Entering tonight's matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers, the San Antonio Spurs had not lost a home game all season. If the Spurs were at all worried staking their unblemished record against Damian Lillard and company, they didn't show it. San Antonio played the Blazers even through two periods then blew them away in the third, marching to a breezy 118-110 victory and their 34th home win of the season.
From opening moments of the first quarter, Tony Parker made free in the lane against the Blazers. He torched Portland for a couple layups, beginning an unconscionable parade to the rim that would carry the Spurs all the way to victory. Lillard and the Blazers bench made a bold run at the end of the first quarter to put the Blazers up 28-23. It was fool's gold. Their run continued early in the second but San Antonio's starters pulled them back into a dogfight as the quarter closed. The Spurs led 56-54 at the half.
Then San Antonio decided they'd had enough of that.
The third period opened with Parker getting inside again, this time dishing to LaMarcus Aldridge for easy conversions. Off of that hot start, the Spurs brutalized the Blazers. Kawhi Leonard scored a 11 in the period. Parker was a gadfly, Patty Mills hit threes...everything the Spurs did worked to perfection. San Antonio also defended, resulting in a 39-24 edge in the period.
Having blown open the game, the Spurs spent the rest of the evening keeping Portland at arm's length. The Blazers made up ground in the fourth by keeping in their starters while San Antonio went to the bench. For all it mattered, Portland might as well have been puppy dogs facing wolves. Scoring 110 was great. Allowing the opponent 118 was not.
So look...Portland's defense is looking really bad right now. Occasionally the Blazers get nice plays out of their defensive sets because they field good athletes. Outside of those highlight-reel moments the holes are so big that teams like the Spurs can drive through them blindfolded.
After Aldridge opened up San Antonio's scoring in the first with an open 18-footer, the Spurs' next scoring conversions read: 1-foot shot, layup, layup, 3-foot shot, dunk, layup. They were probing, testing what kind of game this would be. Those easy scores at the rim told them everything they needed to know. San Antonio played around for a while, biding their time. They jumped the Blazers to start the second half, making them pay inside then stroking open shots over a panicked and scrambling defense. The might as well have been kids sticking a cherry bomb into an anthill. They had complete control while their hapless victims ran amok, wondering why the world was ending.
It's one thing to know you've lost a game when you're down 19. It's another entirely to know you've lost it when you're up 8. That's exactly what happened to the Blazers tonight. The fault lies at the defensive end.
The Spurs shot 52% from the field, 50% from the arc. Though the Blazers didn't shoot as well, they hit more threes, obliterated the Spurs on the offensive glass 14-4, and won the fast-break battle 17-11. Those are all good...indicative of Portland's strengths and they way they'd like to play against a slower, ground-bound team. Those strengths didn't matter one bit with a defense so porous the other team could score at will.
Unless Portland shows more commitment and ability on the defensive end of the floor, the story of their season has been written. If the opponent misses shots the Blazers are more than capable of winning because their rebounding is superb and their offense beautiful. The Blazers won't make their opponents miss those shots though. If the opposing offense plays well and with any intelligence, Portland's in trouble.
Since the Blazers aren't likely to face poor offensive teams in the playoffs, they may be in trouble.
Last salvo: San Antonio's starters hit 31 out of 46 attempts tonight. That's 67%. 2 out of every 3 shots they took, fell. If Channing Tatum, Taylor Lautner, and Arianna Grande combined DNA to produce the world's first tri-parent offspring, that kid would not look as good as the Spurs starting five did tonight.
San Antonio's veteran pace (read: they could play the game in flip-flops) allowed Blazers Coach Terry Stotts to use Chris Kaman in place of the injured Meyers Leonard. This was Kaman's first serious action of the season and he acquitted himself well, hitting shots from mid-range on his way to a 5-6, 12 point night in 15 minutes of play. 5 rebounds and a block showed that Kaman still has life in him. His mobility was nowhere near his teammates' though. It'll be interesting to see if he succeeds, or even gets in the game, against quicker teams.
CJ McCollum found himself free off screens most of the night, open in the lane a couple of times. He rode that freedom to a 10-20, 26-point performance in which he hit 4 of 6 three-pointers. But...defense.
Damian Lillard scored 23 shooting 7-19 with 6 assists. His performance was not as smooth as McCollum's but the Spurs had him targeted more. And...defense.
With their primary guard getting hounded, the Blazers ended up running a fair amount of offense through Mason Plumlee tonight. He managed 5 assists but also committed 3 turnovers and shot 3-8. It was like watching someone try to win Monopoly off of a light-blue set alone. The idea wasn't horrible but the attack just wasn't strong enough. Gregg Popovich and company probably counted every possession out of the hands of Lillard and McCollum as ground gained regardless of the result,
Al-Farouq Aminu and Noah Vonleh looked pretty awful tonight. Vonleh got a couple of dunks off of offensive rebounds but the offense was pretty bad otherwise and the defense nowhere to be found.
Outside of Kaman the bench was pretty dismal as well. Gerald Henderson scored 10 points but Allen Crabbe could only add 4, leaving the guards with a measly 14-point performance in 49 combined minutes. And they committed 4 personal fouls each because...defense. Ed Davis grabbed 9 rebounds in 17 minutes but his lack of offense and free throw shooting made it hard to keep him out there. San Antonio had no compunctions about sending him to the line repeatedly. He shot 3-7 from the foul line, 1-4 from the field.
Links and Such
Pounding The Rock has not covered a home loss for the Spurs all season.
Want to know how nifty the bottom of the Western Conference playoff bracket looks right now? Check this out, courtesy of ESPN:
The key figures:
--Of the 5 teams racing for 4 spots, only the Jazz are carrying a winning streak.
--Nobody, including Utah, is above .500 in their last 10.
If play doesn't pick up in the last month of the season, 4 teams are going to back their way into the post-season. Pretty ugly.
After playing Damian Lillard 40 minutes and CJ McCollum 39 tonight the Blazers turn around and face the New Orleans Pelicans at 5:00 p.m. Pacific tomorrow.