Three-Pointers: Blazers stay alive with cohesive offense and surprise contributions
After three blowout losses in a row, the Trail Blazers dug in at home to beat the Spurs, 103-92, for their first win of this second-round series. Damian Lillard (25 points on 21 shots, five assists) finally locked in offensively to lead a varied and productive Blazer attack.
• Portland extended its season with a surge of offense. The Blazers have scored efficiently enough to keep competitive at various points in this series, yet Game 4 was the first time Portland locked into its most potent, unrelenting form. The beauty of this team is in its balance. Few have a starting five so thoroughly capable from point guard to center, and fewer still have the passing ability throughout to best take advantage of that order.
When the Blazers move the ball this well they can stay a beat ahead of even the better defensive teams in the league. It's not just the assists; Portland can swing the ball into a mismatch, find another ball handler for a quick pick-and-roll or feed a cutter who, after drawing the attention of the defense, sets up an offensive rebounder. Other teams can get by with over-isolating their stars but the Blazers are at their best when every player on the floor is connected. The pull of LaMarcus Aldridge (19 points on 16 shots) helped Lillard push to the rim, while Lillard's assertiveness opened up room for Nicolas Batum (14 points on 11 shots, 14 rebounds, eight assists) to work as a facilitator. Batum's passing, in turn, created quality looks for Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez.
Impressively, they struck that balance in the most desperate game of their season. Portland's third quarter, in particular, was a stunning crescendo. In two minutes the Blazers' stretched a four-point lead to 14, quickly building toward their biggest advantage of this series. It's in moments like those that this Portland team bears a stronger resemblance to the comeback engine that made monster runs throughout the first round. San Antonio is a fundamentally different and altogether tougher matchup, though Game 4 was an important reminder that even the best opponents can only do so much to stop this Blazers team once locked into the rhythms of its offense.
• San Antonio did itself no favors. Monday's game was all about Portland. It was the Blazers who decided the game's pace, who had the night's three highest scorers and who seemed to make every momentum-swinging shot. This was the hyper-focused frenzy of a team faced with its playoff mortality, and it was something to behold.
Yet in spite of how well Portland played, this was -- at many distinct junctures -- a winnable game for San Antonio. After two quarters the Spurs trailed by single basket despite Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili missing seven of their 10 combined attempts. As a team San Antonio had made but a single three-pointer and totaled more turnovers (seven) than assists (five) to that point. For all of those specific struggles to manifest as a one-possession game did not seem to bode well for the Blazers, especially when considering just how quickly the Spurs' game-deciding runs in this series have unfurled.
That decisive swing never came for San Antonio. Slow defensive rotations clearly undercut any comeback effort once the Blazers threatened to pull away, though the most excruciating concessions for the Spurs came on the offensive end. San Antonio ranked fourth in the league in free throw percentage this season but went just 11-for-19 from the stripe on this particular night. Those eight points were a hard loss in a game that never stretched beyond a 15-point margin; even a few makes here or there could have changed the course of this game, at least to the point that Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker might not have made such an early exit.
Even more damaging was the Spurs' collective inability to convert open shots. No team in the league better positions its supporting scorers, and even in Game 4 half of San Antonio's field goal attempts qualified as uncontested, per NBA.com. They made just 17 of those 44 attempts to shoot 38.6 percent while unguarded in this particular game -- a solid 10 points lower than the Spurs' season average (48.5). This kind of thing happens, even to teams as skilled as San Antonio. Yet in telling the story of Game 4 we would be remiss to overlook all of those good, earned chances the Spurs had to close the gap or protect their lead.
• The Blazers find a pair of unlikely heroes. There was no standalone savior for Portland in Game 4, though among those most vital in staving off the Blazers' elimination were Lopez (nine points, 12 rebounds) and Will Barton (17 points on 13 shots, six rebounds).
Lopez, at best, is the fifth-billed Blazer. His value most often takes the form of sturdy screens and very necessary box-outs -- contributions that make other players look good without, in themselves, carrying much statistical weight. Lopez was so consistently in the thick of the action in Game 4, though, that it would be difficult to overlook his contributions. His six offensive rebounds helped clean up the occasional rash of poor shooting. His scoring wasn't all that tidy, though every one of his baskets came within the flow of the offense as a result of being in great position and making himself available. It was Lopez, too, who often warded off Parker and the other Spurs' guards around the rim. He might not have registered a single block through 34 minutes, but Lopez was nonetheless a man of considerable defensive influence.
Barton, who at the beginning of this series was logging garbage time minutes exclusively, wound up the far greater surprise. His game is built on awkward drives and sheer unpredictability; Barton has played so little in his two NBA seasons that his next move is unknown both to him and his opponents. San Antonio's defenders struggled to pin down exactly what Barton might do and when, and from that contextual slipperiness the 23-year-old wing was able to sneak free for relatively easy scores. Barton's 17 points set the high-water mark among Blazer reserves in this series. For a team as distressingly reliant on its starters as Portland, even this kind of wild-card contribution goes a long way.