Not because of a lack of fight or hustle, but because Portland played down to its competition — sure, hard-playing, well-coached competition, but inferior nonetheless. Because Portland executed so poorly it almost threw a bankable win out the window. Because Portland, who surrendered 68 points in the paint and couldn’t extend a lead all night, didn’t play up to the early standards that had earned the Blazers first place in the Western Conference standings.
So against San Antonio last night, in contrast to a valiant loss against Memphis without Damian Lillard or a road trip-ending heartbreaker in Dallas, moral victories would’ve been hard to conjure — until Portland buckled down late to get the only victory that matters:
A 117-110 win on the scoreboard.
“I’m happy to come out of that game with a W because I don’t think we played great,” head coach Chauncey Billups said, “but good enough to win.”
In the end, the Blazers know they must play better, but they don’t have to take in that lesson with the painful, infuriating consequence of a loss. Instead, other storylines can take center stage — storylines like the heart of Drew Eubanks and a momentous late rally that displayed this unit’s resilience once again.
Lillard sees the lesson through the confetti.
“We can’t have those lulls,” he said to reporters in the postgame locker room. “We gotta be sharp and we don’t have the luxury to be that team to turn it on and off. We gotta be on all the time and we gotta make sure we do those things that make us who we are and [that give] us a chance to be successful....Tonight we weren’t consistent enough.”
Portland came out the gate sluggish, as San Antonio leapt out to a 16-4 lead in the opening four minutes. The Spurs were executing like a Gregg Popovich team does, hitting six of their first seven shots and assisting on all of them (21 assists on 23 made baskets for the first half). Jusuf Nurkic appeared out of sorts in his first game back from injury after missing over a week, getting torched relentlessly by Jakob Poeltl who finished with a career night: 31 points (14-17 FG), 14 rebounds (5 offensive), 5 assists.
Billups had to turn to his bench early, subbing in Eubanks and rookie Shaedon Sharpe, and only then did the Blazers bring energy. Eubanks did a better job down low and Sharpe was a much-needed flame in Portland’s offense, scoring 13 points in 15 minutes on an array of three-pointers and poised mid-range jumpers.
After the lackluster start, Portland woke up enough to go into halftime with a 52-46 lead.
“I told [Eubanks and Sharpe] at halftime, ‘Y’all changed the game for us. Starters, we got to be better,’” Billups said. “We shouldn’t put the pressure on the reserves to come in and fuel us.”
Even with a lead, Portland’s offense played out of sync. For much of the night, the Blazers overcame disjointed rhythm with superb play from Jerami Grant (29 points), sudden bursts and three-pointers, but they couldn’t sustain quality play long enough to put San Antonio to bed. The third quarter was agonizing. Portland’s largest lead at 72-63 slowly crumbled as the Blazers gave the game back to San Antonio. The offense screeched to a halt. The home crowd grew restless. Portland threw away eight turnovers, many of them ugly and unforced — lost dribbles, passes to nobody, what-are-you-thinking? passes to the third row. Portland actually won the turnover battle 19-17, but that horrendous third quarter mucked up the perception, along with San Antonio’s 31 deflections to Portland’s 14.
“We gave a few souvenirs this game to some fans,” Billups quipped afterward. “...I just felt like [they deflected a lot of balls] which threw off the timing of our passes on some of the plays. It was just a funky game.”
Eventually, San Antonio retook the lead at 94-93 and pushed it to 106-100 with under seven minutes left. On the brink of their worst loss of the season, that’s when the Blazers put their foot down.
“We kinda told ourselves, ‘It has to happen right now,’” said Anfernee Simons postgame, who finished with a solid 23 points.
That final push sparked from two sources one might not expect when thinking about the Blazers: Eubanks and defense.
The undersized 6-9 center was traded by this very Spurs organization last February, leading to his release from the Raptors and the possible end of his NBA career. That is until his hometown team revived it with a couple 10-day contracts he made good on. Less than a year after that transaction drama, Eubanks closed with the starters last night and kickstarted the game-saving run.
First, he scored two off a pick-and-roll pass from Lillard. Then, he snatched the lead right back from his former team with a strong finish through contact.
His box score of 9 points (4-5 FG) and 7 rebounds impacted the game in ways beyond timely scoring, as he finished with a team-high plus-28 on the night and played 17 more minutes than Nurkic.
“I’ve just been so proud of Drew,” Billups said. “He gives us toughness, he gives us that competitive fight every single night. He’s up at the level, he’s trapping, he’s getting extra opportunities, offensive rebounds. He has been huge for us this year.”
Eubanks helped propel a 17-4 run for Portland to close the game. The defense tightened, forcing San Antonio to shoot 2-11 from the field with four turnovers over the final six minutes.
“I think in the past we would be like, ‘Alright, somebody gotta get it going,’” Lillard said. “And the energy on our team now feels like, ‘We gotta get some stops. We gotta stop them. We gotta get rebounds.’ I think that’s the difference and that’s why we’re able to win a lot of these games.”
Lillard and the Blazers possessed an emotional intensity late that made it seem losing was not an option. That was most evident when Lillard blocked 6-8 Keita Bates-Diop in the post, roared to the crowd, then drilled a bomb to put the Blazers up 110-106.
“When guys see how personal I’m taking it and how personal Josh [Hart] is going to take it...it’s infectious,” Lillard said.
By the time Simons went to the free throw line with a 115-110 lead and under 30 seconds remaining, the Moda Center exhaled. I’m guessing the Blazers exhaled a little, too. They won a game they had no business losing.
Now they can move onto the next one, still owners of the best record in the Western Conference, with no scars to bear.