It took a few minutes for Portland to find its legs on the second half of a crucial back-to-back. Once they got warm, though, the Trail Blazers not only out-classed the San Antonio Spurs, but had loads of fun doing it.
Portland routed San Antonio 124-102 on Saturday at Moda Center, playing with the spirit and energy befitting a team that knows its season has turned around. Another victory moves the sixth-place Blazers to 39-29, a game-and-a-half ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers and half-game back of the Dallas Mavericks – against both of whom they own head-to-head tie-breakers.
A seventh win in eight games for Portland seemed highly unlikely given the first few minutes of Saturday's action. San Antonio raced out to an 11-2 lead, readily exploiting the Blazers' lethargy and poor shooting. But the Blazers woke up from there, going on a 16-6 burst to take the lead with just over four minutes left in the first quarter.
Portland didn't get sustained separation until a few minutes before intermission, though, when Damian Lillard caught fire. First he banged a wing three off an offensive rebound and kickout from Jusuf Nurkic. Then he rejected a screen and stepped back on the same foot for another triple. On the next trip down, he crossed over Lonnie Walker into a re-screen from Nurkic, then pulled for his third triple in as many possessions.
The Spurs never got within two scores of Portland again, due in large part to a dominant third quarter from Nurkic.
The Bosnian Beast danced all over San Antonio offensively, scoring 13 points in the third alone, his season-high for a single quarter. A lot of Nurkic's production came from his balletic pick-and-roll connection with Lillard, who the Spurs were selling out to stop. After already connecting with Nurkic for rolling finishes on three prior possessions since halftime, Lillard, oozing with confidence, even slipped an off-hand, behind-the-back dime to Nurkic on the move – only for his big man to botch one of his easiest looks of the game.
Lillard and Nurkic, both flashing peak form yet again, were good enough that both got some well-deserved and much-needed early rest, sitting out the entirety of the fourth quarter after Portland's bench extended a commanding lead.
Lillard dropped 30 points and eight assists, outdueling a defense geared to stop him. Nurkic put up 17 points, nine rebounds and five assists in just 21 minutes, feeling good enough physically to abuse Jakob Poeltl – one of basketball's best rim-protectors – for a series of aggressive scores in the post.
Lillard and Nurkic gave the Blazers their cushion, but it was C.J. McCollum and Norman Powell who forced Gregg Popovich to waive his white flag. They combined for 20 points in the opening half of the fourth quarter, ensuring San Antonio wouldn't even get the chance for a comeback.
It's no coincidence that Popovich pulled his regulars with 6:09 left on the game clock. The Spurs, probably, were ready to get the hell out of Moda Center after C.J. McCollum did them filthy dirty with this and-1 drive and finish.
The jubilant reaction from his teammates – even from Derrick Jones Jr., who didn't get off the bench despite Carmelo Anthony sitting out due to a sore ankle – and McCollum's face pretty much tells Portland's current story.
The Blazers are playing their best ball of the season at exactly the right time, and everyone involved knows it. And considering the quality of their next opponent, it's safe to say the good times will keep rolling in Rip City – at least until Wednesday's game at the Utah Jazz, of course.