1. How would the Moda Center crowd treat LaMarcus Aldridge, their former superstar now wearing an enemy uniform?
2. Which prime player, Aldridge or Damian Lillard, would lead his team to victory?
The first question got answered early in the evening. Aldridge received a nice round of applause with a smattering of boos as he was introduced. After that he was roundly booed every time he touched the ball.
The second question took 3.5 quarters to settle but the answer was just as perfunctory. Lillard tried to lead his team to a win but couldn't put out quite enough production. Aldridge shot efficiently but, unlike Lillard, never had to play like the game rode on his shoulders. His teammates played well enough around him that the outcome was seldom in doubt. Lillard ended up scoring 22 on 37% shooting but acquitted himself by making 5 of 8 three-pointers. Aldridge scored 23 on 50% shooting. Though the contest between former teammates ended up a virtual tie, the superior team play of the Spurs led them to a 113-101 victory.
The night started off well for the Blazers. San Antonio came out sluggish; Portland just moved the ball around them. The Spurs' defense painted a bullseye on Damian Lillard but couldn't spare attention for CJ McCollum. McCollum made them pay, scoring 6 points in the first 6 minutes.
Ever counter-cultural, San Antonio opted to play up on Portland's guards early, denying them the jump shot. Most teams sag back. The backcourt just shrugged and drove right around them. Portland led 20-14 at the 4:20 mark of the first.
That's when the second units filtered in.
At this point the game turned 180 degrees. The Spurs showcased superior ball movement and cutting while Portland reached and stood. At that point you never would have guessed that the Blazers were fresh-faced and their opponents octogenarians. In the final 4 minutes of the first San Antonio put 14 points on the board to just 4 for the Blazers. The Spurs led 28-24 after one.
The second period featured more McCollum scoring, nice offensive rebounding by Ed Davis, and the first appearance of the year for Gerald Henderson. Didn't matter. Portland's interior defense was atrocious. Concession sales in the Moda Center ground to a halt as the hawkers' voices got drown out by the sound of San Antonio swishing the ball through the net. At the 2:55 mark of the second, 657-year-old forward Tim Duncan faked out a closing Mason Plumlee, then dribbled the ball in from 20 feet for an unopposed layup. I had to rewind the DVR just to make sure it actually happened. The drive took 6 minutes to complete and Duncan's arm unfolded like a Transformer that had been left out in the rain for a century or two, but it was real.
Portland scored 22 in the second while the Spurs racked up 30. San Antonio took a 58-46 lead into the half.
The Blazers showed plenty of promise out of the gates in the third quarter. San Antonio looked determined to run old Portland-style iso plays for LaMarcus Aldridge but Meyers Leonard stayed home, stayed down, and shut off Aldridge completely. Meanwhile Lillard and Al-Farouq Aminu hit a pair of threes each as Portland pushed the gas pedal to the floor. The combination of fast breaking past the ground-bound Spurs and better ball movement in the halfcourt allowed Portland 29 points in the period. San Antonio managed just 23...the best quarter of the evening for the Blazers by far.
A scary moment marred an otherwise great period for Portland. Kawhi Leonard and Meyers Leonard tangled up in a rebounding scrum and Portland's Leonard ended up with a separated shoulder. (Video here, along with injury updates.) Meyers would not return to the game.
The third quarter also saw the rejuvenation of Gerald Henderson. Hendo would end up with 6 made field goals this evening, 5 of which came in the second half as he found seams in San Antonio's mid-range defense and exploited them. Even so, a late-quarter, Aldridge-led rally kept the Spurs on top 81-75 headed into the fourth.
The Blazers weren't able to mount much of a rally in the final period as multiple flaws caught up to them all at once. Portland's second unit got outclassed by San Antonio's...again. Portland's lane defense proved inadequate...again. When the Blazers tried to get clever with switches, the Spurs exploited them. McCollum made a 7-point mid-quarter curtain call but Lillard's contribution in the period was confined to a single made free throw. Apparently he had ripped the thumbnail on his shooting hand. Four-fingered offense wasn't near enough to keep the Blazers afloat. The Spurs kept the lead between 7 and 10 most of the period, never giving back points after they took them. Smiles and high fives abounded on the San Antonio bench late in the game as they sauntered to a 12-point win.
Despite the pre-game billing, the outcome of this game didn't really depend on the stars. Both Aldridge and Lillard played well. Aldridge just got more help from his team than Lillard did. McCollum looked impressive on offense but nobody in a Portland uniform looked good on "D". Hitting lightly-contested shots seemed like child's play to the Spurs. They shot 56% from the field, 47% from the arc, and hit 14-18 free throws. The Blazers couldn't stop them anywhere.
Getting outscored 46-36 in the paint didn't help Portland's cause. The Blazers did manage 10 offensive rebounds against a stingy rebounding opponent. Portland also kept turnovers low for the second straight game, committing only 9. But allowing the opponent such a high shooting percentage makes secondary statistics moot. Had the Blazers played better defense the rebounding and turnovers might have told. As it was, they were items on the, "Well, at least this didn't go wrong too..." list.
And speaking of going wrong...bench. San Antonio's bench is strong and knows how they want to play. Give them credit for that. But Portland's bench looked putrid. The Spurs passed and moved like the Blazers weren't there. And for the most part they weren't. Veterans Ed Davis and Gerald Henderson looked good, but they couldn't hold down the fort alone. Had only the first units matched up, this game would have been close. As it was, San Antonio's starters held the Blazers down while their second unit beat them up. Not a pretty sight.
Damian Lillard had an impressive outing with 22 points, 9 assists, 6 rebounds, and the aforementioned 5-8 three-point shooting. He did everything he could to buoy his team short of taking every shot himself. There just wasn't enough team to buoy tonight.
CJ McCollum looked impressive during his scoring streaks. He finished with 21 points on 9-21 shooting. His 4 turnovers eclipsed the relatively modest 2 assists and 1 rebound he put on the board beside them. Over the last few games McCollum has morphed from a score-first guard to a score-only guard. This isn't a positive development.
Al-Farouq Aminu once again played his heart out but once again shot a poor percentage from the field, 4-11. His third-quarter threes were a godsend but those were his only two makes of the evening from distance; he finished 2-6. The Blazers need offense from somewhere besides their starting guards. It seems unfair to ask it of Aminu, but he's going to play major minutes and the taller players aren't capable. He may get stuck holding the bag.
Unless Gerald Henderson has something to say about it. Henderson looked eager to go in his first outing, following up a rusty first-half performance with a brilliant second half. He shot 6-10, scoring 12 points in 18 minutes. He knows how to find his shot. If he can keep hitting them at that rate, he'll be bumping younger players down the rotation.
One of those players could be Allen Crabbe, who shot 1-6 in 20 minutes. If Portland's guards don't score, they're pure liability.
Mason Plumlee had 9 points, 9 rebounds, 2 steals, and a block in 30 minutes. He's moving well defensively but it doesn't do the Blazers much good because there's nobody around him and he's not the type of player to alter the opponent's sets all by himself. Plumlee couldn't get out on the break tonight because so many San Antonio shots were falling. Portland lost a major speed advantage there.
Ed Davis played 18 minutes, hit all 5 of his shots, and grabbed 6 rebounds with 3 assists, 2 steals, and a block. This was a bounce-back night for him after a couple of questionable outings.
Moe Harkless and Noah Vonleh were basically non-entities in this game.
Links and Notes
Kawhi Leonard fell viciously on a third-quarter dunk attempt soon after Meyers Leonard dislocated his shoulder.
The Meyers Leonard injury post will update throughout the evening.
Pounding The Rock covers the Spurs for you.
The Blazers face the Memphis Grizzlies next, Gametime 5:00 p.m. Pacific on Friday the 13th.