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Injury, Defense Doom Blazers Against Spurs

A tight game got considerably looser when half of Portland’s star backcourt left the floor.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers lost a close battle with the San Antonio Spurs tonight despite second half heroics from Damian Lillard. They suffered and even bigger loss when CJ McCollum left the game with a knee injury. After McCollum limped off the court, the Spurs gained control of an otherwise back-and-forth matchup and rode on to victory.

San Antonio built a double-digit lead in the second quarter as Portland’s defense failed to communicate and left capable shooters open outside. The starters closed the deficit and modest leads toggled between teams until McCollum’s injury halfway through the third quarter.

From then on, the offense relied on Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic, and Rodney Hood to create shots. The Spurs connected on three-point attempts as the Blazers scrambled and a sizable lead developed in the final minutes. On his own, Lillard couldn’t overcome the swarming San Antonio defense and the game finished 108-103.

Three-Point Shooting

Since the All-Star Break ended, Portland has not shot the ball well from outside. Against San Antonio, the team missed its first eight attempts until Hood finally made one on an Enes Kanter kickout from the post. Only Hood, Lillard and a garbage-time triple from Seth Curry contributed to the team’s three-point makes. Altogether, the squad shot 7-28 from outside.

Lillard, Turner and others who passed to teammates on the perimeter created open looks; the poor shooting percentage didn’t stem from contested shots. Everyone simply failed to hit threes that they normally hit.

Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless benefited from Lillard and McCollum dragging defenders into the lane on drives in the first half, but they missed all three attempts from beyond the arc. Jake Layman and Curry created space around screens and fired up shots, but they couldn’t connect either.

The lack of a threat from outside encouraged the Spurs to collapse hard on Lillard when he drove in the fourth quarter. Only Hood made the defense pay for abandoning him - defenders on Layman, Curry, Harkless or Aminu clogged the lane for much of the final minutes.

Nurk’s Midrange Shooting

Nurkic attempted several midrange jumpers without any hesitation. The first came after clanking his first two interior tries early on. He caught a pass and decided LaMarcus Aldridge stood far enough away so that he could comfortably fire up a shot (which he made).

Despite Nurkic’s success on the first basket from the elbow, San Antonio’s defenders didn’t give him any respect outside the paint. The big man made them pay. He made 4 of 5 two-point attempts beyond 17-feet, stretching the Blazers offense, capitalizing on the available space.

Nurkic couldn’t take the next step outside, though. Late in the shot clock during the fourth quarter, Aldridge took away the midrange jumper. Nurk tried a three but missed, ending his field day outside the paint.

If Nurkic can shoot consistently from 17-20 feet, the pick-and-pop will be quickly re-added to the Blazers playbook.

Lillard Finishing at the Rim

Lillard missed his first four three-point attempts, then shifted his focus to penetration. He finished a few acrobatic layups in the first half, but Derrick White’s pestering defense denied him easy lanes to the hoop.

Once Lillard’s three-point shot returned in the second half, the lane opened up more. However, Jakob Poeltl clogged the restricted area and tormented other Blazers players on their drives. Poeltl finished the game with five blocks, but Lillard found success using his body as a barrier to finish at the rim. Dame also cleverly adjusted his speed when he picked up his dribble, holding off the shot until Poeltl descended from an ill-timed jump.

Lillard’s offensive versatility will prove handy in the playoffs when opponents throw double teams at him. On drives, he’ll often have a big man breathing down his back and must avoid an outstretched arm to finish at the rim.

Defensive Rotations

The Blazers starters communicated fluently and recovered well on defense in the first half. The reserves, on the other hand, failed to communicate at all and struggled to recover all game.

Portland switched on most screens, creating mismatches which San Antonio tried to exploit with its old-fashioned midrange shooters. Portland teammates helped mismatched defenders. Once the ball moved out from the post to an open Spurs shooter on the perimeter, everyone shifted over a player defensively. Fluid recoveries by the Blazers led to mostly contested shot attempts from San Antonio in the first half.

The bench tried to help mismatched defenders as well, but during the recovery, left capable shooters wide open on the perimeter. They gifted easy points to the Spurs this way, keeping San Antonio in the game throughout.

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McCollum will have an MRI on his knee on Sunday. We’ll bring you news when it breaks.

The Blazers welcome Nate McMillan and the Indiana Pacers to the Moda Center on Monday night at 7:30 PM.