With the hot-shooting Portland Trailblazers coming to town, San Antonio’s 3-game win streak was in jeopardy. In order to win, they would have to slow Damian Lillard — coming off a game where he hit a career-high 11 three-pointers — and his hot-shooting wingman, Anfernee Simons. Prior to tip, Spurs fans discovered that their team would also have to take on this almost impossible task without one of the team’s best defenders in Romeo Langford. Their leading rim protector, Jakob Poeltl, is still recovering from a bone bruise in his right knee, and backup post Zach Collins sat out the night with a twisted ankle. Put simply, what was already a difficult task became nearly insurmountable.
As outlined by PtR’s own Marilyn Dubinski, this year’s Spurs team has been less than stellar on defensive rotations, and poor communication and execution have left opposing players with wide open shots more often than not. In the recent three-game win streak, their rotations have seemed a little better, with players seeming to communicate and close out just a little faster on shooters. However, against the Blazers, the team seemed to regress quite a bit.
In the first half, Portland quickly opened up a lead behind hot shooting by Lillard and Simons, the Pacific Northwest’s version of the Splash Brothers. San Antonio didn’t do themselves any favors by falling back on old habits, leaving Lillard in particular wide open with frustrating frequency. Damian is averaging 28.3 PPG and shooting 39% from three, so regardless of coverage, he is going to get his points, but one can’t help but wonder if Langford would have done a better job bottling him up at least.
Ironically shunning a recent trend of double-teaming players to the point of failure, San Antonio usually chose to send single coverage against the Portland shooters, perhaps acknowledging they weren’t going to contain them all. Regardless of any particular Spurs’ defensive schemes, Lillard and Simmons finished the half with a combined 37 points (shooting 7/13 from deep). As a team, Portland hung 73 points on the Spurs going into the break. Things needed to tighten up in the second half if the Spurs were going to go for that season-high four wins in a row.
For a good portion of the third, the Spurs seemed to be doing just that, jumping out quickly and forcing turnovers (at one point Keita Bates-Diop and Devin Vassell combined for three straight steals in a row). They would trim the lead all the way to four, getting the crowd back into it and looking like they might just steal one — admittedly a weird thing to say on the Spurs’ home court, but let’s be honest, fans might as well approach every game as “stealing one” this year. Defensive intensity also picked up, and Portland would “only” score 24 points in the third. By the end of the quarter, San Antonio was still hanging around, trailing 97-89.
In the fourth, Portland turned once again to Lillard and Simmons and got a boost from Jerami Grant, who also dropped 8 in the frame. San Antonio kept it respectable for the rest of the game (a relief after the slow start) but just did not have the firepower or defensive intensity to limit Portland’s shooters. In the end, San Antonio’s brief win-streak came to an end, and Portland held on for a 128-112 win.
- Keldon Johnson’s recent shooting struggles seem to be a thing of the past, thankfully. He finished the night shooting 63% from the floor, leading the team in scoring with 25 points and grabbed 7 rebounds to boot. He also continued to lead the team in demonstrative outbursts, which is a great sign for his mental state.
- Speaking of Keldon, at the risk of saying something unpopular (does it help that for this writer at least he’s still a favorite and a treat to watch every night?)...he’s kind of a defensive liability. He plays with a lot of energy on offense, and there’s no questioning his heart. However, he missed a number of rotations and looked even a little disinterested on defense at times. It’s not a serious knock on a player who will still be a potential All-Star for years to come, and perhaps with time and a winning record, the defense will no doubt improve, but one has to wonder if he’s kind of approaching a ceiling on that side of his game.
- Charles Bassey had his first career NBA start with both Poeltl and Collins on the bench. He played 20 foul-plagued minute, finishing with 4 fouls (where 2 quick First Quarter fouls sent him to the bench early). Bassey had a decent if unremarkable stat line: 6 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 blocks. Still, starts like this are important for his continued development and he remains an exciting prospect who naturally will have ups and downs this early in his career. One wonders if San Antonio considers converting his two-way deal into an official contract soon.
- Coming into the game, Portland was only 18th in the NBA at 112.0 team points per game. However, Lillard has only played in approximately half their games so far. Paired with Simmons, they are a true one-two juggernaut on offense. Expect that ranking to climb. Meanwhile, don’t look now, but San Antonio is 25th. It’s worth mentioning though, that like the Blazers, the Spurs have rarely played their top 2-3 best players at once for any length of time. The recent win streak demonstrated their injury-free potential.
Play of the game
For portions of the second half, Coach Pop gave Jeremy Sochan the keys to the family car, letting him run the offense for plays at a time. Unlike earlier in the season, Sochan seemed more confident and did a good job keeping the ball moving. This play came later in the third, when the Spurs were starting to make a run, as Sochan took the ball end-to-end and made the wise decision to dish to Vassell for the And-1 from behind the arc.