Teams like this season's Portland Trail Blazers aren't supposed to do what the Blazers did on Friday night. They're not supposed to go into the Alamo City and upend the San Antonio Spurs, not after the home team puts together a 24-9 run between the third and fourth quarters to retake the lead.
Certainly not with a defense that ranks in the bottom 10 in the NBA in efficiency, or with a roster that's among the league's least experienced in terms of postseason participation.
And yet, there the Blazers were, with a 109-100 win over the club with the best record in the West through the first half of the 2013-14 season—and an impressive 30-9 record of their own worth boasting about.
Rather than fold in the face of adversity, after Gregg Popovich's ejection re-energized the Spurs in the third, Portland responded with a 23-9 run of its own. That stretch featured eight of LaMarcus Aldridge's team-high 26 points and half of Wesley Matthews' six-pack of three-pointers (on just seven attempts).
Not that Aldridge and Matthews were the only two Blazers on whose efforts the team bounced back after absorbing that second-half body blow from the defending Western Conference champs. Damian Lillard (21 points, five rebounds, eight assists) and Nicolas Batum (nine points, nine rebounds, seven assists) combined to set up seven of Portland's 10 field goals during that time, forcing San Antonio's disciplined defense to bend to their every move.
But, as any cliche-filled coach could attest, no run of that sort is possible without sturdy defensive play. To that end, the Blazers looked like anything but one of the Association's softer units. Portland held San Antonio's clockwork offense to 40 percent shooting in the fourth quarter, including a two-minute chunk during which the Blazers stopped the Spurs on four consecutive possessions.
To be sure, the Spurs squad against which Rip City survived was hardly whole. Tiago Splitter's been out since the first week of the year with a sprained shoulder. Danny Green missed his third game in a row with a fracture in his left hand. Tony Parker's been playing through a recent shin injury that, as he told Jeff McDonald of The San Antonio Express-News, has yet to abate completely.
Then again, the Spurs have a well-established reputation of stepping up in place of their absentees. Marco Belinelli contributed 14 points and four assists in Green's stead in the starting lineup, while Manu Ginobili stole the show with 29 points (18 in the third quarter alone), seven rebounds and five assists in his triumphant return to the pine.
Portland, though, held Ginobili scoreless for most of the fourth quarter. The wily Argentine broke the spell with a dunk, but only after the game was well in hand during the final minute.
It's not as though wins like these, against top-notch competition, are anomalies for Portland. This result moved the Blazers' record against the other members of the NBA's 25-Win Club to 8-2.
Compare that to San Antonio's 3-8 mark against the same subset, and try telling yourself this team doesn't belong among the league's elite.
To this point, at least. It's only January, with the All-Star Game still a month away. Portland's ability to protect the paint (or lack thereof) remains a serious concern. So, too, might their reliance on the three-point line, if/when their shooters cool off.
Like any new kid on the championship block, the Blazers have plenty left to prove. They'll play three more games in the next four nights, against the Dallas Mavericks, the Houston Rockets and the Oklahoma City Thunder—all on the road, no less.
This is the sort cauldron in which the mettle of a true title contender is forged and tested. So far, so good after Night 1 for the Trail Blazers.
And if the next matchup plays out in Portland's favor, perhaps Friday's win in the Alamo City will look more and more like something this team was supposed to pull off after all.
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