Anybody that thought Portland was going to walk into the AT&T Center in San Antonio and steamroll their way to a win probably doesn’t watch too many NBA games. I understand that when a team benches four of their starters, three of them perennial All-Stars, there’s an expectation that that team is not going to be as good as they would normally be. What needs to be remembered, though, is that every single player on that roster is a professional basketball player, and to think that a group of professionals, regardless if they average 35 minutes a night or have been inactive since October, won’t show up to play is a little naive. But to also think that a group of Spurs role players would be able to overcome Portland, if and when they decided to play, would be equally naive.
Not to say that any Blazer fans are naive, or aren’t knowledgeable about the NBA, I’m just saying that, as Friday’s win at home against these same Spurs showed, basketball games are 48 minutes. Playing poorly for 10 to 12 minutes hurts, there’s no doubt about that, but one bad stretch, especially against a team of subs, wasn’t enough to knock out Portland on Monday.
The Blazers won’t get another chance like this. There aren’t other coaches like Gregg Popovich, guys that have no problem benching everybody that the fans came to see, and if the Blazers would have succumbed to their stagnant play in the third quarter, Monday would have been an opportunity missed, and a big step in the wrong direction. So, if every loss is a step back, why can’t every win, even an ugly one like Monday’s, be a step forward. I think it can be, and I’m going to overlook some of the problems Portland had, and talk instead about how winning Monday was just what the Blazers needed at this point in the season.
Overcoming adversity is the first positive take away from Monday. As I’ve said, and others have said, many times over the last few days, Portland is not in the Playoffs as of yet. Because of that, every win matters, and every win counts. In the third quarter, the Blazers fell apart. Every possession was forced and awful, there was no flow to the offense, and as a result an undermanned Spurs team was allowed to play their way back into the game, and get themselves basically in the driver’s seat. Portland needed to find a way to overcome their offensive inefficiencies, and they needed to do it in a hurry. There’s no better statistical indicator of the deep dig performed by the Blazers than this: Portland scored a meager nine points in the third quarter, not only their lowest scoring period of the evening by far but the lowest scoring third quarter of all of 2010-11, in the fourth quarter the Blazers turned it all around offensively, scoring 33 points and slamming the door on San Antonio. This ability to overcome adversity will come in handy next time Portland takes the court against everyday players.
Guys stepping up is another positive take away. Much like overcoming the poor play in the third quarter, Portland needed to figure out a way to get things done on offense. Sunday’s loss in Oklahoma City featured offense only from Gerald Wallace and LaMarcus Aldridge, and almost nobody else. LA and Crash weren’t the offensive killers on Monday that they were on Sunday, so the Blazers had to look elsewhere for scorers. Monday, Andre Miller led the way, and Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum played the roles of supporting scorers. All season, Portland has been able to spread the scoring around. Monday they showed once again they were able to get the ball to guys that were hot, and ride those hot hands to a victory. Dre, who we might want to start calling the Spur Killer, scored 26 points, and got a few big buckets down the stretch. Nicolas Batum hit a huge three late in the fourth quarter, and Wesley Matthews attacked all night. Positives all.
One more, albeit limited, positive take away from Monday night was bench play. Limited, in the sense that Portland’s bench is extremely thing, and also limited in the sense that the Blazer bench, specifically Brandon Roy, was one of Portland’s big problems all game long. Brandon, playing with a sore back, among other maladies, seemed to be moving slower than normal, and struggled with the ball in his hands. This will be a problem down the stretch, seeing as B Roy has now replaced Patty Mills as the back-up point guard. Brandon turned the ball over five times. I know this doesn’t sound like a positive, but just wait for it. For all of Brandon’s bad play, he and Rudy Fernandez were both able to provide a much needed jolt of offense. If Brandon can get healthy, and Rudy can stay consistent, bringing these two guys off the bench is a big weapon for the Blazers. Along with the bench offense, bringing Marcus Camby off the bench gives Portland the height and the length to compete with most second units in the league.
It’s true, though, that we can’t completely overlook all of the problems Portland had Monday night. They didn’t crash the offensive boards, they let jump shooters have open jump shots, they couldn’t stop the dribble-drive penetration. More than anything, the Spurs were unable to finish more than the Blazers were able to pull off a finishing move. Much of that inability to finish on the part of the Spurs can be chalked up to the fact that San Antonio’s guys on the court aren’t used to taking crunch-time shots. Gary Neal, Matt Bonner, George Hill, and to a lesser extent Steve Novak are all great shooters, but even if Neal has hit 10 straight, when down a bucket late in a game, San Antonio goes to Manu Ginobili every time. Hard to get the ball to your dagger shooter when he’s sitting on the bench in a suit. Neal was 2-of-8 from deep, Novak, Bonner, and Hill were a combined 1-of-8. Yes they all played very well in the third quarter when there was only a little bit of pressure. But they all folded from behind the arc down the stretch when the pressure was on.
The Blazers have won the season series for the second straight year against the San Antonio Spurs, which in and of itself is pretty impressive. Right now, we can look at this game as an ugly grind that should have been a walk through, and see that as a caveat that overshadows this win. When it’s all said and done, though, a win’s a win. A win, on the road, against the team with the league’s best record, in the middle of a brutal road trip and at the beginning of a really tough stretch run, is a pretty big win, to say the least.
Portland finishes this road swing Wednesday night in New Orleans.
Just one quick thought:
- In the middle of the first half of Monday’s game, I was struck with a thought. Would Portland be able to do what San Antonio did? By that, I mean, could Portland bench most of their starters, and play the scrubs big minutes. You tell me. What would a Blazer team look like starting Armon Johnson, Chris Johnson, Luke Babbitt, and Jarron Collins? Who would get the second unit minutes? Oh, what it must be like to follow a team with a full roster.