We'd love to say that the Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs engaged in a knock-down, drag-out fight on Monday night, but neither team could knock down a shot and the only thing dragged out in this game was the final outcome. The Blazers never succumbed to the veteran Spurs but they only put up intermittent fights against them. As the fourth quarter closed a strained and painful contest narrowed down into a battle of guards. San Antonio's came out ahead of Portland's and the Spurs exited the arena with a 93-80 win, leaving the Blazers to nurse their sixth loss in a row. It was a different kind of loss--and there's something to be said for variety--but another "L" nonetheless.
Anyone who watched the debacle versus the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday afternoon will be happy to know that the Blazers did NOT allow 71 points in the first half tonight. As as matter of fact, they ceded a paltry 36 to the Spurs, one of their best defensive efforts of the year. Portland's transition defense was exceptionally alert. They veered away from help defense except in the most obvious circumstances, keeping every player home against their aging, ground-bound opponent. San Antonio helped out by missing open shots, but the Blazers still made them move the ball to get them. If Portland had a defensive fault in the first half it came on the glass. The Spurs got too many offensive rebounds. But 36 points in two quarters is hard to argue with. Whatever ailed the Blazers in Charlotte got addressed in the locker room between games and that translated on the floor. 4 out of 5 Blazers getting back on every possession was a welcome sight.
Unfortunately the Blazers only scored 28 in the first half themselves. The occasional Damian Lillard drive provided the only relief in a Kidney Stone offense: slow, extremely painful, and not an experience anyone would like to repeat. San Antonio knew exactly how to guard Portland: keep men tight on Lillard and CJ McCollum, then send the house into the lane. Brick after brick confirmed their game plan. Portland's misery seemed never ending.
The Blazers saw a ray of light in a 32-point third period which featured Lillard and Al-Farouq Aminu going crazy. Dame did most of his damage inside, seasoning layups and free throws with the occasional jumper. Aminu started with a three-pointer then hit a couple closer shots. Portland's tempo increased and player movement followed. Unfortunately the defense disintegrated as San Antonio began to hit the open shots they had missed in the first half. Mid-range looks came first, followed by threes and layups. The Spurs notched 29 in the frame and instead of blasting them into the lead, Portland's 32-point performance shaved only 3 points of the San Antonio margin.
Lillard and Aminu continued to let it all hang out in the fourth, Damian trying to take over the game and Aminu adding in a couple of well-struck triples. Portland edged within 3 points at the 3:48 mark as Noah Vonleh hit a three-pointer off of a Lillard pass. But a familiar ailment proved Portland's undoing: they couldn't stop San Antonio's guards. Of the 28 points the Spurs scored in the fourth, 21 came from the backcourt. Manu Ginobili scored 14 of those, including 9 straight after Vonleh's long-range strike. Ginobili's streak pushed the Spurs up by double-digits once more and they ran the clock out on an ugly 93-80 victory.
The Blazers did plenty of things well in this game. They kept the opponent from running out, getting easy shots, or exploiting mismatches. They didn't turn over the ball, didn't foul overmuch, and held San Antonio to 43% shooting, 30% from the arc.
But Portland couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time tonight. When their defense was crisp, their offense stank. When their offense clicked, their defense fell apart. Had Gordon Ramsay been their coach the game audio would have been bleeped in its entirely save for the word "donkeys". They never really put it together.
To be fair, San Antonio didn't either, but with both teams playing sub-par, the game hinged on whose bad habits would prove worse. The Spurs stopped missing open shots before the Blazers stopped allowing them, and that was the ball game.
Some will point to Portland's 15 assists and say the offense devolved into isolation play too easily. That's not entirely accurate. The ball moved, San Antonio just showed up before it did. Between the Spurs knowing how the Blazers needed to score and almost everybody besides Lillard proving ineffective, star-driven isolation was the only way to go. At least Lillard put points on the board. It almost worked, too.
Nevertheless, the Blazers should be credited with not quitting on a game they easily could have conceded. Their ship is filling with water, but the team isn't done bailing by a long shot. They need to get control of their weaknesses and re-discover the confidence that carried them through the pre-season and early regular-season outings. That'll happen eventually. In the meantime, "At least they didn't lose that badly" will be the refrain.
Not every 20-point outing is equal for Damian Lillard but tonight he sparkled. He scored 27 on 10-21 shooting with 6 assists and 7 rebounds. He mixed taking over the game with feeding his teammates. His teammates proved utterly unworthy of feeding, but the effort counted. Unfortunately the Spurs knew exactly where Portland's attack was coming from late in the fourth and shut down Lillard completely, but that's less Dame's fault than a reality of the roster.
CJ McCollum scored 15 on 6-14 shooting in a limp effort. It was one of his worst outings of the season. CJ is coming, but he's not there yet.
Al-Farouq Aminu bounced back from a tough night in Charlotte with a brilliant second half. He hit 7-14 shots and 3-5 triples on his way to 17 points and his defense was pretty spot-on.
Mason Plumlee is out of his groove...still not being used to his advantage, hampered by opponents clogging the lane. He scored 8 on 3-4 shooting with 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals. Watching Plumlee flounder because his team isn't moving fast enough to take advantage of his speed is frustrating. Standing around takes away everything that's special about him.
Chris Kaman started in Meyers Leonard's spot tonight and resembled Fred Flintstone in a field of Olympic sprinters. He shot 1-7 and don't even ask about anything else. When the Spurs make you look heavy and slow, you might be a little heavy and slow.
Once again Portland's bench got slaughtered tonight, though it wasn't the usual implosion, just a slow leak. Ed Davis had a horrible game. Allen Crabbe and Moe Harkless looked ineffective. Noah Vonleh played 22 minutes, including down the stretch in the fourth, and nabbed 6 rebounds to go along with the three-pointer he hit. It was one of his better outings. Gerald Henderson got the short shift at 9 minutes and missed 2 shots. Whatever cohesiveness the starters have developed hasn't leaked down to the reserves yet.
Links and Notes
For a while there I thought that I'd be able to write that LaMarcus Aldridge won one last game for the Trail Blazers. The Spurs barely fed him in the first half and he spent the entire second half tossing the ball right back to them, as if protesting that they had forgotten him early by refusing to shoot late. He scored 6 points on 2-8 shooting. As it was, the San Antonio ended up beating Portland with one star tied behind their back.
Pounding The Rock shares the Spurs point of view.
The Blazers play the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night at 5:00 p.m. Pacific.
We're trying to send 2000 underprivileged young folks and their chaperons to the Blazers-Kings game on March 28th and we need your help. It's easy to do. Tickets are automatically donated when you purchase them through this link:
Promo Code: BLAZERSEDGE
Ticket Costs range through three levels: $7, $9, and $13 (There is a $5 processing fee per order.)
You can also call our ticket rep, Lisa Swan, directly at 503-963-3966 if you'd like to order that way. You will need to indicate to her that you are donating the tickets you order to Blazer's Edge Night.