With nothing on the line but bragging rights, the San Antonio Spurs rode into Portland Monday night to face the Portland Trail Blazers. Or at least the Trail Blazers on paper. With Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Allen Crabbe and Maurice Harkless joining Jusuf Nurkic and Ed Davis on the bench in street clothes, Portland’s roster scanned closer to Summer League roster than regular season. But paper isn’t everything. The fully-loaded Spurs, led by their fiery coach Gregg Popovich, came out and laid enough eggs to keep Denny’s open for a month. For nearly three quarters the Blazers, led by Shabazz Napier, controlled the game then held off a late San Antonio rush with a had-to-be-seen-to-be-believed final play. When all was said and done, the only paper that mattered was the one listing the final score: 99-98, Trail Blazers.
The Blazers came out of the gates and set fire to everything in their path. Seriously, this happened. Portland’s starting lineup of Napier, Pat Connaughton, Evan Turner, Noah Vonleh, and Meyers Leonard hit 4 of 5 from behind the three-point arc to get their team out to an early lead. It felt like they were in control, even. Things were so strongly in Portland’s favor early on that Mike Richman of The Oregonian dropped this gem:
Can't believe it took Stotts 80 games to find his best lineup ...— Mike Richman (@mikegrich) April 11, 2017
The Spurs would close the gap because, Spurs. But the scoreboard still read 31-28 Portland after one.
The second quarter of this game is best not spoken of. The teams combined to miss 37 shots in the period. Yuck. 47-43 Portland at the break.
Evan Turner rose and took charge in the third quarter. While analytics dictate that the three point shot is the best shot in basketball, Turner plants his flag on mid-range mountain. From those semi-lofty heights he dropped 13 points in the period, splashing a myriad of spinning, step-backing, fading, leaning, and twisting shots. Sadly the Spurs’ starters would make yet another run, this time grabbing the lead and maintaining it heading into the fourth, 76-71.
The final period featured a gutty Portland performance led by Napier. Once again the Blazers rallied behind the hot hand. Napier scored 15 points on 6 shots, hitting from deep, in the paint, and the free throw line. It certainly looked like the Napier that led UConn to an NCAA Championship just a few years ago. The margin hovered within 4-points until the closing seconds.
Fittingly, the play of the night happened on the last possession. With 6.5 seconds remaining and the Blazers down by one, Napier and Leonard ran a pick and roll that resulted in unexpected benefits. The play went awry as timing disintegrated, leaving Napier isolated on the dribble drive. The ball got away from him and squirted in the lane towards the baseline. Fortunately for the Blazers, there sat Noah Vonleh to scoop it up and lay it through the twine as the clock hit zero. Portland’s “bench” players leaped to their feet, high-fives and hugs erupted everywhere, and even Popovich laughed as he let out an unprintable profanity. A lineup of 7th-11th men beating a contender holds allure no matter who you are.
There isn’t a lot to take from this game from a performance standpoint, but it was way more fun than it had a right to be. Sure, the Spurs were at “full strength” but the only starter to play more than 20 minutes was Kawhi Leonard. He clocked in at 20:08. That doesn’t take away what the Young Blazers did tonight, just frame it a bit differently.
If anything this serves as a confidence builder for the guys who normally don’t get a lot of action. If they’re called upon in the future, this is a game they can call back to that says “we belong.” There’s certainly some value in that.
Speaking of value, considering where this team was in late December, who would’ve imagined that the Blazers would be resting most of their starters the second to last game of the season because they were prepping for the first round of the playoffs? Giving the starters a night off then getting the win against the Spurs is a quality development no matter the roster composition.
Shabazz Napier had the best game of his career tonight. Normally that means he either came off the bench an made a solid impact over a 10-12 minute stretch or he got 30-plus minutes of garbage time because the Blazers were out of it from early on. Tonight, it was door number three as Napier channeled his inner-Dame-Time with a Lillard-esque 32 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists. It wasn’t always the prettiest but it was always entertaining and, even better, effective.
Things were looking great early on for Pat Connaughton. He hit his first two shots from the field, including a deep three. That got his confidence going, perhaps a bit too much. He would miss his next two shots tragically. But he bounced back quickly and became a consistent option for Portland from both a scoring and playmaking standpoint. The results: 15 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists.
Meyers Leonard had a whale of a start to this game, opening 5-5 from the field, including 3-3 from the arc. He played solid defense on LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol too. He would finish the half with 13 points, promising more to come. Leonard ended up taking only one more shot in the game. Still, this was his second consecutive good outing in row. He’ll need that confidence heading into the playoffs against the Golden State Warriors.
While the entire night was a coming out party for the Blazers’ deep bench, one player went noticeably awry tonight. Jake Layman only managed to find the bucket twice on 15 attempts. While you don’t get extra points for style, his two makes were fantastic displays of athleticism: an alley-oop flush in transition and a Skywalker dunk from the dotted line after turning the corner. The two mighty slams made you forget that he missed the other 13 shots.
Links and Such
Check out the Video Recap of some amazing plays!
The folks at Pounding The Rock might be pounding their heads on the desk tonight.
The Trail Blazers close the season on Wednesday against the New Orleans Pelicans. A win will clinch a winning season...that after falling 11-games under .500 at one point.