The Portland Trail Blazers needed a win over the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday night to solidify their claim to one of the top six spots in the NBA’s Western Conference playoffs race. After beating the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday, they earned the head-to-head tiebreaker against their famous southern rivals. Another victory would go a long way towards helping them avoid a play-in seed.
Behind big scoring from Damian Lillard and masterful inside play by center Jusuf Nurkic, the Blazers got what they needed, winning easily, 124-102. The game started slow for both teams, but once Portland’s offense broke open, San Antonio couldn’t find enough defensive sandbags to stop it. Lillard tallied 30 points and 8 assists, carrying Portland through the first half. Nurkic added 17 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 assists, helping his team blow it open in the second. CJ McCollum provided the knockout punch with 27 points on 10-21 shooting.
The win takes Portland to a 39-29 record, good for 6th place in the West. They’re a half game behind the Dallas Mavericks for 5th, 1.5 games ahead of the Lakers in 7th. Portland owns tiebreakers against both teams.
The Blazers didn’t make it easy on themselves to start the game. They went away from their recent trend of Damian Lillard aggression at the outset of the game. CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic just couldn’t deliver the same zip. Portland missed their first 8 shots as San Antonio pulled out to a 9-0 lead. The Spurs kept that margin through the first half of the period, but a couple turnovers and a three-pointer or two helped Portland crawl back. Scoring wasn’t plentiful, so the distance shots had an outsized effect. Lillard and Norman Powell followed up the long-range bombs with stiff drives for layups. When McCollum got an and-one on an out-of-control leaner at the 4:00 mark, the Blazers made it all the way back, taking the lead 19-17. Scoring remained relatively scarce after. Lillard tallied points from foul shots. The Spurs got free for open shots with screens but failed to hit most of them. The result was a relatively-labored, but still acceptable, period that ended with the Blazers leading 27-26. Lillard had 10 points in the period, 8 off of free throws.
The teams continued to play “miss it or turn it over” as the second period commenced. It’s not like either defense was stellar. The game just had that, “Playing in Greased Jell-o” feeling. Gregg Popovich appeared to get annoyed with his team mid-period as they failed to cover the arc, much to McCollum’s benefit. A guard trio of McCollum, Lillard, and Anfernee Simons proved surprisingly effective on defense. Downhill momentum finally broke the Blazers out of the sludge and into a decent, 8-point lead. Then Dame started torching the Spurs at the three-point arc, looking steely-eyed coming off of Jusuf Nurkic screens, pouring in the points. The lead rose to 11 before Portland’s suspect interior defense helped San Antonio crawl back in it. But three-point barrages seldom do the Blazers wrong. Nor did this one. Portland led by 10, 57-47, at the half. Lillard’s total was up to 21 by this point, courtesy of three triples in the second.
The Blazers started the third period with the same plan with which they had started the game, this time to considerably more success. Nurkic scored repeatedly inside. He also fed McCollum for open jumpers. San Antonio, still keeping half an eye on Lillard, couldn’t keep up. Portland sprinted out to a 72-56 lead. The Spurs fought back gamely, but Nurk continued to roll. He got layups, put-backs, and even hit Dame with a nice pass or three. All of a sudden, the Blazers looked unstoppable. Portland’s rebounding stayed strong, holding the Spurs to one shot. When San Antonio hit, they looked good. That wasn’t often enough to turn the game, though. It’s hard to build a comeback on one-and-done, especially when Lillard gets rolling, as he seemed to do in each period tonight. Portland led 90-75 after three.
The fourth quarter resembled the second at its outset, with sludge play dominating. Since the Blazers were up 15-16 points, slow pace and mediocre offense helped them. The clocked droned on for a good 5 minutes before the teams even combined for 16 points. There was no way San Antonio was going to be able to make up that large of a deficit in that, or any, span. Portland got a chance to rest most of their starters, letting McCollum shine as the lead scorer. He delivered, scoring 7 to drive the victory bus home.
Stay tuned for Marlow Ferguson Jr.’s analysis of the evening, coming soon!
The Blazers welcome the Houston Rockets in their penultimate home game of the season on Monday evening at 8:00 PM, Pacific.