Game 30 @Portland: Spurs 110, Trail Blazers 90
Record: 24-6 1st in Southwest, 2nd in West Streak: W-1
Friday night’s game at Portland was unusual in several respects. For one, it was a meeting of two winning franchises in the ultra-rare occasion of them both being in grouchy moods. The Spurs were not only coming off a flat performance against a shorthanded Clippers squad, but their star Kawhi Leonard had a very un-Spur-like final two quarters in that game, exhibiting negative body language, totally tuning out teammates on and off the floor, not celebrating the efforts of others and so on. Meanwhile, the Blazers were in their own rut. Widely expected to contend for a division title, they came into the game 13-18, with a four-game losing streak, dropping games to the likes of Dallas and Sacramento. Their defense has been reprehensible throughout and they’re not getting much of anything from their front court.
There was more to it than two teams coming off poor showings, though. There was the circumstance of two Blazers stars, one former and one current, having to adjust mid-game to unfamiliar phenomena. Damian Lillard, well-accustomed to being guarded in this match-up by a 6’2 well-meaning French traffic cone, instead had to figure out what to do with Dejounte Murray, a 6’5, energetic, 20-year-old jumble of arms, legs and hair stretching forever. Lillard found ways to scoot by Murray eventually, because he’s a star and the kid’s a rookie, but it took him awhile, and by then Patty Mills was giving him fits on defense.
LaMarcus Aldridge, Dame’s former teammate at Portland, had his own adjustment to make. He was booed by the Moda Center crowd whenever he touched the ball. (Did they do that last year? I don’t remember.) Aldridge seemed surprised by it and it seemed to throw him off a bit. LMA’s headed to the Hall of Fame, but he’s never been a polarizing or villainous figure on the national stage. I can’t imagine him being booed in any arena. Throughout the first quarter, whenever he heard the jeers, Aldridge immediately released the ball, either to hot-potato it to a teammate or to take a jittery, unsettled shot. Once he checked back into the game in the second quarter, however, he was a lot more aggressive and by the third he was a full-scale monster worthy of booing instead of the timid soul Spurs fans have been watching for most of the year. Like Lillard, he’s a star, and stars are good at making adjustments.
Perhaps the oddest aspect of the game was that the Spurs won so easily —without Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol and Tony Parker, no less— in an arena that has been a house of horrors for them in recent years, though I suppose it’s not a coincidence that Aldridge is in their colors now instead of Portland’s. As Sean Elliott noted during the broadcast, when his corkscrew jumper is falling there isn’t much for a defender to do, and Aldridge certainly looked comfortable on the floor in the second half.
If all that wasn’t enough, the Spurs went 0-of-3 on alley-oop attempts but drilled 12-of-20 threes.
Okay, maybe that’s not so weird. For them, anyway.
Nothing too remarkable in the first quarter to report. Aldridge struggled early on and the Spurs shot just 8-of-19, but tied 27-27 after one thanks to making all eight of their freebies and 3-of-4 from downtown, with Mills nailing two after checking in. The most memorable aspect of the period was Gregg Popovich, a tad miffed after a no-call on Lillard, declaring that the ref who missed the infraction is the type of fellow who looks forward to being home for the holidays. And by “home,” I mean literally the place from which he entered the world.
The visitors carved out a dozen point lead by intermission, however, with Murray and Mills each hitting a three and Kawhi Leonard stroking two of his own. Mills had a terrific sequence with two consecutive steals, zooming through traffic to feed Jonathon Simmons for a fast-break slam on the first and taking it himself for a layup on the second. Aldridge started asserting himself, though with modest results from the field, but he did come up with three offensive boards. Both Simmons and Murray had fine reverse layups in traffic in the quarter while Dewayne Dedmon, Kyle Anderson and Danny Green all held it down defensively. The Blazers scored just 18 in the quarter and only six of those came inside the paint.
Aldridge came out firing in the third quarter and scored eight and then Mills scored nine of his own off the bench, including a few surprise trips to the free-throw line. Lillard and C.J. McCollum started heating up a bit for Portland, but Leonard knocked down another wide-open three and Simmons chipped in with a couple of buckets to open up a 15-point lead going into the fourth. Only three of San Antonio’s 11 baskets in the quarter were assisted, which sounds like the kind of stat that would drive both coaches crazy.
Leonard carried the Spurs home with 14 of his game-high 33 in the fourth, canning two more uncovered threes, a ferocious baseline slam and a coast-to-coast layup. Have I mentioned the Blazers really are reprehensible on defense? They’ve lost five on the trot now and the lack of resistance they showed at home versus a Spurs team on a SEGABABA has to be alarming to their front office. It could be worse, I suppose. At least their best player didn’t get hurt in the game or anything.
I predicted that the Blazers would be really, really good, and it looks like I’ve gotten it really, really wrong. So at least that’s some normalcy in bizarro-land.
Up Next: Sunday, vs. Chicago Bulls (14-15)
It’s an afternoon tilt at the AT&T Center that only the scattered few of us will watch as the rest of the country comes down from the high of Warriors-Cavs to belatedly spend time with their loved ones in what is shaping up to be the last Christmas ever. The Bulls started well, but they’ve hit the skids of late, losing seven of their past 10, including Friday’s throttling at Charlotte. It turns out a team with Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler starting along the perimeter really stinks at shooting threes. Who knew?
The Bulls did hand San Antonio their first road setback of the season on Dec. 8, winning 95-91 in a game where Leonard, Mills and David Lee were the only Spurs to show up. Matt Moore of CBSSports.com, used the game as a prime example for a story on why Leonard’s been an ineffective defender for the Spurs this season that lit basketball internet on fire.
As you might know, I’m a nerd who has this OCD thing about the Spurs having to beat everybody at least once per season. They’ve pulled it off each of the past two years but hadn’t pulled it off since 2004-05 previous to that. So win darn it, or Christmas is ruined forever.