Twenty-four hours ago the Portland Trail Blazers (30-37) played their ugliest game of the season in a 100-77 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. It was bad enough even the most diehard of fans considered taking a leap into the lottery tank. Tonight’s matchup against the 52-14 San Antonio Spurs loomed large - it looked like the painful 2016-17 season might final enter a terminal nosedive.
But CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard had other ideas. Befitting this team’s remarkably consistent inconsistency, McLillard combined for 62 points and the Blazers rebounded from the embarrassing loss to the Pelicans with an exceedingly impressive 110-106 victory over the Spurs.
The way the Blazers won may have been even more impressive than the victory itself. For 46 minutes they played uncharacteristically beautiful basketball - the NBA Twitter-verse was agape at the high level of execution. And for the last two minutes the Blazers overcame multiple blunders to hang on to a lead and walk away victorious; an impressive feat for a team with the most losses by 3 points or less in the NBA this season.
In addition to Lillard and McCollum, Jusuf Nurkic played a major role for the Blazers. He finished with 16 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, and 4 steals, but also committed critical mistakes down the stretch that nearly cost the Blazers the game.
Kawhi Leonard was brilliant for the Spurs with 34 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 steals. Former Blazer LaMarcus Aldridge returned to action after missing two games and finished with 19 points, but needed 24 shots to get them.
The Blazers opened the first quarter in attack mode, making every effort to exploit the Spurs’ defense in transition. Lillard led the charge by scoring 12 of Portland’s first 18 points. His 3-pointer with 4:52 remaining gave the Blazers an 18-16 lead. San Antonio countered Lillard by bringing in Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol, and David Lee. The passing from the Spurs’ bench unit confused the Blazers defense and Gasol found himself open repeatedly for perimeter jumpers. His 9 points in the quarter helped the Spurs to a 29-28 lead.
With Lillard resting to start the second, McCollum took over and scored 11 in the quarter. The Blazers did their best to spread out the Spurs’ defense with perimeter passing leading to isolation drives into the open paint/mid-range. For the Spurs, Leonard took over with 12 points in the quarter. He hit a plethora of deep covered shots, which paid dividends later in the game when the Portland forwards overcommitted, opening up driving lanes.
Entering the half, the Spurs led 55-54. San Antonio had dominated the glass with an 11-0 advantage in second chance points, but the Blazers had countered with 13-5 lead on the fast break.
Lillard and the Blazers started picking on Dewayne Dedmon and Patty Mills in the third quarter. Multiple pick and rolls got Lillard open shots from all over the perimeter as he scored 16 of the Blazers’ 28 points. Leonard stayed unstoppable for the Spurs with 10 points and then the Ginobili, Gasol, and Lee unit re-entered to befuddle the Portland defense again. The game stayed close and the Blazers led 82-80 entering the fourth quarter.
Usually this would be when the Spurs pull away. After playing the matchups straight all game, Head Coach Gregg Popovich switches his best defenders onto the opposing team’s best players in the final quarter. Tonight that meant Lillard and McCollum would get a healthy dose of Leonard and Danny Green.
The lineup changes mostly worked - Lillard scored only 4 points in the quarter after scoring 32 through three. But the Blazers had a their own secret weapon: Nurkic. The Bosnian Beast had been mostly neutralized for 36 minutes, but he woke up in the closing minutes.
With the Blazers trailing 86-84 with 8:53 to go and the Spurs focusing on Lillard, Nurkic took over to score or assist on 9 of the Blazers’ next 12 points. He mixed in jump shots, lay-ups, fast break dunks, and bonecrushing screens to carve out a massive interior presence. Largely on the back of Nurkic’s strong play, and some creative isolation plays from McCollum, the Blazers lead 104-97 with 1:27 to go.
Then the wheels nearly came off.
A quick Leonard bucket cut the lead to five. Nurkic, who ESPN announcer Hubie Brown had noted looked exhausted, missed two free throws and Aldridge followed it with a 3-point play. The Spurs trailed 104-102 with 53 ticks left. Nurkic, almost unbelievably, threw the in-bound pass away under minimal pressure. Fortunately, Aminu forced Leonard into a missed hook shot and the Blazers hit free throws to make it 106-102 with 14 seconds to play.
But the Spurs still would not die. They ran a gorgeous hammer set for Mills, who connected on the 3-pointer to cut it to one.
Lillard hit a pair of free throws to make it 108-105. On the ensuing possession the Spurs nearly botched their own in-bound pass, but Ginobili ended up getting fouled in the chaos. He, somehow, missed the first free throw and then TRIED to miss the second but banged it in.
OK Manu, we NEED you to miss this one... pic.twitter.com/d6LopvKt9r— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) March 16, 2017
With only five seconds to go, no timeouts, and trailing by two the Spurs were toast. Lillard connected on two free throws for the final 110-105 margin.
With Tony Parker absent, the Blazers are a surprisingly bad matchup for the Spurs. As has been usual in recent weeks, Lillard and McCollum had no problem putting up gaudy scoring numbers against the Spurs’ base defense. Head Coach Terry Stotts regularly spread the court wide and let either of his guards break down the opposition, on their way to a collective 20-for-38 shooting and a perfect 17-for-17 from the line.
On the other end, the Spurs run fewer pick and rolls than many teams and get most of their offense from their frontcourt - their guards combined for only 23 points tonight. With no guards running downhill past McLillard, the Blazers have a fighting chance to actually set up a base defense.
Aminu also deserves a lion’s share of credit for his defense. His uncanny ability to force bigger players into missing their preferred shots paid dividends as Aldridge shot only 9-for-24 for the game. Aminu also guarded Leonard and forced the Spurs’ MVP into a crucial miss in the closing seconds.
In addition to exploiting the Spurs’ lineup, the Blazers benefited from winning the coaching battle. Popovich likely regrets sticking with his usual gameplan of waiting until the fourth quarter to switch Leonard and Green onto Lillard and McCollum. The Spurs may have been able to maintain a lead early in the game if Lillard had been shut down before the closing minutes. As it played out, every time the Spurs inched ahead by a half dozen, Lillard or McCollum attacked and closed the gap.
For the Blazers, Stotts deserves credit for waiting until the fourth quarter to attack with Nurkic. Portland spent the first 36 minutes steadfastly refusing to feed Nurkic in the post. Hubie Brown was incredulous at the apparent oversight. But down the stretch the Blazers began to use Nurkic’s size to abuse Spurs’ weak center defense and punish the Spurs for focusing solely on Lillard and McCollum.
Nurkic’s versatility, coupled with McCollum’s ability to score anywhere on the court, paired well together, as well. That was perhaps most obvious in the closing minute when Nurkic was able to dribble into the wide open paint with 1:02 to go and the Spurs defense froze for fear of leaving McCollum open for a triple.
But perhaps most surprising is the way that the Blazers neutralized the Spurs marginal gains. San Antonio loves to create extra possessions and then out-execute with those possessions to grind out a lead. No team is more disciplined about kicking out an offensive rebound and running a new set, rather than haphazardly forcing up a quick putback. Tonight, though, the Blazers negated a 20-8 disadvantage on second chance points by winning the points off turnovers and fastbreak battles. Impressive.
Overall, tonight’s victory stands in the starkest contrast with last night’s loss to the Pelicans. They went toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the NBA and never blinked. Now if only it didn’t take an embarrassing pasting to motivate this kind of effort, the Blazers might actually be a dangerous team.
Damian Lillard’s scoring kept the Blazers in the game for three quarters before the Spurs began to smother him. He had a low assist total again tonight, symbolic of the slow shift in the Blazers offense as they integrate Nurkic and rely less on the other secondary “scorers.” 36 points and 4 assists.
CJ McCollum was huge down the stretch and broke down several Spurs on the dribble. 26 points and 4 assists.
Jusuf Nurkic nearly lost the game in the closing minutes, but the Blazers would have been lost without him. Blazers fans have to be excited thinking about what he might be able to do once he’s (hopefully) in shape next season.
The Spurs’ length neutralized a lot of passes to cutters and a lot of the offensive movement. That hurt Maurice Harkless. He also didn’t do as well on Aldridge as Aminu.
Noah Vonleh played well enough to get 26 minutes! He had 12 points, 6 rebounds, and looked better on Aldridge than Harkless did.
Al-Farouq Aminu’s defense was “WOW” tonight. He was fighting with Nurkic for the title of X-factor.
It’s March 15! Allen Crabbe probably got a check for at least $700,000 today.
Eric Griffith | GoBlazers87@gmail.com | @EricG_NBA