After suffering another blowout loss, Damian Lillard
and the Blazers are one game from elimination. (Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
The less sensational of the Western Conference playoff series continued on Saturday, as the Spurs asserted full control over the Trail Blazers again in a 118-103 victory.
• San Antonio is dominating this series through course correctives. When they operate with this level of command, the Spurs vanquish every bit of basketball drama. The Blazers made periodic runs in Game 3 -- an 8-0 burst in the opening frame, a 12-0 sprint early in the third quarter and a 10-0 rush to keep competitive in the fourth. Yet every one of those swells, despite the raucous, catalyzing cheers of the Moda Center crowd, barely affected the course of the game. Around every corner was a San Antonio counter and then some, with a flash from Tony Parker (29 points, six assists) here and an opportunistic score by Kawhi Leonard (16 points, 10 rebounds) there before all was again reset to balance.
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Portland led in Game 3 by no more than a single point. In all the Blazers held that lead for all of 17 seconds -- just enough time for Parker to set up a wide-open jumper for Tim Duncan (19 points, seven rebounds, four assists), from which the Spurs would never look back. Every other push would be weathered and responded to. San Antonio's even keel is more than just veteran know-how; there's a balance to the system, the lineups and the rotation in general that allows for the Spurs to roll, no matter the circumstance or the opponent. That's why, to some degree, the Blazers can't really blame themselves for how this series has transpired. It's not their fault that San Antonio carries through in its execution so ruthlessly, nor that Gregg Popovich has the deeper, more talented collection of players at his disposal. This series could be closer. Certain matchups could be more competitive. All of that comes secondary, though, to the fact that San Antonio is just an entirely different class of contender than Portland.
• The bench disparity, yet again, was ridiculous. Portland's reserves were responsible for just six total points in Game 3: A Dorell Wright transition layup and four garbage-time points from rookie C.J. McCollum. San Antonio's bench players, by comparison, chipped in 40 for the evening; Manu Ginobili made strange decisions at times, though his ability to drive and draw fouls proved quite valuable; Patty Mills spelled Parker for a good 13 minutes, and during that time knocked down a pair of three-pointers and played scrappy defense against Damian Lillard; Boris Diaw was again outstanding, and helped key some big San Antonio runs by way of his opportunistic scoring.
As a result, it went essentially unnoticed that Leonard played just 29 minutes and Tiago Splitter (who again defended LaMarcus Aldridge brilliantly) just 27, all while the Spurs built or maintained their lead throughout. Even keeping Parker to 35 minutes for the night is important given that Lillard, his positional counterpart, logged 43. This is not merely a bench problem for the Blazers. Portland's reserves are so aggressively unreliable (particularly with Mo Williams, the best player among them, sidelined by a groin injury) that Terry Stotts has little choice but to max out his starters' minutes, which in turn undercuts their extended time on the floor with fatigue. That burden on the starters isn't the definitive reason why the Blazers are losing this series, but bench play this empty -- to the point where no reserve even seems playable -- could destabilize the footing of any team.
• Portland needs to get weird. Stotts and the Blazers have no reason to stick to the script at this point. It's not just the reserves that are at fault; Portland has been blown out in first quarters overall in this series, during which the Blazer starters have been outscored by 39.1 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. That's a smoldering crater for which the Blazers' best players, with the game plan still fresh in their minds, are entirely responsible.
Something has to change. Portland has been too predictable on both ends of the floor, as an offense dependent on flow has become formulaic while a defense with one clear liability (Lillard) and no elite components has been solved conclusively. Stotts won't be able to address all of his team's problems, but there has to be some way to inject a bit more life into the proceedings. That starting group is balanced and versatile; surely there are other ways to initiate offense beyond what we've seen in this series and what the Spurs have so consistently snuffed out. Any defensive gambit would likely have to be more extreme: Concerted switching, harder doubles off of select Spurs or more aggressive trapping to get the ball out of Parker's hands.
None of the above is guaranteed to work, though at this stage the kitchen sink strategy seems preferable to the Blazers crossing their fingers as they roll with more of the same. The Spurs lay waste to the predictable. If there's any hope to be had for Portland, it will be found in something unsteady, volatile and just crazy enough to work.
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