Trail Blazers survive in wake of Spurs’ historically cold night
In the aftermath, it felt like an aberration in what had previously been a totally lopsided series. Then again, it also felt like something we’d expected all along.
A desperate Portland Trail Blazers team gave us a glimpse into that dynamic offensive attack that had all of us anticipating a competitive series; and now, a 103-92 Game 4 victory over the Spurs means there’s at least one more trip back to the snake pit in San Antonio.
Still, in reality, this series is over, as all that remains is the final-game formality. At least that’s what history tells us. Never before has an NBA team fallen behind 3-0 in a seven-game series and come back to win, and given the opponent in front of them it’s difficult to imagine this Portland group being the first to ever do it.
For at least one night, though, we saw the youth, speed and energy we thought would give the Spurs problems, ramping up to a 35-20 third-quarter haymaker – including a 20-7 run over the final five minutes of the period – that knocked San Antonio on its ass and the Big Three into an early night off. That’s when Portland hit the afterburners, but it had been on turbo all night.
The Trail Blazers played with a chaos from the opening tip the Spurs had an impossible time corralling. Damian Lillard was dipping in and out of pick-and-rolls early in the shot clock, attacking or pulling up off the dribble without hesitation and moving the ball to spot-up shooters when the San Antonio defense found itself scrambling; LaMarcus Aldridge was screening and popping with regularity, not allowing himself to bog down into isolation post-up situations in which Tiago Splitter had dominated him for most of the previous three games; and Nicolas Batum dominated in his unique fashion, falling only two assists shy of a triple-double and hitting some backbreaking 3-pointers in that explosive third-quarter run.
Portland played at a pace of 97.48 possessions per 48 minutes during the regular season, a speed right on par with San Antonio’s 97.07. But the Blazers cranked that up to a level the Spurs couldn’t handle on Monday, riding a pace of 101.4 to blitz to the win. The frantic style of play forced the young Blazers into 10 first-half turnovers that kept San Antonio within two points at the break, but was the closest they’d get the rest of the way. The Spurs managed to grasp at shoestrings of the runaway Blazers for 24 minutes until there was nothing left to hold but air.
San Antonio didn’t do itself any favors, however. On top of being completely outplayed from an intensity standpoint – and hey, they were up 3-0 in the series with a plane ride home awaiting them; the incentive to reach all the way into the reserve tank isn’t quite there – the Spurs exacerbated the issue by recording a historically bad shooting game. Dating back to the 1985-86 season (as far back as Basketball-Reference can take us with these statistics), San Antonio had never combined to shoot worse from the 3-point arc (3-of-18) and free-throw line (11-of-19) on as many attempts as it did Monday.
And it wasn’t as if the opportunities weren’t there. According to NBA.com’s SportVU data, 49 of San Antonio’s 88 field-goal attempts were uncontested (no defender within four feet), and it managed to knock down only 16 of them. That’s absurd on both fronts. Spurs shooters were open all night, but they just couldn’t hit a damn thing.
Maybe it was the Blazers’ pace that wreaked some mental havoc for San Antonio. Every long rebound – hell, every missed shot for that matter – presented a chance for Portland to run, and the Spurs found themselves on their heels much more often than they were on their toes. Perhaps it was a late commitment to a strategy change for Terry Stotts, where Batum was used as the primary defender on Tony Parker while Lillard, the pick-and-roll turnstile, was tasked with sticking Danny Green, the Spurs’ best spot-up shooter.
Remember, this was a strategy that worked incredibly well for the Mavericks – hiding their worst defenders on San Antonio’s least capable off-the-dribble creators. While Batum and Wes Matthews have seen some spot duty on Parker at times during this series, it hasn’t been nearly as prevalent as was expected, though much of that has to do with Stotts’ reluctance to leave a smaller defender on Kawhi Leonard. Desperate times call for desperate measures and all that, but I feel like this strategy probably shouldn’t have been used as a last resort.
Still, you can argue it didn’t necessarily work. San Antonio actually shot a better percentage from the floor (44.3) than Portland (43.9) and, despite the craptastic 3-point and free-throw chucking, managed to shoot nearly 52 percent from 2-point range. And that was without having a ton of success at the rim. The Spurs hit just 13-of-29 attempts from inside the restricted area on Monday, a number that’s sure to go up, considering they scored on 66.2 percent of those shots through the first three games. And it wasn’t like there was suddenly extra rim protection. The Spurs shot 50 percent on the 24 shots that were actually contested at the rim, so go figure.
Another Rick Carlisleian adjustment: Portland bigs did a nice job sagging way off on pick-and-rolls, much like the Mavs did, thwarting San Antonio’s relentless penetration and forcing the Spurs to hit Duncan on those deep pick-and-pops. That’s a shot they’ll live with all day. Still, the fact remains, the Spurs got nearly everything they wanted.
Just a quick side note: SportVU has become a very helpful statistical-support tool, even given the tiny amount of information actually available to the public, but I’ve been told by a source the results the software yields are a bit more iffy than we’d all like to think. This is obviously more of an issue for NBA analytics departments than it is for writers, but the numbers should still be taken with a grain of salt. They’re pretty accurate, but still far from perfect.
Regardless, the sheer volume of uncontested attempts by the Spurs on Monday tells a bigger story. The Blazers may have picked up the pace offensively, but the question must be asked: Did Portland resort to an almost maniacal Philadelphia-like offensive pace at the expense of what little defensive efficiency it had left in the tank?
Not that that would be the worst thing for them. San Antonio destroyed the Blazers’ defense through the first three games of the series, relentlessly tearing apart pick-and-roll coverage and taking advantage of Portland’s seemingly cautious offensive approach on the other end. Instead, the home team went on the attack in Game 4 and never let the Spurs get the first big pull in the tug of war, as Lillard, Aldridge, Batum and Will freaking Barton always found an answer to any Spurs run.
You’ve got to wonder if that’s sustainable, though. Despite what felt like an offensive explosion by the Blazers, they managed to post a below-average offensive-efficiency rating (100.3 points per 100 possessions) as the Spurs gave up only 33 uncontested field goals. To be fair, Portland only hit 11 of those, which means they, too, missed some open shots, but we saw a clearly sub-par defensive performance from San Antonio. We know that team can bounce back on that side of the ball. The Blazers, on the other hand? They haven’t given us reason to allow benefit of the doubt.
On the surface, this looked ugly. Manu Ginobili continued his atrocious second-round series (26.3 percent shooting through four games, including 16.7 percent from the 3-point line), Parker looked human again (only 14 points and one (!!!) assist), Green and Marco Belinelli were neither hot nor spicy, Splitter looked downright pedestrian against LMA for the first time in a while, Leonard was shooting wide-open air-balls and nobody could hit a free throw.
When a shot that normally drops clangs off the iron and starts a fast break in the opposite direction, it’s easy to forget where the attempt originated. The most difficult part of the entire sequence is getting a good look at the basket, while the rest is just muscle memory. And that’s the thing. Sometimes our memories abandon us for fleeting moments. More than anything, Monday night was just a bad one for the Spurs, not an early sign of onset jump-shot dementia. The shots San Antonio had seen through the first three games were there once again in Game 4, they just didn’t go in this time around. In front of their home crowd on Wednesday, I’m willing to bet that sort of performance won’t happen again.
In the end, this was one loss at the hands of a very good Blazers team on a historically bad shooting night for the Spurs, but Portland is going to keep coming. If Monday was any indication, Stotts’ group is no longer interested in playing at the pace to which it was accustomed during the regular season. They’re going to keep pounding the offensive glass – they had 14 in Game 4 – and they’re going to sell out for 50-50 balls like their basketball lives depend on it, because they do.
This series just jumped from Interstate-10 to the Autobahn, and the Spurs are a classic to the Blazers’ Tesla – not quite as speedy, but devoid of the flaws inherent in the early development of anything new.
Portland is going to try and run ‘n’ gun until the wheels fall off, but San Antonio has been down this road before.
Statistical support courtesy of NBA.com/stats