The San Antonio Spurs defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 114-97, in Game 2 at the AT&T Center on Thursday, taking a 2-0 lead in their Western Conference semifinals series.
If you give these Spurs an inch, they will take a mile before you can blink. They will also make sure, completely and thoroughly sure, that you are left feeling as if reclaiming the mile could take the rest of your life.
A Game 1 blowout loss humbled and exposed the Blazers, and the result was a focused, ready start to Game 2. San Antonio's inch didn't come until early in the second quarter -- when Boris Diaw found himself matched up against Robin Lopez -- but the Spurs immediately began sprinting around the track at a 4-minute mile clip. Diaw, master of cheeky floaters, turned and faced Lopez, who is conditioned to protect the rim and play the percentages everywhere else. The result? Seven points from Diaw in just 46 seconds; three straight scores on three straight high-percentage opportunities borne of a single skillset mismatch.
Diaw started the snowball rolling and it wasn't too long before this was an avalanche. The Spurs rattled off an 18-2 run in less than three minutes early in the second quarter, and two three-pointers each from Danny Green and Marco Belinelli pushed it out to 23-6 in just over four minutes. Blazers coach Terry Stotts, fully realizing another game was getting away from his team, called two full timeouts and a 20-second timeout to try to stop the bleeding. It didn't matter. A solid first quarter was already a distant memory; a strong second-half performance would be denied a full chance at mattering.
"The onslaught at the beginning of the second quarter was obviously the turning point of the game," Stotts said. "It happened pretty quickly. ... The lead just ballooned."
Yes, he called it an onslaught and it was the perfect word choice. It took Diaw less than one minute to change the tenor of the game, and so many things were happening at a faster pace than Portland could handle. Green flicked his three-pointers so rapidly and purely that Blazers defenders slumped in frustration not when the ball hit the net, but when it left his hand. Ditto Belinelli. And if Portland overcompensated ever so slightly in trying to lock down the shooters, Tiago Splitter found a way to sneak into the empty space behind, batting out offensive rebounds and locating back-breaking tip-ins.
"The first five minutes [of the second quarter], we let them do whatever they wanted," Nicolas Batum said. "They made threes, offensive rebounds, transition points. They made their run and the crowd got into it and it was tough to get back into the game."
Portland had given that group an inch; San Antonio took the mile and never looked back. And these were the non-stars, of course. It's impossible not to feel a twang of sympathy for the Blazers as they watched this unfold, only to turn towards the scorer's table halfway through the quarter to see Tony Parker and Tim Duncan checking back in.
"They're the No. 1 team in the league and they play like it," Damian Lillard told Blazersedge. "They execute really well, they're consistent. Always high energy. They're constantly getting guys in and out of the game and they really believe. You can tell they've been here. "
Reporters have asked multiple times if these losses have been "demoralizing," and the Blazers have repeatedly pushed back at the idea. Their continued effort in the second half supports that defiant stance. Still, the Spurs' depth is creating an overwhelming physical and mental burden, taxing the Blazers with such consistent, high-level, high-effort play.
"They are one of the best at 'keep coming at you'," Stotts sighed. "They come at you in waves."
Game 2 was like a tug of war in which the Spurs had three Strongest Man participants anchoring their team, and a pair of giant scissors to cut the rope at any given moment, just in case their extra strength wasn't enough.
"It's tough," LaMarcus Aldridge told Blazersedge. "When they get a lead, they know how to hold it. They don't change, they don't play any different. They play the same whether they're up 30 or down 30. They're going to keep playing until the end of the shot clock. They're going to keep the ball moving. Any guy can play on their team."
Thursday night's top-billing hero was Kawhi Leonard, who looked exactly like the future All-Star we saw during the 2013 playoffs. Leonard posted 20 points (on 8-for-9 shooting), five rebounds, two steals and two blocks, and he had his fingerprints -- and huge hands -- on so many momentum-turning plays.
In the third quarter, as Portland tried to make an early push, Leonard leaped high off the court to snag a defensive rebound with one hand. He then brought the ball up the court and casually drained a three-pointer without even considering the thought of running a play. Any hope generated by an 8-4 Portland run to start the half was therefore put on hold, and firmly so.
Flash ahead to midway through the fourth quarter, when Portland had strung together four straight scores to cut the Spurs' lead to nine points. For the first time all night, something resembling tension was building. Leave it to Leonard, who brought the building to its feet with a bone-crushing block in transition on Wesley Matthews. Parker then provided a touch of calm by hitting a quick jumper, and one possession later, Leonard buried a dagger three-pointer to push the lead back to 14 points.
Little more than three minutes after Portland had cut the lead to single digits, Stotts was waving the white flag and sending in his subs. A few short moments after hope dared to make a brief appearance for Portland, Jeff Ayres was checking in to mop things up.
The Blazers had given Leonard the inch; he took the mile -- and the victory -- without a second thought. All this from a 22-year-old who betrays little emotion and, his teammates like to joke, never speaks.
"It's smart when a young player defers," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, when asked how Leonard manages to balance playing aggressively with filling a supporting role. "Even [Tim Duncan] deferred when he came into the league to David [Robinson], for about two and a half days. Then David understood who Timmy was. In Kawhi's case, he has three veteran players out there and it's been a process for him to come into his own."
That process, like all of the Spurs' processes through two games, sure is running smoothly, isn't it?
Depth continues to be the major variable. After winning the bench points battle 50-18 in Game 1, San Antonio's reserves outscored Portland's 50-19 in Game 2. That chasm was a deciding factor in the fourth quarter, when the fresh, non-stop Spurs scored on virtually every critical possession.
For the second straight game, the bench advantage also put Portland in a position where it was unable to keep up because one of its stars was playing at less than an A-level. On Tuesday, it had been Lillard, who was defended carefully and thus unable to get going from beyond the arc. On Thursday, it was Aldridge, who scored just 16 points on 6-for-23 shooting, even though he was dealing with single coverage for most of the evening.
"I definitely wasn't in a good rhythm tonight," Aldridge said. "I missed two dunks, four or five layups. If those shots go in, the whole game is different. We know we haven't played our best basketball. Now we have to. Going home, definitely, every guy has to play better. Starting with me."
While the Blazers sounded eager to get home to the Moda Center, they also came off a bit wary. They seem to understand that the Spurs were 30-11 on the road this year, that their systems are designed to work at any time and in every building, and that their execution has been so precise that simply shifting the venue isn't going to be a cure-all in and of itself.
"They're really clicking right now," Lillard said, after finishing with 19 points (on 8-for-20 shooting), five rebounds and five assists. "Just going home doesn't mean we're going to win the games the way they did. It's going to be tough. We've got confidence in what we can do on our home floor with our crowd being behind us, the way we play in our home city. It's going to be tough."
Other cold, hard facts weigh on Portland as they prepare for Game 3.
First, Mo Williams did not play in the second half due to a groin injury that had been bothering him for a few days. Stotts told reporters that Williams had wanted to continue playing, but that Portland's medical staff had nixed the idea. Williams' status for Game 3 is unknown. Groins are famous for many things, but a magical self-healing power is not one of them.
Second, Stotts gave his rotation a little juggle, with limited effectiveness. Towards the end of the first quarter, he went ultra-small with LaMarcus Aldridge as his center, Nicolas Batum as his power forward and Damian Lillard, Mo Williams and Will Barton all in the game at the same time. Just when that lineup, which hadn't played a single minute together this season as far as I can tell, seemed like it had succeeded in holding down the fort, the second quarter started and all the positives evaporated thanks to Diaw.
Three Blazers starters played 40+ minutes and Matthews wasn't too far behind at 38. The available pool of combinations for adjustments was already thin before Williams' injury, and now it's at eating disorder levels. Like a general who realizes that his pinned down troops aren't about to be saved by meaningful reinforcements, Stotts settled for pledging that his available players would dig in.
"I think we have a bunch of competitors," he said. "They want to win. They know we can play better. The fact that we kept coming back in the second half, I am not worried about [frustration mounting]. It's certainly frustrating to lose and to get blown out in Game 1 and not quite have enough in Game 2, [but] I know we will be ready in Game 3."
The season, of course, is at stake on Saturday. No NBA team has climbed out of a 3-0 series hole, and San Antonio swept two series on its way to the Finals last year. They've shown no signs of letting up during two games. On the contrary, Popovich loudly chewed out Diaw for not getting to the scorer's table fast enough, and he lit into Manu Ginobili for losing Batum on a second-half three-pointer. The Spurs have built double-digit leads with ease, and they have protected them with both ferocity and composure.
If Portland doesn't approach Saturday as the last stand, it will be their last stand. Even if they do, it's possible that it will still be their last stand. As long as San Antonio continues to play like the most impressive team in this year's playoffs, by a lot, desperation and heart will only go so far.
"Biggest game of our postseason, of this series," Aldridge said of Game 3. "We need to go home and take care of business. ... [Game 3] is pretty dang important. We need to shift some of this momentum, we need to take care of homecourt like they did. Game 3 is huge for us."
Last Friday, the Blazers sat on top of the world, drunk with happiness after the shot of their century. This Friday, they will wake up knowing that their playoff fate hangs on an inch-by-inch, rung-by-rung climb, with Popovich, Parker, Duncan, Ginobili, Leonard, Splitter, Green -- all of them -- peering down from the top of the ladder.
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced at 18,581 (a sellout).
- Again, the home crowd was impressively demanding, even after the knockout 41-point second quarter. One fan seated behind me was particularly hard on Manu Ginobili, who finished with 16 points (on 7-for-18 shooting), five rebounds and four assists after a quiet Game 1. Ginobili did have four turnovers and a second-half stretch where he missed a number of shots in a row.
- There was a wrinkle to the evening, though, in the form of the NFL Draft. Deep in the heart of Texas, the only person anyone -- media and fans alike -- seemed to care about before the game was Johnny Manziel aka Johnny F. Football. As each successive first-round pick ticked off and he stayed on the board, reactions could be heard from those who had access to mobile updates and/or the media row television monitors. One writer was even live-streaming video of the Dallas Cowboys' war room during the game. There's no questioning Texas's sports priorities.
- Here are the video highlights via YouTube user NBA.
- In a rarity for me, I was seated courtside near the Spurs' bench. Everything I wrote about Gregg Popovich's slippage-preventing attention to detail after Game 1 was in full effect, only up close and personal this time.
- You often hear executives, particularly analytically-minded executives, talk about the difference between process and outcome. For example, how a missed shot generated by good ball movement is always preferable, in theory, to a made shot taken under duress or without a careful consideration of the options. Popovich's body language and body movements really brought this to life.
- He was most frustrated by blown defensive assignments -- not like there were very many of them -- with zero regard for whether or not they led to made shots. As mentioned above, he was angry with Manu Ginobili for losing Batum on a three-pointer, but he was also stomping his feet and shuffling sideways when Damian Lillard found himself with a clean look at an angle three that missed. It's easy to subscribe to process-based thinking in theory; it's quite another to live it play after play. That's especially true if you're a coach, judged on a night-to-night basis by makes/misses and wins/losses. Popovich seemed to be embodying the idea that the immediate impact is never as important as the untold number of future impacts that could come by repeating the same mistake.
- The other standout detail from the up-close perspective was Tim Duncan's ability to direct the action on both ends. He finished with 10 points, six rebounds, three assists and three blocks, but those numbers do a comically bad job of reflecting his impact. Duncan's understanding of spacing, his screen-setting, his movement without the ball, his unmatched chemistry with Tony Parker and Ginobili -- all of it was impressive. I swear he altered a few Blazers shots simply by glaring at the ball.
- One of the most memorable plays came during the first half, when Parker took off in transition and Duncan did his best to keep up. Here was a 37-year-old who appeared to be giving it a good faith effort, knowing he didn't stand a chance in a foot race with his jackrabbit teammate. But what do you know? Parker decided to pull the ball back and, all of a sudden, Duncan's positioning was perfect. Rather than reset back to the arc, Parker decided to loop around Duncan, treating his big man like a concrete median and exiting the roundabout just in time to make an easy layup on the opposite block. No silly illegal screen foul, no panic at Parker's change of direction, no confusion as to whether a pass was coming. Duncan just did his part to create two points within this unorthodox version of a two-man game.
- The Blazers' starters, particularly Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews, left it all on the court. Both took a beating over and over and kept playing as if nothing had happened.
- Surely by now you have heard about the snake that was found in Portland's locker room before the game. Mo Williams snapped a picture in case you missed it. Some Portland media members were convinced this was an elaborate mind game by Gregg Popovich, while some San Antonio media members were initially convinced that there was no snake at all, and that it was all a ruse.
- It seems extraordinarily unlikely that a snake would inadvertently find its way into the Blazers' locker room, especially because the AT&T Center's bottom level is a total labyrinth of confusing concrete hallways, and there are lots of staff members and various folks around in the hours before the game. Who did it!?! There must be video footage.
- I joked on Twitter that this guy should be a prime suspect.
- There was some talk earlier this week that a big storm could hit San Antonio. As it turned out, Oklahoma City was hit by a big storm on Wednesday night but San Antonio didn't really get nailed, as far as I can tell. Anyway, I heard a great colloquialism during the weather-related speculation. A heavy rainstorm, in these parts, is called a "Frog Strangler." Maybe you've heard that one before; I hadn't. I do plan to add it to the vocabulary though.
- LaMarcus Aldridge was asked during Thursday's shootaround about his comment at All-Star Weekend that Tim Duncan was "ancient." Apparently the media member wasn't aware of Aldridge's respect for Duncan, or he was fishing for a little drama. Aldridge replied, with a chuckle: "He's ancient, but he's ancient good."
- The AT&T Center handed out black signs again, this time with "Go Spurs Go" on them.
- Apropos of nothing, former Blazers center Greg Oden, to Grantland's Mark Titus: "I know I'm one of the biggest busts in NBA history and I know that it'll only get worse as Kevin Durant continues doing big things." That puts the "brutal" in brutally honest self-assessment.
- Wesley Matthews started out defensively on Parker, who finished with 16 points (on 8-for-19 shooting), 10 assists and five rebounds. That specific decision seemed to pay off, but San Antonio can beat you in 200 different ways.
- Nicolas Batum (game-high 21 points, nine rebounds, two assists, five turnovers) played well again, and he showed good recognition in attacking when he had mismatches. Kawhi Leonard's crazy efficiency overshadowed Batum's night, but at least Batum got to do a podium interview as a consolation prize.
- Tiago Splitter was an animal on the offensive glass. He finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds (four offensive), and he created so many opportunities with his hustle. As Lillard said: "We've got to do a better job of taking away those second chances, because every offensive rebound they get is leading to three-pointers. They're kicking it out to their shooters, getting them going with open looks. That's putting them in a rhythm for the rest of the game."
- San Antonio has a dance team of old ladies that performed to "Turn Down For What." One of those beautiful, timeless moments -- like the Parker/Duncan transition interplay -- that I will never forget.
- Aldridge on what worked in the second half: "Just flowing. Pick-and-roll with Dame. Him taking his shot, getting to the basket. Nico playing pick-and-roll. I made a couple of shots on the block."
- Aldridge on whether San Antonio was slowing him down with anything special on defense: "It was me. I've watched some of the clips, I'm at the rim missing a layup. It's not anything they did, I just didn't have it tonight."
- Aldridge on the team's psyche entering Game 3: "I don't think guys are feeling good, but we're definitely going home. I think every guy in here is looking forward to going home and having that crowd behind us. Trying to come out and play like we all can. We haven't played great or even good offensively. We definitely played better defensively tonight and we'll try to be even better next game."
- Batum on the team's mood: "No panic. We know we've done bad the last two games. ... Game 3 will be huge for us. We know the crowd is going to be behind us, so we have that for us. We have to be ready right from the start."
- Spurs GM R.C. Buford was presented with his Executive of the Year trophy on the court before the game. He kept the trophy for about 15 seconds before handing it off to a Spurs staffer by the time he had reached the team's bench.
- San Antonio's mascot had a "Gatling Gun" t-shirt shooter that could launch roughly 20 shirts in one go as it spun around the arena. Texas really ain't playin' around.
- San Antonio doesn't offer Chalupas or McMuffins for 100 points, as I mentioned earlier this week, but there was a BBQ truck set up outside the media entrance that was still serving food at 1 AM. That guy is on his way to becoming a millionaire.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments.
The onslaught at the beginning of the second quarter was obviously the turning point of the game. I thought Boris Diaw during that stretch made the plays that kept that group afloat. He does a great job of coming in and having an impact on the game. It happened pretty quickly.
Very similar to the first game in that we gave up way too many second-chance and fast break points in first half. I think it was 32. We gave up 41 in the first game and hat was way too many. 32 in a half was tough. We didn't give up any fast break points in the second half. We held them to 44 [points] in the second half. We just have to stay focused.
They are one of the best at 'keep coming at you.' They come at you in waves. Everybody who plays in the game is aggressive, they can make shots, we just have to sustain our focus, our alertness, our intensity, no matter who is in the game.
How close to your best game did you play tonight?
I don't know. We were good in spots but I don't think we were close to playing our best game. We were good in spots, we were good in the first quarter, I thought we were good for a long period in the second half. The second quarter -- the lead just ballooned. We get down, you're fighting an uphill battle. It's hard to evaluate the game because of that stretch.
I think we have a bunch of competitors. They want to win. They know we can play better. The fact that we kept coming back in the second half. I am not worried about that part. Certainly frustrating to lose and to get blown out in Game 1 and not quite have enough in Game 2. I know we will be ready in Game 3.
What was working in the fourth quarter?
What was working for us in the second half was at the defensive end. They didn't have any fast break points in the second half. We did a much better job of defense and rebounding. That allows you to play in open court and doesn't put as much pressure on your half court offense. It takes the crowd out of the game a little bit. I thought that was important in the second half.
Will Barton, the way their rotation is, with perimeter guys, I thought he was a good match-up. The first half, we went with our small lineup and I liked his activity. Just looking for a spark. I think he's played well in both games.
The first quarter we got off to a good start. We had a nice flow in the game. Nic was aggressive, made his first two threes, that gave us confidence going in as the game progressed, compared to Game 1 where we got down early. Like I said, against a team like San Antonio, you have to be very vigilant about the bursts they can put on you.
LaMarcus Aldridge frustration?
Only in the fact that as a team we couldn't quite get over the hump. Every player wants to make every shot, but L.A. is a pro, he kept competing. The ball wasn't going in for him but when I see frustration -- I see guys stop playing. I didn't L.A. [stop playing]. I thought his competitive was the same throughout. I don't think that affected his play. Certainly you want him to make the shots, but I don't think it affected his disposition or demeanor.
He has a groin injury. It has been bothering him for a couple days. He wanted to play but it was our decision that it wasn't good for him to play.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter