Hopes were high as the Portland Trail Blazers faced off against the San Antonio Spurs in Game 2 of their best-of-seven playoff series tonight. Unlike the first meeting--where those hopes got dashed approximately 1.2 nanoseconds into the game--Portland's perseverance and a couple schematic changes saw them through the first quarter intact. A couple Spurs adjustments and a couple Portland lineup changes later and history repeated itself. San Antonio blasted their way through a 41-25 second quarter and sent Portland packing, down 2-0 in the series.
Before we start, the rumors you heard are true. Trail Blazers forward Thomas Robinson opened his AT&T Center locker this evening and found this guy:
(Actual photos of incident here.)
So freaked out were the Trail Blazers that they missed much of their pre-game warm-up, trying desperately to wash away the heebie-jeebies by alternating warm showers and tender back massages from ESPN color commentator Jon Barry. Fortunately Barry's soothing caress had them ready to go at tip-off . Despite the distractions they acquitted themselves well early on.
Portland's focus going into the night was stopping Tony Parker from making Swiss Cheese out of the defense for the second game in a row. Their plan became obvious as the first few plays unfolded. The Blazers started Wesley Matthews on Parker, then switched on any pick play involving two small defenders. When they didn't switch they chose to go under the screen, ceding the jump shot but preventing drives. This worked fairly well. Parker missed shots and would remain cool through the period. So far so good for Portland. For a second, anyway.
Normal teams respond to opponent adjustments at halftime. San Antonio considers it a personal failure if they haven't fixed their problems halfway through the initial timeout. As soon as the Blazers started messing with Parker, he whipped the ball to Kawhi Leonard. Leonard was defended by Damian Lillard or Nicolas Batum. The former gave up too much size and the latter got hung up on screens repeatedly. The result was a Leonard bonanza....12 points in the period as San Antonio posted 29 after one.
The Blazers didn't fare too poorly on offense either. They made a concerted attempt to attack the lane. The first few steps of drives were open for nearly anyone who cared to take them. As they approached the hoop the Blazers were foiled by a collapsing San Antonio defense. (This was a mirror image of what the Blazers did to Dwight Howard and James Harden on their lane attacks in the first round.) Portland also suffered from a lack of foul calls and LaMarcus Aldridge's inability to hit shots. Of the three, the last was the most significant. Had the Blazers been able to finish their drives against a relatively open field both buckets and calls would have gone their way eventually. But with their Ace missing his shots, the Spurs never had to move defenders.
The Blazers converted 4 layups in the first period, salting in a couple of threes for good measure. All together their inside-out attack produced 26 points. After the 29-16 Game 1 opening, ending the quarter within 3 points of the Spurs wasn't the worst thing in the world. The Blazers had weathered the storm and were ready to make this a game.
During the quarter break, Manu Ginobili sidled up to the Blazer huddle and whispered, "I'm a...thnake." Eyes widened. Jaws dropped. Shivers passed from one end of the bench to the other. All of Jon Barry's good work was undone and the curse was unleashed.
Or at least that's as good of an explanation as any for the Blazers collectively falling off a cliff.
The barbaric details of the second-period slaughter are not fit for tender ears. Boris Diaw began the proceedings by making mincemeat out of Robin Lopez. Lopez had been a rebounding stalwart in the first period but looked helpless against the smaller center now. The slashing, slicing Diaw made Robin pay for every second on the court. Worse, Lopez couldn't find the purchase on rebounds or finish shots inside against his smaller opponents. We saw all of the detriments of Portland's Soul Man, none of the benefits. It's not like Lopez was getting help from his teammates either. Every time San Antonio missed a shot in the second they calmly collected the ball and deposited it home. It was enough to make you tear your hair out.
Then the Spurs started hitting threes.
Left, right, up, down, San Antonio made Portland pay for collapsing to help defend the lane. Danny Green, Marco Belinelli, Manu Ginobili, Chef-Boy-Ardeedilly...all the Spurs, and their moms, and their arena sponsors, and their arena sponsors' vice-presidents' cousins hit triples like it was no big thang. Heck, they even pulled a random seat number and invited a fan to come down and hit a shot against Portland's defense. When the dude asked if he won a car they said, "Are you kidding? No contest insurance company would back that!" So they gave him a Jon Barry massage instead.
Adding some spit to the heaping spoonfuls of curdled milkshake San Antonio was serving Portland, Parker returned at the end of the period and started hitting his shots. The Spurs made sure to involve bigs, not wings, in the screen plays. When Portland bigs sagged into the lane and Parker's defender went under the pick, Tony hit.
The net effect of the second period was reminiscent of a Pepe Le Pew cartoon with the Blazers playing the black cat who accidentally got a stripe of white paint down her back. They didn't want the Spurs' attention. They didn't like what was happening. In fact, it stunk. But they couldn't do anything about it. Every time they turned around, there was Pepe sticking his head up under their chin saying, "Aha, ma cherie! I have something special pour vous!" That "something special" turned out to be another offensive rebound, another three-point strike, another turnover run out for a layup, which all added up to another demoralizing blowout.
The score had been 29-26, Spurs after one. The score ended up 70-51, Spurs at the half. Technically the Blazers weren't doing horribly on offense but their defense wasn't giving them even a ghost of a chance.
Portland shaped up a little in the second half. Or San Antonio mellowed out. Or some of both. The defense looked crisper. The Blazers stemmed the outflow of offensive rebounds and turnover-fueled fast-breaks. A few three-point strikes even got the lead back under single digits. But the resistance was futile. When the Blazers got within 8 with 5:39 remaining in the fourth San Antonio promptly ripped off a 15-4 run. Ballgame. Final score: 114-97 and a 2-0 lead for the Spurs.
Boxscores don't always paint the right picture but tonight's was fairly accurate. San Antonio put 7 players in double-figures, comprising 7 of the 8 who played 20+ minutes for them. (Green, with a paltry 8 points, proved the only holdout. He gets to drive Snake Boy and Jon Barry to the airport tonight.) Whether the name was Splitter, Diaw, or Belinelli, the Spurs made the most out of (almost) every player they fielded.
The Blazers put 5 players in double figures but only half of those shot well and few posted significant stats besides. Lopez's 7 offensive rebounds proved the most striking contribution of the night but the threat was nullified when he couldn't put them back in, shooting 3-10 on the evening. Aldridge shot 6-23. Batum and Lillard scored 21 and 19 respectively but couldn't make the defense work. Matthews had the steadiest overall game. Mo Williams left the game with a groin strain. Thomas Robinson's energy remained high but he was wandering alone in a storm. Unlike the Spurs, the Blazers made the least out of (almost) every player they fielded.
Portland's problems were legion...dishing only 15 assists, forcing only 8 turnovers, running a 17-6 deficit in points after turnovers, losing the three-point battle 7-12, allowing 17 fast break points, letting the Spurs sustain themselves again on the offensive glass, and not converting points off of their own offensive rebounds. But in the end, both the loss and the series come down to two things:
1. The Blazers cannot survive unless Aldridge stops treating Tiago Spitter like the second coming of Bill Russell. Aldridge had some decent moves tonight. He spun a little, shot over the top at little, and banged Splitter down into the lane on multiple occasions. But he finished like a 62-year-old beer stored in a rusty oil pan. He pulled up a dribble short, settled for shots 2-3 feet farther out than he needed to, and failed to draw foul shots via aggression. Seeing him miss two open dunks was maddening. But even there the lesson there isn't, "DOH!!!" but, "Heeyyyyy...those kind of shots are available. TAKE THEM!"
Even if every other Blazer plays out of their minds in stretches of this series, that won't be enough to get more than a win or two. Aldridge is the foundation supporting all of their efforts. If he doesn't step up, the Blazers are done.
2. Aside from needing a firecracker in Aldridge's shorts, the Blazers' problems all revolve around the defensive end. Whatever life the Blazers show on the offensive end won't matter if they continue giving up 115 points a night.
No matter what else happens, even if every San Antonio play is brilliant and every score justifiable, the Blazers must stop giving up offensive rebounds and second-chance points. That is the single most preventable defensive breakdown. Even more than San Antonio's hot shooting, those rebounds killed the Blazers in that fateful second quarter. Had the Blazers secured the ball, walked it past the time-line, then sat down on top of it for a 24-second violation without ever attempting a shot instead of giving up second-chance points in that second period, they would gone to the half down 58-51 instead of 70-51.
Many are asking why the Blazers don't jump out and hedge on San Antonio's screens. We haven't seen Portland do that much this season. We knew going in that this is the price you pay to turn mild-mannered Robin Lopez into a Super Beast. Keeping near the paint at all times is the difference between pre-Blazers Lopez and career-year Lopez. That's pretty close to an immutable law of the universe and it's one of the strong arguments that this team needs a viable alternative at center to supplement Robin in matchups like this.
Since that alternative isn't coming in the next 48 hours, the Blazers will have to adjust. The first, and biggest, adjustment is to squeeze every bit of goodness out of Lopez possible. Both he and the team need to get more physical, hit those boards, knock blocks off, finish plays in the lane over smaller defenders. Second, the Blazers probably need to get Lopez matched up more evenly with Splitter and let Aldridge shadow Duncan. If that ends up taking Robin out of the lane too, at least Splitter is out as well. That'll cut down on San Antonio's rebounding flurries. Plus the Blazers won't mind Splitter shooting over the top like they mind Duncan doing it. Third, despite the lack of alternate power forwards, small ball is more in order when San Antonio goes small too. Whether it's Robinson, Joel Freeland, Dorell Wright, or shifting Batum up and inserting Will Barton as a wing, the Blazers need more motion against the Spurs on both ends. The trick will be maintaining rebounding integrity without the big guy, but they're not maintaining it with Lopez in there against smalls either.
A smaller unit might be the only way to deal with the Spurs' screen attack as well. With everybody mobile and nobody wed to the paint, the Blazers can switch more often, hedge a little, make Parker think before he shoots or passes. They could also close more easily on those three-point shooters.
--The Blazers need Aldridge, and occasionally Lillard, putting pressure on San Antonio's defense, forcing them to bend and help, freeing up shooters.
--The Blazers have to deal with the pressure the Spurs' screens are putting on Portland's defense without abandoning the lane or the arc
--The Blazers must rebound well.
From Day 0--not even Day 1, but prior to the series start--these have been the keys. The Blazers have shown the ability to accomplish maybe 0.5 out of 3. That's not going to get it done.
Games 3 and 4 will be played in Portland. That alone will not ensure the Blazers victory. San Antonio doesn't care. They won't get rattled by anything short of losing a game at home themselves. The Blazers cannot depend on emotion and cheers and luck to carry them through. Portland will need better execution and far better results from their stars before the homecourt advantage will come into play. It's probably worth a point or two. It ain't worth 16.
If they want to win the Blazers have to up the confidence, curb the mistakes, and start getting physical with the Spurs. As I said on the in-game Twitter feed, if you can't beat them, at least beat them up and see where that takes you. If you can't win the chess game, upset the board! Summon the spirit of Maurice Lucas, Buck Williams, and Brian Grant. Cut out the frakkin' Feldercarb and kick the nerf-herding Spurs and their gorram petaQ backsides all the way to Belgium....and maybe back to San Antonio tied tied 2-2.
This series is not over yet. One could argue that nothing unexpected has even happened yet. It's not looking good, but the Blazers can't afford to think that way. They can't even afford to think of it as a series anymore. They need to focus on one game...the next one. Saturday night is everything; Saturday night is all. Take care of business on one night and a path starts to open, the way forward starts to resolve. If they're not itching, burning, ready to throw down or do anything to win on Saturday, then they haven't learned what the playoffs are about yet.
One way or another they will learn eventually. Right now the question is whether they can pick it up in the next 48 hours and use the home fans to propel their momentum or whether they're going to need an entire summer to think about it and then test their resolve through another 100 games just to get back where they are today. Nobody gets through this process unscathed, but there's a time to take your lumps and a time to start dishing them back. That time has come for the Blazers.
Let's see if they can respond.