LaMarcus Aldridge acted as the defensive captain LaMarcus Aldridge acted as the defensive captain

Trail Blazers: Observations from Game 4


May 12, 2014; Portland, OR, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) shoots between San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan (21) and Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard (2) in the first half of game four of the second round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

1.) LaMarcus Aldridge acted as the defensive captain

It’s no secret that the Trail Blazers’ defense hasn’t quite been very good, and I think a large part of that has been general disorganization. Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews are both serviceable individual perimeter defenders, but the team defense has been sorely lacking.

I was quite pleased to see Alridge stepping up and asserting himself as a voice for the defense last night. More than once, I saw him yelling, directing, or gesticulating toward his fellow teammates to get them in the right position. Leadership in the NBA isn’t just about talent – no, there is a whole other host of responsibilities that come with it. I am happy to see Aldridge stepping into and embracing this role more and more.

2.) The Spurs missed open shots

Not to be a Debbie Downer, but the Spurs missed quite a few open shots. I find that the more horizontal nature of the camera angles seen on TV can’t convey this quite as well as the more vertical viewing angle of being their live but trust me, the Spurs got their looks. This part definitely worries me – the Trail Blazers got the results they wanted to see, but the process that led to these results was still far from great.

The team gets collectively buried on screens, and the Spurs are masters of abusing mismatches. While the defense was improved from Games 1-3, to take the next one when the Spurs will be at home will require another gear. We shall find out if the Blazers have that gear.

3.) It was good to see Terry Stotts try something new

Minutiae aside, looking at the first three games of the series in a big picture sense, whatever the Blazers were doing wasn’t working. Three losses by fifteen points or more are enough evidence of that. This is why I was quite pleased to see CJ McCollum and Will Barton entering the game late in the first quarter.

It was apparent that some change, any change, needed to be made. While Stotts’ hand was somewhat forced by Mo Williams’ groin injury, I’m sure more people than just I were surprised with a McCollum sighting. Obviously the Barton gamble paid off handsomely, but I like the bigger picture trend here.

In 2012, the Spurs seemed to be marching toward another championship appearance. They had won their first 10 playoff games, and were up 2-0 against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. The rest is history – the Thunder went on to win four straight games en route to a championship appearance. The takeaway from this series is how the Thunder won that series (I honestly think it’s fair to say that the Spurs were the better team).

For lack of more sophisticated terms, the Thunder were able to “out-fast” and “out-youth” the Spurs. Their frenetic pace, and willingness to fly all around the court allowed them to pull off the comeback. This is what I saw shades of in Barton – a chaotic ball of pure energy that the Spurs couldn’t really keep up with. Obviously, the Trail Blazers are not the Thunder, but the blueprint is there if an unprecedented comeback is to happen. If Barton can replicate his spark and his production, that could go a long way toward helping the Blazers.

4.) The Spurs’ discipline compared to the Blazers’

After Lillard’s dunk (the one currently making the YouTube rounds), I witnessed one of the most ‘Spurs’ moments of the night. Rather than being caught up in the emotion, or set on their heels, the Spurs quickly inbounded and flew up the court. Lillard meanwhile, was showboating and flexing for the crowd.

As a result of his delay, the Blazers defense could not quite set up properly, leading to Lillard checking Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs quickly did their thing, where it ended up in a wide open Patty Mills’ hands. He was able to quickly drain the easy jumper.

These types of mistakes drive me nuts. Great dunk? Sure. Did it get the crowd pumped up? Absolutely. Did the celebration and resulting delay afterwards cost the team? Yes. While Lillard didn’t appear responsible for giving up the open jumper, there is definitely a butterfly effect when mismatches present themselves to the Spurs.

News flash: that Spurs jumper means just as much as Lillard’s dunk on the scoreboard. This is just one example, and I don’t mean to be overly criticize Lillard. Overall, the Blazers’ style of play is rife with these foolish errors and mental mistakes. Obviously the players need to hold themselves accountable, but I’m putting a lot of this on Head Coach Terry Stotts. This stuff needs to be gone by the playoffs.

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