12 December 2010
The Portland Trail Blazers entered their matchup against the San Antonio Spurs riding high. They had won four in a row after a dismal six-game losing streak. Obtaining a fifth win in succession, however, would be extremely difficult. San Antonio has been clicking all season and looked to improve their league-best record to 20-3.
As a considerable underdog, the Blazers stormed out of the gate, scoring seven of the first nine points. Then, with one quick, intelligent timeout called by Spurs head coach Greg Poppovich, the game changed. After Poppovich lit into his experienced team, their defense tightened. San Antonio began to play like San Antonio, winners of seven of their previous eight. Portland couldn’t keep up, and were ultimately overwhelmed by their superior.
Yet, this was relatively the same roster Portland had defeated five straight times and in six of their past seven meetings. Why did they fall so flat?
It came down to four reasons:
First, their bench continued to struggle. They weren’t able to score consistently or keep San Antonio’s reserves in check. After combining to shoot 0-11 in victory over Phoenix, the duo of Rudy Fernandez and Nicolas Batum managed to make only three field goals in fourteen attempts. Overall, the unit was 7-26 shooting with a measly two assists and two free-throw attempts. They have some good players, but the bench is lacking an inside presence. This has allowed the Spurs to primarily defend the perimeter. In turn, a predictable offense was once again run.
Second, even when their starters were on the floor the Blazers offense was far from fluid. They fought the shot-clock and, like the bench, could only get a handful of good looks at the basket. Few were capitalized upon inside the paint. Marcus Camby tipped in some misses, as did LaMarcus Aldridge. Like the bench, Portland’s first unit was forced to settle for outside shots. San Antonio fueled this discomfort, but the offensive sets the Blazers chose to run didn’t help matters. There was little penetration, which meant there was far too much improvising from the outside. Only 11 free-throws were attempted, compared to 26 by the Spurs. Also, there was a lot of standing around, which leads one to believe fatigue may have played a role.
The schedule has also been daunting for the Blazers. With this 95-78 defeat, Portland has played 14 road games. They have had six back-to-backs up to this point. Possibly as a result, nothing about their play suggested they could remain in contention with the Spurs over the long-haul. A string of baskets coupled with turnovers by San Antonio kept the Blazers within reach, yet they could get no closer. They didn’t seem to have it in them. Head coach Nate McMillan said they were running on fumes near the end of their win over Phoenix. Fumes appeared to be all they had against San Antonio, too. But this time what resulted was not a victory.
Aside from the first few minutes of the opening quarter, they were playing tired basketball - the fourth knock for Portland against San Antonio. Even though this was evident, their inability to close out on shooters and consistently defend inside was inexcusable. Slow rotation allowed guards George Hill, Manu Ginobili, Gary Neal, and Tony Parker to create for themselves and others. They have played 24 games this season in a relatively short period of time, but, for the most part, they were energetic in their previous four wins. And with a day off to prepare for this game against the Spurs and rest tired legs, they should have come out with the same fire.
San Antonio shot a low percentage overall and were held 12 points below their season average, but made seven of ten three-pointers in the first half to build an advantage they would not lose. Hill, who was part of a bench that outscored Portland’s 42-18, had 20 points in the opening two quarters. He hit four wide-open three-pointers, and six of San Antonio’s aforementioned seven in the half were uncovered. Because the Spurs do not have such an imposing inside force as they used to, Portland’s inability to defend their long-range shooters can be attributed to a lack defensive discipline and focus.
The Blazers hit a wall against the Spurs and have little time before their next game. Such a good team as San Antonio can make teams look tired, but Portland appears in need of a break. They won't get one, with Memphis on tap Monday. If the Blazers are going to start another win-streak their bench has to step up, organized offense and defense must be played, and they need to persevere through whatever amount of fatigue has set in.
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