. Even though Ginobili had another so-so night, the Spurs' bench outscored the Blazers' bench 40-8 on Wednesday, running the series margin to an astonishing 220-77.
The Game 4 hiccup aside, this was domination from start to finish. San Antonio claimed its four victories by an average of 19.5 points.
"We have to feel this loss, feel this defeat, feel every point of the 20 points that we were losing by," Matthews said, after posting 14 points (on 5-for-10 shooting) and three rebounds. "It's a bad feeling. When it's over, it's over. When you put so much effort into the offseason, the training camp. Eighty-two games is a long season. For it to just end like that, it's tough."
Throughout the series, especially after the blowout losses, Portland sounded a bit awed by San Antonio's depth and execution, even as they held out hope and continued to compete. That sentiment came through loudly and clearly following the final defeat, a game that saw the Spurs commit just six turnovers against 24 assists, while the Blazers finished with 18 in each category.
"[This series] definitely shows us the quality of basketball that we have to get to if we want to be on their level, to be one of these elite teams to have a chance to win a championship," Aldridge said. "They definitely showed us about moving the ball around. They made five or six passes every possession. It just makes your defense tired. It makes guys make mistakes. They definitely showed us where we are trying to go."
Even if it became clear early in Game 2 that the Spurs were going to prevail in the series barring some miracle, the ending to this 2013-14 Blazers season was particularly sudden. Part of that was the general fairy tale nature of the campaign as a whole. Part of that was the roller coaster high from the Houston Rockets series. Part of that was the final momentum boost from the Game 4 victory. Part of that was the non-stop, every-other-day schedule. Part of that was the Blazers' insistence that they could spring an upset.
"Any time you lose, it's an abrupt end," Matthews told Blazersedge. "There's no gradual loss, even when we got down 3-0, most teams would have mailed it in. We didn't. We came out with the edge in Game 4. We came with confidence, we got on that plane, we were confident. We took the court, we were confident. We truly believed that if we got this game, we were going to get this series. That's what hurts."
A team that expertly dodged and weaved from "reality" all season finally had no place to hide. Duncan delivered key buckets and rebounds. Leonard dropped jaws with his open court plays. Mills inspired smiles with his total lack of conscience. The other parts -- so many other parts -- chipped in, particularly on the defensive end, as San Antonio prevented any of Portland's players from putting together a signature night.
That included Aldridge, who finished with a team-high 21 points (on 10-for-21 shooting) and 10 rebounds. After a majestic series against the Rockets, Aldridge averaged 21.8 points and 10 rebounds against the Spurs while shooting just 41.7 percent. He topped 30 points just once, needing 25 shots to get there, and he spent a huge portion of the last 10 days shaking his head in disbelief as shots rolled out or rimmed off.
"I don't know [what San Antonio did differently defensively]," Aldridge said. "Maybe you can tell me. I got the same looks. I actually got to the rim more in this series than the last series. I just missed easy shots. I have to be better for us to win. I definitely didn't play well this series [and] it was tough for us to win games."
The Spurs were bound to win this series if they could slow Aldridge or Lillard, and they wound up limiting both. Lillard hit just four three-pointers over the five games, and he never topped 25 points. San Antonio controlled him by patrolling the three-point line like a Neighborhood Watch program, forcing him to find his offense in the paint among the timbers. There is no question that his second season will be remembered for his highlight heroics against the Rockets, rather than his slog through the muck against the Spurs, but Lillard put the two series together when describing his takeaway from the season.
"We got our first taste of it as a group," said Lillard, who finished with 17 points (on 7-for-18 shooting) and 10 assists. "Being able to get into the playoffs, win a series, and have a team that's been here before show us what we can do better. It was a great experience for our team. ... Nobody picked us to be here. We're not settling for a moral victory but we're proud of what we did this year."
That pride was particularly clear from Stotts. This year marked a number of important firsts for the coach: it was the first time he's guided a team to a winning record, the first time he's hit 50 wins, and the first time he's won a playoff series. Although he mostly passed up a chance to discuss his personal gratification, he spoke at length about a group that he was clearly fond of.
Back in October, it was Stotts who said that this was the most talented team that he had coached, and that his goal was to make the playoffs "and more." Seven and a half months later, he sounded as satisfied as any coach could reasonably be following a season-ending blowout loss.
"It was a special year," Stotts said, repeating that phrase twice. "We weren't expected to be in the position that we were in the regular season. We weren't expected to win the first round. It was a special year. I thought every one of our starters had career years. The young guys got better. We fought through adversity during the season, made a strong push at the end of the year. There were so many positives about this season.
"One of the tough things about losing in the playoffs is that you end on a loss. I think it's important to look back on what we were able to accomplish this year. We got a taste of the playoffs, a taste of success and it's something we can build on going into next season."
It was a thoughtful -- and not unexpected -- eulogy.
Moments later, the Spurs opened up their locker room door to the media, and roughly half of the reporters who were listening to Stotts began filing out of the room. Noticing the commotion, Stotts paused for a moment and dryly quipped, "Thanks everybody for waiting on me."
There were a few light chuckles, but none of the media members reversed course. They had a job to do, and the story was in San Antonio's locker room, where Parker's hamstring needed to be dissected, where Duncan's brain needed to be picked, where Leonard's hands needed to be ogled, where Mills' big night needed to be recounted, and where the questions would soon turn to the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder.
The playoffs are a harsh, humbling experience in that way. Stotts sat alone at the table in front of a thinning crowd, understanding that the best coaching job of his career was officially over. He took a few more questions, but the lights could have been turned off right there.
Those exiting media members carried audio recorders, microphones, still cameras, cell phones, video cameras and shoulder bags as they moved on from the Blazers.They didn't carry signs, but if they had, the words surely would have read: "Thanks for coming."
Random Game Notes
It's officially over now pic.twitter.com/UUFRKVRvvs
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 15, 2014
It's a wrap at the AT&T Center pic.twitter.com/bKgAy44FQ9
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 15, 2014
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
I'd like to congratulate the Spurs, their organization, coach Pop and their staff. They've done a terrific job all year. They showed after a tough series with Dallas, they came out and played extremely well this series. I think that's a compliment to all the years they've been here, the program they've developed. They certainly outplayed us in this series.
Tony Parker goes out, Patty Mills steps up
They ended up not really taking a lot of threes. I thought their guys came in, Patty Mills, Danny Green made some threes, Kawhi Leonard made some threes. They made them timely. That was one of the things in the first three games, they would just build on the momentum plays, get out in transition. Those guys let it fly with a lot of confidence. Both in the first half and in the second half, those runs really took a toll on us.
Reflect on the season now that it's over
I think we've had a very good year. I think this was a special year. It was a special year. We weren't expected to be in the position that we were in the regular season. We weren't expected to win the first round. It was a special year. I thought every one of our starters had career years. The young guys got better. We fought through adversity during the season, made a strong push at the end of the year. There were so many positives about this season.One of the tough things about losing in the playoffs is that you end on a loss. I think it's important to look back on what we were able to accomplish this year. We got a taste of the playoffs, a taste of success and it's something we can build on going into next season.
Turnovers and fast break points
Their transition in their wins, in Games 1 and 2 and tonight, transition points were a big factor in the series. I think the thing about it was that they were so efficient. You look at their 12-for-15 in fast break opportunities, in Games 1 and 2 and tonight, they were very efficient in their opportunities. Not only were they efficient, they would throw a three on top of it for good measure.
Message to locker room
I think it's too early to look to next season. I think the most important thing is to realize the disappointment we feel now, coming up short, to realize that this was a very good year. The fact that the Trail Blazers hadn't won a series in 14 years, we accomplished a lot this year. I think it's important, and I told them, that we understand that and appreciate what we did. Enjoy the summer, but also know that we can get better and look forward to next season.
Spurs media leaves media room to go to Spurs locker room
Thanks everybody for waiting for me.
Defense on LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard
San Antonio plays great team defense. Their second unit really picks up the pressure. Patty Mills comes in and disrupts, Kawhi Leonard with his length, their young guys, even though they are a veteran team, their young guys change the momentum and pace of the game at both ends of the court. You want to give San Antonio credit for their defense but I don't think we necessarily played as well as we could have either. You have to give them credit for that.
LaMarcus Aldridge never got a rhythm
Well, he's a three-time All-Star, he had a career year. He took it to another level already. He had a great series against Houston. You can talk to him about how he felt, but I thought what I liked, his leadership throughout, he kept competing, you don't always have it every night. His leadership grew throughout the year, I thought he showed it in the playoffs as well.
Personal gratification from this season
I don't know about personal, but as a coach when the team plays well, you guys have career years, you see a group, a young team come together and exceed expectations, I don't know if it's necessarily personal satisfaction but as a coach you want the team to do well. You feel good for the organization and the team. Obviously I want to do my job and do it well. It's more gratification for the team than personal gratification.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter