The San Antonio Spurs defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 116-92, at the AT&T Center on Tuesday, taking a 1-0 lead in a Western Conference semifinals series.
Two mental images played side-by-side on repeat during this one. First, a Greek God wielding a bottomless satchel of lightning bolts, hurling electricity across a city as its denizens quiver in fear. Second, a fed-up whistleblower revealing a series of internal documents to a spellbound reporter, whose wheels start turning as he realizes he has just been handed the story of a lifetime.
On any given night, the Spurs can humble you with their fearsome brilliance and they can expose your weaknesses to the entire world with their diligence. Tuesday brought both sensations, on an endless loop, for a Blazers team that entered the night thinking it was ready for primetime and departed with a full taste of their opponent's power and preparation.
"Tonight was one of those nights," Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge said, taking the beating without making excuses. "It was a, 'Welcome to San Antonio.'"
As the Spurs piled up 65 first-half points on 60 percent shooting on one end and conceded just 39 points and 33.3 percent shooting on the other, it felt like they were producing a retroactive "How-To" video manual at the request of the Houston Rockets. Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute could have been narrating this one, bringing up a series of PowerPoint slides with rhetorical questions for Houston to self-analyze its failures.
Why does the ball keep sticking? Why doesn't James Harden attack the pick-and-rolls aggressively? Why are the Blazers point guards allowed to hide defensively? Why is shooting an open mid-range jumper a religious sin? Why are defensive rotations being blown? Why aren't perimeter defenders hugged up tightly on Portland's shooters throughout the game? Why is Aldridge allowed to look so comfortable for two straight games before anyone really does something about it? Why can't a lead over Portland remain a lead, or even grow into a bigger lead?
Those shortcomings cost the Rockets dearly in the first round and they were wiped off the face of the planet by the Spurs in Game 1. Name a Portland weakness -- its bench, its reliance on passing to set up good looks, its inexperience, its soft spot pick-and-roll defense -- and San Antonio picked at it and picked and it and picked at it. Name a Portland strength -- the dynamic scoring duo of Aldridge and Damian Lillard, a well-balanced and hard-working starting five, three-point shooting -- and San Antonio drastically limited its effectiveness.
In true Spurs fashion, they worked as hard as possible to craft a victory that looked as easy as possible, and they left totally unimpressed with their own excellence.
"You have to handle a win the right way and you have to handle a loss the right way, or it comes back to bite you," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "This one is over with. We will take a look at the film and see if there are things we can improve."
"That was as well as I've seen San Antonio play," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said, his cheery pre-game confidence replaced by a bit of a stupor.
Film study will confirm that Tony Parker was in maestro mode, finishing with a game-high 33 points (on 13-for-24 shooting) and dishing nine assists. Just as Portland had made a point to punish Harden defensively early in the first round, San Antonio was clearly encouraging Parker to enter full-on attack mode from the get-go. He was relentless in pick-and-roll situations, which is no surprise, and his jumper was spot on, which generally pushes him into "impossible to single cover" territory. The last time I was in San Antonio, I watched in awe as Kevin Pelton devoured at least 12 pounds of Filet Mignon in one sitting at an all-you-can-eat Brazilian steakhouse. That was Parker here, insatiable, probing in transition, darting through traffic, wheeling around to use unexpected screens. He went back for seconds, and thirds, and fourths, and fifths.
"He had a Tony Parker game," Stotts said. "He is probably their most important player. That's probably an understatement. With their offense, the ball is in his hands a lot, and that makes a lot of problems. Everybody feeds off of that."
More than half of San Antonio's first-half field goals were assisted. As the game wore on, the Spurs regularly passed up open -- or fairly open -- layups or driving shots for wide open three-point looks. The quickness and sharpness of those reads seemed to catch Portland off guard; it was a clinical performance that produced 21 assists against 12 turnovers and 7-for-16 three-point shooting. Marco Belinelli -- who had an excellent game in Portland this year but never cracked double figures in a first-round series against Dallas -- scored 19 points (on 7-for-9 shooting) and hit three three-pointers.
"Our ball movement was good," Parker said. "Dallas made a conscious effort to stay on our shooters, so tonight was a little bit different. I made a conscious effort to find Marco, and I talked to coach and we really wanted to find Marco in this series. I was trying to call his number and look for him a lot. I think half of my assists were to him tonight."
San Antonio's readiness to pop and hit from from mid-range -- especially Parker, Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills -- put Portland in a position where they simply couldn't cover all the bases. Had the scoring margin been closer -- the Spurs led wire-to-wire and got up by as many as 29 points -- the damage certainly could have been even worse.
Not to diminish the Spurs' many scoring successes, but the Blazers' one-night identity crisis was really centered on their own offensive struggles. Rarely has this Portland team been so thoroughly taken out of what it likes to do; rarely has scoring, or even generating good looks, seemed this difficult during the 2013-14 season. The Blazers didn't hit a three-pointer until the fourth quarter, and they had only attempted nine through three quarters. Their four made threes were the second-fewest of the season; even with some garbage time chucking, their 16 three-point attempts lagged well behind the 26 per game they averaged against the Rockets.
Attribute those lagging numbers to attentive Spurs defense, some confidence-shaking misses early, and too much one-on-one decision-making. The patience and ball movement that have been offensive hallmarks all season gave way to frantic, go-it-alone efforts.
"We've played good offense throughout the Houston series," Stotts said, as if reminding both the media and his team. "The four games against San Antonio in the regular season, we had good offensive games. Our offense and execution has to be better."
Helping to muck things up was Tiago Splitter's individual defense on Aldridge, which encouraged mid-range shots and generally kept Aldridge out of the paint early. Portland really got cooking against Houston when Aldridge was able to pummel smaller defenders and establish himself in the low post, but that didn't happen in this one until the game was already out of hand. Aldridge didn't have a point in the paint until well into the second quarter, and he was just 6-for-17 at halftime. As Portland's only consistent source of offense all night, he did well to stick with it, finishing with a team-high 32 points (on 12-for-25 shooting) and 14 rebounds. Nevertheless, he understood that Portland was functioning on San Antonio's terms, rather than dictating.
"They play your plays, they knew what we were going to do," Aldridge said. "They tried to deny guys on certain sets. They tried to force guys to their weak hand. They did what good teams do."
The depth disparity between the two teams -- San Antonio has depth, Portland doesn't -- requires big nights from both Aldridge and Lillard, and Game 1 proved to be a frustrating one for the Blazers' All-Star point guard. He shadowed Parker possession after possession, only to watch shot after shot drop; on the other end, he had a week's worth of rim-outs and unfriendly rolls in the first quarter alone, and he was never able to get things going after that. Most notably, though, he attempted only one three-pointer all night, a season-low number that was a product of San Antonio paying his range plenty of respect with their defense.
"They played great defense," Lillard said, after finishing with 17 points (on 6-for-15 shooting), four rebounds and three assists. "They were scrambling around, they were physical and there wasn't a lot of free and easy buckets for us."
A make-no-mistake whipping like this one left Portland reaching for positive spin: Wesley Matthews pointed out that the Blazers won the second half, even if that fact carried no relevance; Lillard focused on his makeable shots; Aldridge framed the loss as the Spurs simply taking care of homecourt like they were supposed to; and Stotts pitched this as a matter of San Antonio playing its best game while Portland suffered through an off night.
The Blazers didn't appear demoralized or intimidated after their worst loss since an embarrassing drubbing by the Charlotte Bobcats more than six weeks ago. The cramped visitor's locker room was quiet but not depressed, and Portland generally seemed buoyed by memories of its recent strong play.
This evening stands as a quintessential teaching moment: the teams only get better, the challenges only get harder, and the margin for error only gets smaller the further you go in the playoffs. It took the Spurs all of 3:28 to build an 8-0 lead, wiping away any hope for carry-over momentum from the Rockets series and setting an early baseline quality of play that the Blazers can't reasonably expect to match.
With Game 1 in the books, Portland goes to bed both humbled and exposed, knowing that San Antonio will need to come back to earth for this to become a competitive series, and understanding that their own list of needed improvements is a mile long on both ends. After a finish to remember against the Rockets, this was a start to forget, immediately. Unfortunately, the Spurs don't allow the luxury of a short-term memory; learn from your failures and find ways to counterpunch, or they will keep drilling you until there's nothing left.
"That's a championship team," Lillard said. "They're the best team in the West, the No. 1 seed in the West, and they played like it."
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced at 18,581 (a sellout). The Spurs handed out black signs (pictured here) before the game and they gave out white balloons to the fans behind the Blazers' hoop as the game wore on. The balloons kept popping throughout the second half and I kept flinching like I was ducking a fire fight. Maybe I'm on edge because my hotel is within spitting distance of The Alamo.
- Video highlights right here on NBA.com.
- San Antonio's crowd is excellent. I noticed a number of Blazers fans on Twitter grumbling about Spurs fans for various reasons, mostly because they were getting on the referees during a blowout. Those feelings, I think, amount to a little alter-ego envy, as there are so many similarities between the two markets, the fan bases' respective love for their teams, etc. Spurs fans chant for Tony Parker as MVP, just like Blazers fans do for LaMarcus Aldridge. They get on the refs as enthusiastically as Blazers fans do. They salute a fine effort from a role player like Aron Baynes, just like Blazers fans go nuts for Thomas Robinson on his good nights. They shower Manu Ginobili with love at every turn, just like Blazers fans did for Brandon Roy.
- The other thing that stood out to me about Spurs fans on Tuesday was how deeply Gregg Popovich's perfectionistic instincts are shared by the entire arena. It's hard not to chuckle any time Popovich calls a timeout to stop a 4-0 run or to chew out a player over a missed defensive assignment, just to prove a point. His team has been among the league's best for nearly 20 years and he does his absolute damndest every single night to prevent any sort of slippage.
- I happened to be seated at the end of a media section with an elderly lady fan seated directly to my left. Throughout the first half, she cheered made baskets, but she absolutely lost it whenever a Spurs player missed an open shot. She slammed both of her hands into her lap in frustration (hard!!) on multiple occasions, even as she carefully poured beer into a plastic cup for her husband during timeouts. She would mumble under her breath any time an open cutter didn't receive the ball (which, obviously, wasn't that often). The very worst thing would be for a fan base with such a consistently great team to get spoiled by the success, or to take it for granted. The best thing, then, would be to fully invest in the team and to continue to demand perfection, no matter the opponent or score. Hats off to her, whoever she is, for embodying that ideal.
- Old friend Ryan White has a nice reflection on Damian Lillard's game-winner against the Rockets if you would prefer to pretend that Game 1 didn't happen.
- I did an extended interview with OPB's Think Out Loud previewing Blazers/Spurs and discussing Game 6 against the Rockets. One of the topics touched on was the total defensive shift that would be required from series to series. I expected a rough adjustment, but not this rough.
- There weren't too many signs in the arena -- or at least not that many that made it onto the JumboTron -- but the best was "Rip City Meet Win City."
- The halftime show was a game of "Simon Says." I'm not sure I've ever seen Dwight Jaynes happier than he was during the show. "I love a good game of Simon Says," he declared with a wide smile.
- The Simon Says host, of all people, provided a little bit of bulletin board material for the Blazers, making a comment during his act that went something like: "The Spurs are destroying the Blazers." The line predictably drew cheers. When the Simon Says guy is getting digs in, you know it's a rough night.
- LaMarcus Aldridge took a game-high nine free-throw attempts and the feeling in the arena, without great access to replay, is that he was getting really favorable treatment.
- Popovich let off a one-liner before the game about how he planned to stop Aldridge: "Hope he trips on his feet."
- The biggest surprise of the night came from the play of Baynes, a seldom-used reserve center who played just six minutes and was held scoreless during the series against the Mavericks. His contributions were all hustle, as he scored 10 points and grabbed seven rebounds while staying affixed to the basket area. First Troy Daniels, now Baynes.
- Popovich on Baynes: "We wanted another big just because we don't want to end up overplaying Tiago [Splitter], Boris [Diaw] and Tim [Duncan]. It gives them a little bit of a break if we can get some minutes out of Aron. He fit better against them than he did against Dallas."
- Popovich and the Spurs coaches wore Dr. Jack pins to honor former Blazers coach Dr. Jack Ramsay. Popovich: "Dr. Jack was someone that is very special in Portland. The Portland guys brought these pins for Jack and we are all wearing them in his honor and in his memory. He was an icon in the business. A teacher, a kind man and somebody that we all respected so much. We want to continue to show much we all loved him."
- Damian Lillard and a number of other Blazers insisted the team was ready to go mentally before the game, even though they got behind so quickly so early in the game. "I think we were awake to start," Lillard said.
- LaMarcus Aldridge on the Spurs setting the tone: "They did what championship teams do. .. Most of the guys on the team haven't even been in the second round and they've won championships. They've been here. I think they definitely came out and they let us know how it's going to be."
- San Antonio's bench was guaranteed to roll in this series but a 50-18 advantage (which could have been worse if not for garbage time) is ridiculous, and even more ridiculous when you consider Manu Ginobili didn't make a shot and finished with just two points. Either that gap needs to narrow considerably, or all five Portland starters will need to contribute efficiently. There's really no other option that will produce a favorable outcome for the Blazers. A 3-for-12 night from Nicolas Batum or a 2-for-6 night from Wesley Matthews might have been OK against a Rockets team that didn't go deep into its bench, but not here.
- Aldridge on the Spurs' depth: "They've been good off the bench all year. Their system is pretty big time, they plug in guys all the time and guys excel in their system. Pop is really picky about guys who even come here. Any guy on the team can score or play in their system and we understand that. That's our challenge. Everybody is going to be better next game."
- The Blazers have done so well throughout this season in preparing for what comes next and handling the ups and downs. Matthews admitted that the Blazers finally hit some water that was deeper than they expected: "[The Spurs] knew the magnitude of the game. We knew the magnitude of the game but we've never been here."
- Both Matthews and Lillard said they expected Portland to stick with its defensive coverages that encourage mid-range shots. Matthews: "You almost live with mid-range shots. Statistically that's the toughest shot in the game. The contested mid-range shot. You'll take that. Fight a little bit harder to get off the screens, stunt a little bit more. We've got to come up with loose balls, not give points in transition and second-chance points."
- You can die with those mid-range shots against this Spurs team, too.
- Lillard on what made it especially tough to cover Parker: "I thought they did a great job of changing angles on the screen." No doubt. Few players put a defender through the ringer over the course of a possession quite like Parker. You can defend three pick-and-rolls well and he can still squeeze a good shot for somebody out of the fourth one.
- There were no Chalupa giveaways when the Spurs hit 100 points. I honestly think that our nation's obesity rates would show a noticeable increase if the Spurs had given out free fast food every time they hit 100 points in recent years. Eating Taco Bell or McDonald's three times a week for six months straight year after year just isn't a good formula. Then again, that's where these Blazers are headed for during the next few years, so maybe I should stop talking.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
The first half was not what we were looking for. San Antonio really came out with a lot of energy and aggressiveness. THey were the more aggressive team at both ends of the floor for the whole half. I like the way we came out in the second half. We need to come out of the gates a little better. That's as well as I've seen San Antonio play.
Defending Tony Parker with cross match-ups
I wasn't apprehensive with the cross matches. I thought Wes did a good job on Parker in the second half. It was a lot of things. San Antonio is not necessarily an offensive rebounding team but they got a lot of second-chance points at the half. For us to only have nine assists is not our style of basketball. We missed some easy ones early that took us out of sorts. Our offense never really quite got on track. That led to some defensive breakdowns, defensive frustrations. Across the board, we were outplayed in the first half.
Differences from Houston to San Antonio
We've played San Antonio, we know they're a different style. Certainly Houston and San Antonio are different teams, different strengths and weaknesses. We knew that going in. I wouldn't say that was the reason why we got off to a poor start.
We need good offense. We played good offense throughout the Houston series. In our four games against San Antonio during the regular season, we had good offensive games. Our offensive execution has to be better. Obviously we need to shoot the ball a little bit better. The three-ball is important to us, it's important to our game. You can go through this game at both ends of the floor, and there are things we need to shore up on both ends.
He had a very good game. He had a Tony Parker game. He got into the paint, I thought he set the tone early. He made his mid-range, he got to the paint. I think he's probably their most important player, that's probably an understatement. Their offense -- the ball is in his hands a lot, he creates a lot of problems and everybody feeds off that.
Build on second half?
I thought we came back with better focus, more aggressiveness. Sometimes it's hard to judge when you're down 20 the whole second half, if that's realistic or not. We rebounded the ball a little bit better. We've got to look at the film and see certain things.
Spurs bench advantage
Their bench came in and did a terrific job in the first half. I think they were like 10-for-14 off the bench in the first half. They came in and made an impact. They relied on their bench all year. More than anything else, it allows them to rest their guys. Their bench is important to what they do. We can't lose track of [Aron] Baynes on rebounds, he made a lot of hustle plays, that we can't let happen. We did a good job on [Manu]Ginobili but they're all going to come back and play just as hard the next game. We've got to do the same thing.
Damian Lillard's offensive struggles
I don't know. Dame struggled a little bit but I thought our whole team struggled. As a team, we rely on each other. Go back to nine assists -- we rely on each other to get shots and I credit San Antonio's defense on the whole. They made our catches difficult, they trapped Damian's pick and rolls, they were very aggressive. We had a hard time getting clean catches and clean shots. I thought the first three or four minutes, we missed three or four right at the rim, missed an open three, got down big, we were kind of pressing after that point.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter