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Spurs defense exposed in 121-108 loss to the Trail Blazers

The duo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum were too much for the Spurs’ shaky perimeter defense.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs struggled on defense but managed to escape with a win nonetheless on their season opener. In their first away game, they weren’t so lucky.

The Trail Blazers exposed San Antonio’s lack of quality perimeter defenders in a 121-108 win in Portland. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum led the way for the home team, combining for 53 points. DeMar DeRozan had 28 in the losing effort.

The game was a clash of styles that started out as expected. The Spurs tried to take advantage of mismatches inside, posting up LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan while the Blazers tested San Antonio’s perimeter defense with drives by their guards. Both strategies worked, as neither team could contain the other’s primary weapon without sending help, but neither squad was sharp enough to take advantage of the resulting breakdowns early on. The result was a low-scoring first quarter that ended up tied at 22.

Neither team counts depth as a strength, so it’s not surprising that the second units failed to break the parity. The big guns were going to have to step up to create separation, and they did. Unfortunately for the Spurs, it was the Blazers’ stars that answered the call first. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum scored or assisted on 17 of Portland's last 20 points of the first half, getting whatever they wanted against a defense that looked outmatched. It was exactly the type of push the Blazers needed to get their offense jump started an go into the break with a nine-point lead.

More of the same followed to start the second half. Lillard and McCollum continued to break lose and connect on outside shots. The gap widened, reaching 15 points at one point in the third quarter. The Spurs tried to answer, with DeRozan leading the way, to no avail. With Aldridge hampered by double teams, San Antonio lacked the offensive punch to make a serious run. There would be no comeback, as the Blazers managed their lead until Pop pulled the plug and emptied his bench down 18, with 3:28 to go in the fourth following a Zach Collins three-pointer.

This is not a surprising loss. Teams with explosive backcourts will cause the Spurs all kinds of trouble, likely even after Derrick White’s return. On the other end, opponents will focus a lot of attention on Aldridge and force the Spurs to get their points from the perimeter, where they lack firepower. That’s the blueprint to beating San Antonio and this season, against quality opposition like Portland, it will work at least for stretches.

The challenge then will be to stay avoid the mistakes that turn a small run into a big one and stay within reach even when the opponent is playing better. There’s no easy fix to the Spurs’ weakness, but better execution could go a long way into masking them. On Saturday, the discipline wasn’t there and a game that could have been close turned into a blowout loss. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen too often going forward.

Game notes

  • DeMar DeRozan had another great offensive game, finishing with 28 points and nine assists. His passing has been a revelation early on in the season. He’d been developing as a playmaker in Toronto over the past few years and now is getting to show off his progress. His defense was an issue, but so was everyone else’s. Good game for DeMar.
  • The Blazers really keyed in on LaMarcus Aldridge on defense. They sent double teams and put a body on him under the glass, to prevent him from owning the paint like he did against the Wolves. Pop tried to make him a threat in the second half by having him set high screens for DeRozan and then crashing the offensive glass. It worked a few times, but I would have liked to see him get more pick and pop opportunities.
  • Bryn Forbes and Patty Mills are so outmatched on their current roles. Forbes actually had his outside shot going and scored 18 points, but he got cooked on defense. Mills is someone who feeds off movement and passing, but has been stuck doing a bad Jamal Crawford impersonation, trying to fill the role of bench scorer. He was also a defensive liability. Hopefully once everyone gets healthy those two will be able to settle into roles that fit them better.
  • Rudy Gay had 12 points but it took him 13 shots to get there, because he didn’t get to the line even once. Portland’s defense deserves credit for that, but Rudy lacked assertiveness as well. Hopefully he’ll be willing and healthy enough — he was visibly in pain after landing awkwardly on a drive — to attack the bucket more next game.
  • With Marco Belinelli struggling, Pop decided to play Davis Bertans at small forward a lot in this one. He did a fantastic job of staying in front of Evan Turner, which acted a primary ball handler for a big chunk of their matchup. He also hit his shots and kept the ball moving. Davis has earned more playing time.
  • Hopefully Bertans will grab some of Dante Cunningham’s minutes. I like Cunningham as a power forward next to LaMarcus Aldridge or a small-ball center in certain matchups, but he should not be on the court with two other bigs. He doesn’t do anything well enough on offense to keep the defense occupied.
  • Speaking of bigs, Pop still hasn’t figured out when to play Jakob Poeltl. He once again started him and this time he kept him in for around seven minutes in the first quarter. Then he pulled him in the third quarter after a couple of minutes and then subbed him back in with 3:32 to go.
  • Pau Gasol was good on offense but bad on defense. At this point, it feels like he only has value as a defender if he can stay very close to the rim to alter shots. Hopefully he’ll improve a bit on that end as the games go on.
  • The Blazers are fun when Lillard and McCollum have it going. If Zach Collins continues to play as well as he has to start the season and their bench shooters continue to hit their open looks, they should be a playoff team.

Up next: @Lakers on Monday

The Spurs will travel to Los Angeles to face LeBron James and the Lakers. Expect Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram to be suspended after their fight with the Rockets. It will be a good opportunity for the Spurs to get a road win against a similarly shorthanded direct opponent.

For the opponent’s perspective, visit our friends over at Blazer’s Edge.