There were two possible ways for the game to start: the Blazers could either surrender before even setting foot on the court and come out flat or be determined to go down swinging and rush the Spurs with raw energy. They chose the latter. Aldridge and Lillard, who have notoriously struggled on offense came out hot and everyone wearing Rip City jerseys was going all out to secure 50/50 balls. Batum was as aggressive as I've ever seen him, trying to attack whenever possible and making his presence felt on both ends.
But the one draw back to that appropriately desperate approach is that it didn't help limit the turnover woes the Blazers have suffered from throughout the series. Portland had seven TOs in the first quarter which, along with the Spurs' dominance of the offensive glass early on, afforded the Spurs the few extra possessions they needed to stay close. Despite shooting a dismal 38% from the floor to the Blazers' 60%, San Antonio withstood the first punch and only trailed by five after Portland's roaring start, 29-24.
The second quarter started out sloppy. Both teams had some early turnovers and couldn't really execute all that well on the half court. So they ran instead. Both benches pushed the pace and tried to attack early but since neither could get stops all that consistently, they mostly traded buckets. Diaw and Belinelli did most of the damage for the Spurs while Will Barton wore his Mo Williams cape and carried the Blazers' bench.
Once the starters checked back in, the game slowed down a bit, which seemed to serve the Spurs better. Tony Parker continued to punish Portland from mid-range and the Spurs' defense tightened up, holding the Blazers to only 36% from the field. But just like it had happened in the first quarter, the team that was playing better couldn't control all the variables. Fast break points and offensive boards kept the Blazers afloat as Lillard and Batum came back to earth. It took four games, but for the first time it was close at the half as Portland took a 50-48 lead into the locker room.
Then the third quarter collapse happened. I wouldn't say I was expecting it but I knew it was a distinct possibility that the Spurs' starters, who were not sharp to start the game, were going to struggle to begin the second half. As mentioned, the offense from the starting unit survived on Parker mid-range jumpers. Green and Splitter weren't involved and Leonard and Duncan were bit players. The offense continued to get the same shots but Parker was hesitant to pull the trigger. Unfortunately, nothing else was working. And making matters worse, just when the Spurs were stuck in mud, the Blazers started clicking on all cylinders.
Nicolas Batum flashed his play making ability by finding Robin Lopez on the pick-and-roll for some easy buckets inside. As the ball moved, the threes started falling. Duncan tried to keep the lead from ballooning by pulling the offense to himself but at that point the onslaught seemed inevitable. Batum hit back-to-back threes (including one in which he was sent to the line), then Lillard extended the lead to 14 with one of his own after a Robinson dunk. The momentum was definitely on the Blazers' side after that and not even some heady play from Diaw to close the quarter was enough to swing it.
It's not like the Spurs had no opportunities to make it a game in the fourth quarter. But the open threes didn't fall and the Blazers, to their credit, didn't panic. They simply kept feeding their stars the ball in favorable positions and reaping the rewards. The Spurs grew more desperate and started chucking up shots but never found that spark they were missing with Ginobili struggling. Pop waved the white flag for good with around seven minutes to go in the fourth. The Blazers avoided the sweep with a well-earned 103-92 win.
- Is it time to get worried? I don't think so. Not yet, at least. The Spurs will have three more opportunities to close this thing out, if they need them. And while the Blazers did execute well and had a physical edge on this one, the previous three games showed which is the better team. Will Barton likely won't catch fire again. The Spurs won't go 1-9 on threes on the first three quarters again. The Blazers were fired up and performed admirably. But this series is still the Spurs' to lose. I expect them to come out looking for blood next time, like they did against the Mavs on game 7. If they do, there's just nothing Portland can do to avoid elimination.
- Manu Ginobili was terrible tonight. He's been having a bad series in general but it's been a while since I've seen him play such a poor game. He missed shots and got burned on defense but perhaps most worrying, he looked tentative and frail. Ginobili rarely complains about physical problems, yet on the latest installment of his usual column in Spanish he mentioned, after game 2, how tired and banged up he was on three different occasions. If anyone on the Spurs needs the rest that would come from closing out the series in five, it's Manu.
- Tim Duncan and Tony Parker were not bad but were not close to their usual level, either. Both had moments in which they carried the offense and both have decent stat lines. But Duncan keeps having trouble on the defensive glass against the relentless Lopez and Parker finished with only one assist. The Spurs' problems securing boards and their inability to get the role players involved killed them. And Tony and Tim didn't help there. Hopefully both will play a more complete game in San Antonio.
- As mentioned, the rest of the starters had quiet games. They were all solid on defense but no one provided the boost that was needed. Green and Leonard combined for 4-12 from the floor (0-5 form three) and never really hurt a Blazers' defense scheme that was daring role players to break it. Splitter played a good game but he's spoiled us with better performances lately. No one was terrible but no one was even close to great, either.
- The three bench role players, on the other hand, were perhaps the sole bright spot. They combined for 21 points in the first half. Marco was constantly moving without the ball, creating looks for himself and spacing for the whole offense. Diaw bailed the team out a couple of times by creating buckets off post ups. Mills' outside shooting was sorely needed and he responded. And Baynes pulled down five boards in under six minutes in the first half. We know these guys can't defend but they are doing what's asked of them on offense. Despite the Blazer bench going off, the loss is not on the Spurs' subs.
- Nicolas Batum must simultaneously be one of the most frustrating players to root for and one of the most fun. The guy has the talent to be a truly special player, a two-way force to be reckoned with. But he too often plays timidly on offense, like he is unaware of how good he can be. When he turns it on like he did today, however, he can affect all parts of the game. With two stars already in place, the Blazers' future championship aspirations might rest on Batum finding a way to stay in attack mode more often.
Game 5 will be played in San Antonio on Wednesday. Hopefully, the home crowd will energize the Spurs and they will close it out.
For the opponent's perspective, visit our friends over at Blazer's Edge