The Blazers return to the Moda Center tonight, down 0-2 in their Western Conference semifinals series, to take on the San Antonio Spurs in Game 3 of a second-round, best-of-seven playoff matchup.
After a 24-point loss that was never close to open the series Tuesday night, Portland appeared ready to compete throughout the first quarter of Game 2, going into the second period down 26-29. The Spurs, however, dropped 41 points the next 12 minutes, and aside from a late-game run that put Portland within striking distance -- which was calmly and immediately squashed by an 11-2 San Antonio scoring outburst -- the game was never particularly close.
What went right for the Blazers in Game 2? Well, guard Wesley Matthews played inspired defense against Spurs All-Star point guard Tony Parker, who was held to 16 points on 8-of-19 shooting after lighting up Portland's defense for 33 points in Game 1. Blazers backup wing Will Barton -- who had been used rather sparingly off the bench by Portland coach Terry Stotts heretofore this postseason -- played 12 minutes and hit all of his 5 shots for 13 points.
Forward Nicolas Batum rediscovered his shooting touch Thursday night after a disappointing Game 1, registering a game-high 21 points while draining nine of his 13 shots, including 3-of-5 three-pointers. Matthews also woke up on the offensive end, hitting six of his 12 attempts for 14 points.
That's about the end of the list of positives for the Blazers in Game 2. Let's move on to what went wrong.
Forward LaMarcus Aldridge was again bothered tremendously by San Antonio center Tiago Splitter's one-on-one defense, ending the night with just 16 points while shooting 6-of-23 from the floor. Included in Aldridge's 17 misses were multiple missed dunks, close layups and a number of shots he'd normally make.
Point guard Damian Lillard also fell victim to the Spurs' superb team defense, making just eight of his 20 field-goal attempts -- including a 1-for-6 performance from deep -- while putting in 19 points. Center Robin Lopez went just 3-of-10 from the floor. Portland's bench was again destroyed by its San Antonio counterpart in the scoring department, 50-19. If it weren't for a spirited performance from Barton, the Blazers' bench production would've totaled just six points.
Portland only got up 18 three-pointers Thursday night, making seven. Sixth man Mo Williams left the game in the second quarter and didn't return after re-aggravating a groin injury that occurred in the first round of the playoffs.
The Blazers' defense allowed 8-of-9 shooting from the field for wing Kawhi Leonard, 5-of-6 for forward Boris Diaw, 3-of-3 for guard Patty Mills, 4-of-5 for guard Marco Belinelli and 5-of-10 for Splitter.
Portland won the rebounding battle 44-41, but gave up 11 offensive boards and numerous second-chance opportunities. The Spurs picked up 27 assists on 48 made field-goals, also racking up 17 fast break points to the Blazers' 10. San Antonio turned the ball over just eight times, but forced Portland into 13 turnovers.
What can the Blazers do to correct the variety of maladies that haunted them on Thursday night? For starters, Aldridge needs to step up and finish his shots, especially the easy ones inside. He showed in the second half of Game 1 that he can score against the Spurs when he forces the issue, taking the ball inside aggressively. When he wasn't scoring in the first game, he often went to the foul line where he was able to pick up extra points. Splitter is a great individual defender and deserves a ton of credit for limiting Aldridge, but Portland's three-time All-Star power forward needs to find ways to live up to the accolades he garnered in the first round of the playoffs when he often picked apart a Rockets defense that gameplanned specifically to stop him. Backing Splitter down, going across the middle and being physical down low would be a good start for Aldridge tonight.
Lillard needs to continue attacking offensively, particularly in pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop situations. If San Antonio is going to take advantage of his shaky defense -- Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has forced Lillard to deal with a litany of screens the first two games of this series -- then he needs to make them pay on the other end by going hard to the rim and putting his ability to finish in traffic on full display like it was at times Thursday night. The Spurs' defense won't collapse or be nearly as flabbergasted by Lillard's penetration as Houston's was in the first round, but it would at least keep them honest and give Portland's perimeter shooters a bit more breathing room than they've had in Games 1 and 2 so far.
Batum and Matthews need to carry over their offensive energy from Thursday night when they scored 21 and 14 points, respectively, after combining for just 15 in Game 1. Their scoring can stem from individual assertiveness -- Matthews posts up at least a couple times a game and employs a step-back jumper while Batum has been pretty solid from the mid-range this postseason -- but the Blazers' offense is at its best when its wing scorers are getting points off Portland's trademark ball movement (which has largely been absent the first two games of this series as the Blazers have picked up a total of just 24 assists). Interior scoring by Aldridge and penetration from Lillard don't necessarily guarantee a breakdown of the Spurs' disciplined defense, but isolation sets and contested jumpers certainly don't.
Portland's defense needs to find a way to slow down San Antonio's scoring. Seven Spurs players in double-figures -- including three reserves -- in Game 2 illustrates just how troubled the Blazers' have been on that side of the ball so far this series. Matthews has done an admirable job of making Parker work on offense, but the rest of the team has been caught sleeping too often this series as San Antonio has been allowed plenty of uncontested shots with Portland defenders completely out of position.
Splitter and Spurs forward Tim Duncan have been rattling the Blazers with strong picks all series, and Portland's bigs need to do a better job of getting back into position when their man sets a screen on the perimeter. As Dave pointed out yesterday in a discussion with Pounding the Rock's J.R. Wilco, Lopez is almost completely ineffective on the defensive end when drawn away from the hoop. Stotts needs to find a way to adjust his defense in-game to counter what Popovich throws at it, because the NBA's Coach of the Year has moves and countermoves in spades.
The Blazers also need to get something from their bench besides scoring from Barton -- though that's not a bad bonus. Forward Thomas Robinson played 14 minutes on Thursday but hit just one of his four shots. After scoring just a single point in Game 1, backup forward Dorell Wright picked up a DNP-CD in the second contest.
With Williams likely out tonight, someone off Portland's bench needs to make something happen. Robinson and big man Joel Freeland can do that by working the boards on both ends of the court, while Wright needs to regain the solid shooting form he had in the first round of the playoffs against the Rockets. Barton has been a pleasant surprise so far in the second round, but his scoring is often an indication of desperation and that things probably aren't going as planned. Guard Earl Watson will probably slide up in Stotts' bench rotation, and he needs to make smart plays tonight and set up his teammates while not trying to do too much on his own.
The Blazers should continue working hard for rebounds under their own basket, as second-chance points have been a huge source of scoring for them all season. Too many times in Games 1 and 2 have the Spurs been allowed to push Portland's rebounders around on the offensive glass, extending their own possessions and often sucking the life out of the Blazers when second and third opportunities to score are granted. Defensive rebounding falls largely on Aldridge and Lopez, but the entire starting lineup has contributed on that end in one way or another all year. Robinson, Wright and Freeland need to come in off the bench with energy on the glass, as they're all capable rebounders and shouldn't be out-hustled by San Antonio's reserves.
Getting points at the free throw line could be huge for Portland tonight, after they attempted only 10 foul shots all night on Thursday. If Splitter were to get into early foul trouble, life would presumably be a lot easier for Aldridge offensively, too. This goes hand-in-hand with Lillard and Aldridge being aggressive from the start instead of just in the second half with their team down by double digits.
If the Blazers can get their All-Stars going tonight, things will open up for Batum, Matthews and the rest of the secondary scorers. This means attacking relentlessly and forcing the Spurs' defense to react instead of dictating how Portland runs its offense.
Of course, the Blazers also have to find a way to slow down this San Antonio offense that has scored an average of 115 points a game in the first two meetings of this series. Playing disciplined defense is imperative for Portland tonight, because the Spurs have clearly demonstrated they know how to play with a lead. If the Blazers can go into halftime not in a hole they desperately have to dig themselves out of -- and maybe even with a lead of their own -- they might have the confidence necessary to take out San Antonio tonight at home.
-- Chris Lucia | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter