The Portland Trail Blazers stared down the San Antonio Spurs without their NBA MVP candidate Damian Lillard on Friday night, desperate for a win to break up a tough stretch of the schedule. Portland alternated between sublime brilliance and futility for much of the matchup. Norman Powell and CJ McCollum filled Lillard’s absence with 22 and 29 points, respectively, but nobody else on the roster could score. Fortunately, defense came through. After allowing the Spurs to run roughshod through most of the game, the Blazers made critical defensive stands in the late minutes of the fourth quarter, allowing them to squeak out a 107-106 win.
The Blazers came out with ultra-high energy in this one! Derrick Jones, Jr., Norman Powell, and Jusuf Nurkic all looked like souped-up versions of themselves. The tempo of everything was quicker: offense, transition defense, rotations. To say the Blazers were effective would be a stretch, but they were active. San Antonio scored inside, but so did Portland. Unfamiliarity reared its ugly head a couple minutes into the game, as energy morphed into turnovers that let the Spurs get out on the break. When the second unit came in everything went to heck. The Spurs started getting easy shots in the lane and they pumped up the scoreboard for a 10-point lead. But the Blazers whittled it back in the final minutes behind CJ McCollum and Carmelo Anthony. Despite San Antonio shooting 59% with 9 points each for DeMar DeRozan and Drew Eubanks, Portland trailed only 28-31 after one.
The second quarter saw Portland’s defense pick up. The Blazers got hands in faces of players in the paint. They also shut off the torrent of transition buckets for San Antonio. The Spurs settled uncomfortably into the mid-range, from which they missed. The problem was, Portland couldn’t generate offense of their own. This is where the ultra-deep guard rotation helps. When Damian Lillard sits, Norman Powell and CJ McCollum maintain constant threats. Anfernee Simons, though capable of hitting shots, isn’t the same. Portland had to live with jump shots, most of which missed. Even the three-pointer deserted them; they made three in the period. The Blazers gave up only 26 points, which was great! They scored but 20 themselves, which was not. San Antonio led by 9 at the half, 57-48.
The Blazers needed a big push to make up the deficit as the third quarter began. Instead they got a big THUD. They made only 1 of their first 7 attempts, that a Jusuf Nurkic tip-in. Meanwhile they gave up 50% shooting to the Spurs, most of it coming quick and easy. Head Coach Terry Stotts called a frustration time-out at the 9:26 mark with his team trailing by 16. Powell and McCollum helped settle down the squad after, hitting a three and a mid-range jumper, respectively. Those two guards would shoulder the burden throughout the period, heading into the lane and either converting layups or drawing fouls. Portland’s three-point shots just weren’t falling, though. They have trouble winning when that happens even with Lillard playing, let alone without. They couldn’t keep San Antonio out of the paint at the other end either.
A flurry of one-two combos from distance and the foul line as the quarter ebbed cut the lead to manageable proportions, but it’s hard to catch up completely without defense. Fortunately Nassir Little and even Anfernee Simons provided a little—mostly in the form of opportunistic help-side energy—and that was enough. A layup from Powell with 1.6 seconds remaining completed a shining rally, bringing Portland to within 2, 85-83, as the final period approached.
Enes Kanter got riled up in the late third and early fourth period, as the Blazers continued to get it inside (or he simply rebounded their misses). He got to the foul line and kept the offense going. But foul attempts weren’t enough to stave off a Spurs team that started hitting shots again. A 7-0 run converted a tie game to a Spurs lead, but Powell and Robert Covington came through with threes off of McCollum assists that made things reasonable again. Portland needed the distance shots to fall because San Antonio was beginning to sniff out their desire to score in the lane. The door flew open as San Antonio started missing like crazy, but the Blazers couldn’t get their own shots to fall.
Portland got a burst of life at the 5:00 mark when Simons picked a steal at halfcourt and ran it in for a dunk, then Nurkic laid in the ball off of a Covington assist. That would engage the Blazers in a dogfight that would last the balance of the game. The separation never got more than a bucket as the teams traded scores and misses.
San Antonio had the ball with 40 seconds left up one when Covington picked the pocket of Lonnie Walker IV at the arc. He hit Powell on the run for a goaltended layup. That gave Portland a 107-106 lead. The Spurs had the ball down one with 23 seconds remaining. The game closed with an absolutely frantic series wherein San Antonio got up three shots off of a pair of offensive rebounds, but Portland defended all successfully. DeRozan, Rudy Gay, and Jakob Poetl all had their chance, but the Blazers walked away with the win.
Stay tuned for extended analysis from Marlow Ferguson, Jr.
The Blazers draw the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday afternoon at 4:00 PM, Pacific.