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Spurs show depth in romp over wounded Trail Blazers

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LaMarcus Aldridge had a stellar performance against his former team and the second unit gave the Spurs the boost they needed to get another valuable road win.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs’ road dominance continued on Martin Luther King Jr. day in Portland. With LaMarcus Aldridge leading the way and a strong showing from the second unit, San Antonio comfortably beat the Trail Blazers 125-104 to win their sixth game away from the AT&T Center and their eighth of the season.

Both teams started off the game taking advantage of their opposing’s center weakness, with the Spurs using pick-and-pop after pick-and-pop to expose Enes Kanter’s inability to contain and recover, while the Blazers did the same to LaMarcus Aldridge by using hand-offs and screens to free up Rodney Hood from mid-range. Those plays unlocked the offenses, which dominated early, as the defenses failed to do much at all. San Antonio’s attack looked a little more fluid, which explains why the team had the best shooting quarter of the season, but despite pouring in points the Spurs led by just four after the first quarter due to their inability to get enough stops.

The tendency to merely trade buckets continued in the second period, at least for a while, despite San Antonio’s second unit looking better than the Blazers’. Once the starters checked back in, however, the Spurs made their first run. The jumpers were falling, which allowed the Silver and Black to get a nine-point lead at one point before Damian Lillard stopped the bleeding. It was a missed opportunity to put the feisty Blazers away early caused by some unforced errors (and an understandable attempt to attack Lillard, who was in foul trouble) that backfired and stalled the offense. Enough shots fell for the Spurs to increase their lead to five at the break, but it wasn’t their best effort.

Not much changed in the second half. Aldridge was still feasting on pick-and-pop jumpers and San Antonio’s offense was looking more fluid and balanced in general. But once again the second they created some separation, the Spurs started to turn the ball over and make bad decisions on offense while letting Portland get enough buckets to keep the game close. Despite having to work for everything against a big, switchable perimeter defense, Lillard managed to get himself to the line and fuel an offense that didn’t have a lot of other reliable weapons. Once the benches checked in the Spurs regained the lead, but there was a sense that they had missed another opportunity to end this one quickly.

Fortunately the second unit didn’t let off to start the final period. The Blazers’ lack of depth caused by injuries to C.J. McCollum, Zach Collins and Jusuf Nurkic was finally exposed, as Patty Mills, Rudy Gay and Jakob Poeltl dominated their overmatched counterparts to open up a significant 17-point lead. From then on it was smooth sailing for San Antonio despite an attempt by Lillard to make it a game. This time, the Spurs’ tendency to play to their opponent’s level didn’t come back to haunt them, as they closed strong, just like they did against the Rockets on Saturday. It would have been great to see more of a killer instinct earlier, but in the end all that matters is that eventually the Silver and Black took care of things.

Game notes

  • Thanks, Enes Kanter. LaMarcus Aldridge needed a big game and he got one by doing what he’s most comfortable doing: taking open pick-and-pop mid-range jumpers. Aldridge scored all 20 of his 22 points from the in-between area while taking — and missing — his only shot at the rim and his one attempt from beyond the arc. Is that the shot profile he should have going forward? Definitely not, but considering his defender it made sense that he had this shot chart:
LaMarcus Aldridge’s shot chart
  • In their previous game, the Spurs had a season low in assists. Against the Blazers they had their second most in a game. Everyone who played at least logged one dime while Dejounte Murray and DeMar DeRozan had 11 each and Devin Vassell(!) had four of his own. Portland has a bad defense and Aldridge’s hot shooting played a part on the guards getting so many assists (five of DeRozan’s were to Aldridge) but it was still good to see the ball move.
  • You wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at the boxscore, since he finished with 35 points on 23 attempts and six assists, but the Spurs made Lillard work for everything and caused him to cough the ball up five times. The perimeter defense is far from great yet, but there’s potential there.
  • Speaking of defense, Keldon Johnson and Lonnie Walker IV didn’t shine on offense but did their part on the other end. They also combined to get 11 boards. Dejounte Murray had nine rebounds, one shy of a triple-double. The perimeter players rebound well, which partially explains why Aldridge, who had only two boards on Monday, posts underwhelming numbers in that category.
  • As good as DeRozan, Aldridge and Murray were, the bench really was the difference in this one. Rudy Gay and Patty Mills had it going from beyond the arc and Jakob Poeltl once again took advantage of an opponent that didn’t have a backup center. The Spurs’ bench more than doubled Portland’s in points and had a standout defender and offensive rebounder in Jak. Depth matters.
  • Devin Vassell gets his own bullet point because he not only made more threes in this game (two) than he made in the past five games combined but also moved the ball, rebounded well and was solid on defense. Games like this one are encouraging about not only his future but also his ability to contribute now.
  • The Spurs keep catching opponents while they are missing key players, and beating them. Memphis didn’t have Jaren Jackson Jr., the Clippers were missing Paul George, the Rockets were missing half their roster, including John Wall and Victor Oladipo, and now the Blazers were missing their second and third best players. Some would say that might explain why they have exceeded expectations, record-wise, but the Spurs are missing Derrick White and were without DeRozan for a couple of games. In any case, the Silver and Black will take the wins for now. There will be plenty of time to prove themselves against opponents at full strength later in the season.

Next game: @ Warriors on Wednesday

The Spurs will have their first matchup against the always dangerous Warriors. They will need to make Stephen Curry work for everything and win the battle inside against Draymond Green and James Wiseman to escape with a victory.