The San Antonio Spurs stepped into the Moda Center tonight looking for redemption, a turn-around to the 2-4 start to their annual Rodeo Road Trip, a chance to warm up their shooting and tune up for the season's stretch run. Instead they ran straight into a frigid, blustery wind that spoke to them of missed opportunities, futility, and their own mortality. The winter storm came courtesy of the Portland Trail Blazers, who used a coldly-slicing defensive attack and hurricane-force three-point shooting to down the Spurs with a convincing 111-95 win.
On Portland's side, the wings beneath their wind were Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum. Batum started out the game hot from the field, scoring 10 in the first period with 3 lovely assists besides. He and his teammates helped San Antonio to 5 turnovers in the period. You could tell this night was going to be good.
Meanwhile on the Spurs end of things...well...not much was happening. San Antonio spent the whole first quarter thinking and dribbling when they should have been shooting. They passed into coverage instead of passing out of it. They never hit enough shots to make Portland defenders move, leaving the Blazers free to pillage the passing lanes and rebound misses off of defended jumpers. The champs--in particular Tony Parker--looked as helpless and clueless as we've ever seen them. As a result the Blazers doubled up their guests in the period, leaving with a 32-16 lead.
The second quarter provided San Antonio's only signs of life in this game. The Blazers committed turnovers instead of forcing them. They tried to get to the rim but ended up stuck in traffic. Rebounds went scarce, defensive rotations went wonky, and all of a sudden the Spurs were shooting free and easy. 4 triples, 3 conversions right at the rim, and 4 free throws in the period brought the San Antonio right back. Portland's lead was but 1, 51-50, at the break. It was like the fourth-quarter collapse against Memphis, just not in the fourth quarter.
At halftime the Blazers decided they'd had enough. Matthews and Damian Lillard came out in the third scoring like hotcakes, aided by a couple buckets from LaMarcus Aldridge and a scoring reprise from Batum. Portland not only flipped the turnover battle their way again, they sped up the tempo in general. Quick pushes and crisp passing caught the Spurs on their heels. If the Blazers didn't get an open jumper, they were getting to the rim for an and-one. The lead ballooned to 11 by the 7-minute mark. Kawhi Leonard rampaged through the latter half of the quarter, trying to put the team on his shoulders, but Portland still led by 10, 81-71, at the end of three.
That's when Wes Matthews grabbed a big ol' axe, and went Viking-flunks-out-of-anger-management berserk.
True story: When I was a kid our very first cat came off a farm. We saw him as a kitten, caught him, and brought him home. He was tiny. He was cute. He was also a little bit wild. He had that farm cat walk and liked to intimidate everybody in sight. And he loved no target more than my little sister. The rest of us would swat away his advances when he got rough with us but my sister was a gentle, peaceful soul. She would shrink, squeal, and try to get away. The cat loved it and picked on her often.
Finally my dad sat my sister down and said, "He's only doing that because he thinks he can get away with it. If you just stand still, bop him on the nose, and say, 'No', he will learn you're not scared and he'll leave you alone. You're bigger than him. You just have to let him know that." She nodded.
So the next day my dad's in the kitchen when he hears this god-awful noise coming from the living room. He runs in there to see my sweet, innocent sister holding this kitten by the scruff of his neck, full on slapping him across the face forehand and then backhand and then forehand again. Her normally-quiet voice was bellowing loud and strong enough to make a black belt champion proud.
BAD KITTY!!! :::SMACK:::
DON'T BITE ME! :::SMACK-THWACK-SMACK:::
By the time dad got there she was about a half-dozen slaps in. Poor kitty's head was snapping back and forth with each blow and his eyes were starting to cross.
Understanding that feline brain damage was a serious risk at that point, my dad put his hand on my sister's shoulder and said, "It's ok. I think he's learned his lesson now." She put the cat on the floor and it wobbled away like, "What the hell just happened?" He was a marvelous cat for more than a decade after that but he never made an aggressive move towards her again.
Well, tonight Wesley Matthews was my sister and the San Antonio Spurs were his own personal cat. Sure, they intimidated his team in last year's playoffs...left scars too. But he had them by the scruff of the neck in the fourth period and he wasn't letting go until they learned their lesson.
Matthews scored 16 in the period. Afterwards the Spurs wobbled off the floor wondering what the hell just happened. I don't know if they'll try to get aggressive with the Blazers again or become good little boys like our cat did, but the look on Matthews' face at the end of the evening said it all. "Don't come back until you've learned to be good kitties!!!"
When the horn sounded, Portland brought the confetti rain with a 111-95 victory, erasing bad memories of performances against Utah and Memphis, looking like they found their swagger again.
The Spurs shot well in this game (43.5%, 38% from distance) but the Blazers shot phenomenally (51%, 13-26 for 50% beyond the arc). Portland's shooting performance should tell you something about the way the Spurs defended. Charitably you could call it "intermittently". Less charitably, you could say that at least half the team looked rooted to the floor on any given possession. This was true in every quarter but the 2nd, when Portland miscues gave the Spurs their new lease on life. All through the night whichever team forced more turnovers ended up with easier shots, foiling the opponent's attempts to defend them. That was Portland for 3 quarters, San Antonio for 1, and that was the story of the game from a team perspective.
Individual performances told more about the game than team performances...surprising for the Blazers and especially for the Spurs. Tim Duncan was a firebrand, shooting 9-12 and giving his team everything they needed. Kawhi Leonard brought the same verve, but only for half a period or so. Tony Parker was a complete and total dud: 1-8 shooting, 4 turnovers, and 4 personal fouls against only 4 assists. Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw weren't much better. Whatever life Duncan, Leonard, and the occasional Tiago Splitter or Patty Mills highlight put into the game, Parker and friends sucked right back out.
The Blazers didn't play perfectly but at least they weren't playing tug-'o-war against themselves. Matthews and Batum were superlative. Lillard, Chris Kaman, and Arron Afflalo bolstered them nicely, pressuring San Antonio's sludge-slow defense to cover multiple avenues. Everybody else had the sense to stay out of the way...except for LaMarcus Aldridge, who struggled mightily with his shots but rebounded and defended hard nonetheless.
Portland's individual performances gave them enough confidence to build on. Whenever they flagged, somebody would uncork and off they'd go again. San Antonio's individual performances had them looking over their shoulders, wondering if they were letting each other down. In the end that worry became reality. The Spurs didn't implode; they crumbled like a decaying tooth. Credit Portland's attack and whatever malaise is going around San Antonio's locker room right now. Either way, the result was the same: a convincing win that the Blazers needed badly.
The only dim spot in this shining victory comes from Aldridge. The worry has nothing to do with this game or his effect on it. He didn't play badly, he just looked off, especially on his jumper. To the causal eye it may have seemed like a bad night, but if you're accustomed to his bankable form and clockwork excellence, the difference was glaring. Whatever thumb issues he's dealing with appear to be recurring, their influence demonstrable. That is not good news for the Trail Blazers despite the win.
Speaking of glaring differences, Nicolas Batum...wow! He came out in the first quarter like he wanted to chew through the Spurs all on his own, especially with his jumper. Gone was the hesitation; gone were the wide-spraying J's. In their place was a compact, targeted stroke that found the range again and again. Plus Batum drove and created nifty opportunities for his teammates on the dish. He still had 5 turnovers, mostly off of "Awww...Nic!" moments when he clearly should have shot but went for the pass instead. But he fired 6-8, 3-5 from distance, and scored 15 with 9 assists and 2 steals. He was more prominent on defense as well, helping the Blazers take Parker out of his game.
If Batum kicked down the door, Wesley Matthews stepped through and gunned down everybody inside. He shot 11-18, 4-10 on threes, and drew 7 foul shots, hitting 5. The latter is a huge number for him, showing how aggressive and effective he was. Matthews scored a game-high 31, almost as much as Duncan and Leonard combined (34). As with Batum, Matthews' offensive aggression seemed to put his defense back on point. He earned 3 steals and remained active throughout the evening.
You know it's a special night if we're not getting to Damian Lillard until the fourth paragraph of the individual recaps, especially since Lillard tallied 18 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists. The Spurs couldn't guard him. When the floor opened up in the second half, so did Lillard, alternating drives and threes with aplomb.
Robin Lopez never gets good matchups against the Spurs. Everybody he guards is either quicker or draws him out to the perimeter, taking away his rebounding opportunities. 2 blocks in 26 minutes highlighted his understated evening. But if you're tempted to complain about only 5 rebounds, ask if any of the Spurs rebounded well when Robin was watching them either. Answer: mostly not. That's his job and he did it.
Chris Kaman had a huge night off the bench, scoring 11 with 6 rebounds in 18 minutes. He ended up playing clean-up man when the Spurs were frantically trying to guard other people.
Arron Afflalo got open looks in the offense and hit same, scoring 10 on 4-8 shooting, 2-4 from distance in 25 minutes.
Meyers Leonard hit another three, much to the delight of the crowd.
The Blazers welcome the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday, another chance to mule kick a lower-bracket team trying to nip at their heels.
The Instant Recap with web reaction to the win.
Pounding the Rock may start pounding their fists in frustration at any time now. From their recap:
This game wasn't as ugly as the 22 turnover/17 assist game against the Jazz on Monday, but the Spurs were still sloppy with 13 turnovers (to 20 assists). The more worrying thing is that the turnovers came mostly after a ball-handler got stuck and the offense stalled and a desperation pass was attempted. What happened to the offense? What happened to the ball movement and the open looks?
Check out our In-Arena Report, chronicling a happy night at the Moda Center!
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