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Spurs Play Imperfectly, Still Beat Depleted Trail Blazers

Victor Wembanyama had an up and down night, but Portland couldn’t capitalize.

Portland Trailblazers v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

The Portland Trail Blazers had a tough task against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night: handle Victor Wembanyama using center Deandre Ayton and a little help, then score enough to outpace the rest of the Spurs.

As it turned out, the plan had no chance of working. Portland lost Jerami Grant and Scoot Henderson before intermission, leaving their defense extended and their offense impoverished. Wembanyama pasted 23 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks on them. To their credit, the Blazers held Wemby to 7-18 shooting and forced him into 7 turnovers. But their own offense wasn’t near good enough to capitalize on his flaws.

Portland shot 42.2% from the floor for the game, 27.0% from the three-point arc. Anfernee Simons had a huge night, scoring 40. Ayton helped with 20 points and 12 rebounds on 10-17 shooting. But the Blazers only managed 100 total points against 116 for the Spurs. No matter how you dress it up, that’s a defeat.

Here’s how the game went.

First Quarter

The Blazers started the game by sending 9 men—the entire first unit. three guys off the bench, and a popcorn vendor—to guard Victor Wembanyama. They tried to deny him the ball and any kind of openings on the floor. That left everyone else on the Spurs open. They responded with a dunk, two layups, and a pair pf threes in the first 3:45 of play. Wemby had zero points, but the Spurs notched 12 on 55% shooting.

Wembanyama had a couple of blocks on the other end, but he couldn’t stop Anfernee Simons from hitting a pair of threes to keep the Blazers close. San Antonio led 14-12 at the first break with 7:26 left in the first.

The Blazers kept bombing from straightaway, both at the arc and inside, over the next couple of minutes. They hit 4 of 6 jumpers at or above the free throw line area against a sagging Spurs defense. But they could not keep San Antonio from converting again and again at the rim. The Spurs’ shot chart looked like a tightly-packed target range grouping from an expert marksman, except they didn’t need that much expertise to drop the ball in the bucket from two feet. If Anfernee Simons hadn’t gone crazy, Portland would have been sunk. But Ant had a dozen points in the first 8:30, actually giving his team a 25-22 lead.

San Antonio continued their stubborn insistence as the period closed, trying to pound it in the paint no matter what the cost. Without Wembanyama in the game, though, Portland didn’t respect them nearly as much. They guarded single coverage, rebounded with two men, and covered three-point shooters on the pass-out. To be fair. the Spurs missed a couple dead easy layup attempts that should have gone through. But hey...luck is a part of basketball too.

When the smoke cleared, the Blazers led 33-26 after one. Anfernee Simons had 15 points at the quarter break.

Second Quarter

Wembanyama checked in for the start of the second period. San Antonio’s defense went from soggy to superior in an instant. They forced the Blazers to the edges of the floor, attempting tough shots. This was in direct contrast to the center-of-the-court attempts Portland feasted on in the first period. Worse, turnovers and long misses allowed the Spurs to run out for repeated fast-break attempts, often accompanied by fouls. Two minutes into the second quarter. Head Coach Chauncey Billups called a momentum-stopping timeout with his team up only 1, 35-34.

Portland’s cause wasn’t helped by the absence of Jerami Grant, out for the remainder of the game because of back soreness. That left the Blazers playing Deandre Ayton with Jabari Walker. That was good for rebounding, but neither player could stretch the floor for the other the way Grant can. The Spurs responded by guarding the interior even tighter, compounding Portland’s problem.

When the Blazers stuck Ayton on Wembanyama and sent help towards the interior, Wemby showed exactly why he was the consensus #1 pick in last year’s NBA draft. He stepped out and drained a pair of three-pointers every bit as accurate and bankable as Simons’ had been on the other end.

The score remained close through much of the second, as the teams traded shots and turnovers. Portland finally got some tempo into their offense, allowing them to score inside before the Spurs got set up. That countered the miscue-layups and threes the Spurs were prospering from.

When stuck in the halfcourt, the Blazers worked through Ayton, midway out through the lane. Turn-around jumpers and half-hooks became a staple, though neither proved reliable. Ayton’s offense just isn’t turned up to high this season. He’s a watched pot refusing to boil.

The Blazers didn’t have a ton of alternatives, though. With Grant gone, they lost Scoot Henderson to a quad contusion, leaving them playing heavy doses of Matisse Thybulle, Toumani Camara, and Jabari Walker. That trio wasn’t going to produce much offense. Ayton and whichever scoring guard played alongside him would have to carry the day.

Slowly but surely, Portland’s offensive deficiencies drug them downward, deeper than their defense could compensate for. San Antonio started to crawl away, pushing the lead to 5. That doesn’t seem like much, but remember they started the period down 7. Ayton continued to score as he could, but Wembanyama was on another level. Wemby had 18 points at the break in 13 minutes of play. San Antonio led 62-57 at the half.

Third Quarter

Proving that everyone is mortal, Victor Wembanyama turned over the ball twice and missed a three-pointer as the third quarter began. Deandre Ayton hit a jumper on the run, putting the shock paddles to the irregular rhythm of Portland’s threadily-beating hope for a win.

Ayton hit a couple more shots, but his misses looked gruesome. Anfernee Simons didn’t get many attempts and went cold. Wembanyama began carving up Portland’s defense with passes instead of shots. That allowed the Spurs to counteract whatever the Blazers managed on offense. They didn’t streak ahead but they maintained their 6-point lead with consistency.

The latter minutes of the period took on the character of a slowly-leaking balloon. Portland just wasn’t able to score quite as much as San Antonio. There wasn’t really a huge run...the Spurs aren’t actually that good. A bucket here, a bucket there, half-unanswered, and San Antonio had the lead up to double digits. It was like watching a comedy competition where nobody is that funny, but at least one guy has stage presence.

The deeper bench tightened up the defense as the third quarter closed. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to stop the leak. Damage had been done, though. The Blazers trailed 88-78 after three.

Fourth Quarter

If you want to know how the game was going, check out this sequence from the second minute of the fourth quarter.

Duop Reath tried to set a screen for Anfernee Simons high on the left side of the court. But instead of setting it, he and Simons collided like two Star Destroyers chasing the Millennium Falcon. Simons retained the ball and his dribble, then Reath set a proper screen. But Simons declined it, going the opposite direction of the pick, rendering it moot. He drove into a double team, then had to bail out to Rayan Rupert, who was covered and had little idea what to do with the ball. He took a couple steps inside, then tossed the ball back to Reath, still out at the three-point arc, for a contested three that wasn’t close.

It sounds painful, but in reality sequences like this evoked sighs of weary resignation.

Portland would not even score until the 8:28 mark of the fourth, when Simons took a “screw it” drive down the lane, got a relatively-open look for a layup, and missed it. He was fouled on the play and hit both free throws.

The Blazers’ first field goal would come with 7:41 remaining, a Simons floater in the lane. That was one possession after Portland had two players battle for an offensive rebound, only to fumble it away, allowing the Spurs a streaking, authoritative dunk.

Suffice it to say that, no matter which personnel the Blazers put on the floor, they couldn’t generate enough offense to make a difference. Simons took the offense in hand and rained down some deep shots, but it wasn’t enough. With a little bit of effort, San Antonio made their ninth win of the season a foregone conclusion.

Up Next

Stay tuned for extended analysis of the game coming soon.

Boxscore

The Blazers draw the mercurial Chicago Bulls at the Moda Center on Sunday evening with a 6:00 PM, Pacific start.