It was a hell of a ride.
After a season of exceeding expectations, improbable game-winning shots, and coming back from the dead over and over and over again, the Portland Trail Blazers made 1 (or 5, or 6) too many mistakes, and the San Antonio Spurs made them pay dearly. The Spurs took the series in 5 games and Game 5 itself sometime in the 3rd quarter. The final score was 104-82.
It’s very hard to talk about this game without putting it in the context of the rest of the season. Nobody expected these Blazers to be here. Not the widest-eyed optimist, not the most die hard of die hard fans, not the most stylishly contrary of TV analysts would have said that these Blazers would win 50+ games, make the playoffs in the competitive West as a 5 seed, and earn their first conference semifinal berth in nearly a generation.
Having said this, this game hurt. You really wanted a win. But if not a win, you wanted it to be very close. And if not very close, you wanted it not to be a blowout. Blazers fans got none of those things.
And yet, this moment of defeat has a shine on it, even now, that was cast when Damian Lillard came around two picks in Game 6 against Houston. Clapping his hands furiously, he received the ball and quickly shuffled into his shooting stance, rose up over Chandler Parsons, and delivered the knockout blow heard ’round the world.
There is just nothing about this season, as a whole, that you can point to and say the Blazers failed to meet expectations.
There are, however, plenty of places where expectations need to be set much higher before Portland becomes a legitimate contender in a very dangerous and competitive Western Conference. Some of those deficiencies (again) played out before us tonight.
First and foremost is a bench. After one game of relative competence, the bench reverted right back to to their norm, which in this case meant 8 points. Without Mo Williams, yeah, that sounds about right. I don’t know how much money the Blazers have to throw around, and I’m no salary cap expert, but being able to shore up the bench with a legitimate backup big and/or (hopefully and) either a true backup point or a backup defensive specialist will be quite useful. Remember: the goal isn’t necessarily to have a high-octane, high-punch second unit, but at the very least ones that can hold leads for long enough to give the starters meaningful rest. The Blazers just didn’t have that this year.
Second would be an assortment of defensive schemes, all of which are competent, and all of which serve specific purposes to counter certain offensive sets they would be guarding. The bonus here is that 4 of the Blazers’ starting five have been together for 2 years, and in the ’14-’15 season, barring a blockbuster trade or Lopez walking, it will be all five. And 3 of the starting five have been together for going on 5 years. You can’t buy that level of trust and familiarity. If Stotts can either develop some defensive cohesion, or get someone on his staff who can, things will get super legit, super fast. Also, if Lillard can only learn how to navigate screens… but let’s leave that for another day.
Third, in this game at least, was turnovers. 18 of them, to be exact, or one and a half dozen. That… is a whole lot of turnovers. It lead to 20 Spurs points which, by the way, was just about the final margin of defeat. Some of them came at very bad times. Some of them swung momentum. But all of them stung when you knew the Blazers needed to play damn near perfectly to pull off a win, and they didn’t do it.
As for individual notes, LaMarcus Aldridge had 21 points, but needed just as many shots to get them. He also had 10 rebounds. He was at his best when he decided he was going to get to the rack, foul or no foul, finish or no finish. Given what the Spurs threw at him, I thought he did quite well, even if that meant scoring a tick below his season average. He had an amazing year. While it’s greedy and can’t be expected, it is nonetheless possible that he improves slightly next year. That would be amazing.
Lillard had 17 points and 10 assists. He never quite looked comfortable, but he, too, was most at ease getting to the paint and into the teeth of the Spurs defense. If he can improve even a little on the defensive end, he’s going to start entering the conversation as a top-3 point guard in the league.The future is very bright for Lillard.
Nicolas Batum had 10-12-5, but also had 6 turnovers. The eye test told you that he was staying aggressive, but sometimes forced the issue. In other words, classic Batum. The big difference with Batum this year compared to the past: he is engaged every minute he’s on the court, whether it’s from scoring, or passing, or rebounding, or defending. Portland is lucky to have him.
Wesley Matthews, once again, left his soul on the court. He earned his 14 points. He, too, showed marked improvement this year, especially in finishing on the break and with his post-ups. He is a tireless worker. Don’t be surprised if he adds yet another facet to his game during the offseason.
And Robin Lopez. What can you say about this guy? The Blazers wouldn’t have touched 45 wins, let alone 54, without RoLo. While he “only” had 12 and 9 in this game, he only completed his second season as a starter. His offense has a long way to go, but he’s a willing participant. It may sound corny to keep pointing out how every single Blazers starter can improve, but it all feels true, and RoLo is no exception.
It’s very hard to evaluate the bench, suffice to say that Thomas Robinson and Will Barton have oodles of potential. It’s harder to see in C.J. McCollum sometimes, but it’s there. As for Meyers Leonard… um… he tried.
So there you have it. Another game, another series, another season in the books. I will never forget this year. I could drink a bad carton of milk and find myself in an irreversible coma, but I am never forgetting this season. Ever.
Thank you to everyone who made it was it was, and thanks most of all to the Trail Blazers organization, owners, GM, coach Stotts, and all the players who made this season what it was.
Stick around for the offseason and I’ll see you all next year.