After two games and two blowouts, the Portland Trail Blazers head back to Rip City in search of answers.
The sort of answers the San Antonio Spurs seem to have in spades in this series.
That was certainly the case for Portland in Game 2. For every run by the Blazers, there was a response by the Spurs. For every adjustment by Portland coach Terry Stotts, a consequent exploitation on Gregg Popovich's part. For every open jumper missed by Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, another nailed by Kawhi Leonard, Marco Belinelli or Boris Diaw.
The end result? A 114-97 Spurs win, whose final score resembles that from Game 1 (116-92, San Antonio), but whose script reads much differently from that of its predecessor.
To their credit, the Blazers weren't caught flat-footed this time around. After going down by as many as 15 points to the Spurs in the first quarter of Game 1, Portland responded by hanging tough with San Antonio from the get-go in Game 2.
That is, until the Spurs started to take advantage of the Blazers' conservative defensive scheme in the second quarter. San Antonio outscored Portland 41-25 in that frame while shooting 63 percent from the floor.
But it was how the Spurs piled up their points that was of greater concern to the Blazers. Portland tried to push the pace, so San Antonio obliged, collecting 10 points in transition. The Spurs, a team strategically averse to offensive rebounding, scored 12 second-chance points by recouping five of their own misses.
Once Tony Parker, who started 1-of-8 from the field, started finding the range on those comfortable looks in the pick-and-roll, the Blazers were left staring at a 70-51 halftime hole that proved insurmountable in the end.
And though the final margin didn't budge much from the one that loomed over Portland in the visitors' locker room, there were some signs of life in the second half in which the Blazers can take heart. They held the Spurs to a manageable 44 points, only six derived from either fast breaks or second shots—a marked improvement over the 32 points the Blazers gave up between those two categories in the first half.
Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum combined for 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting while limiting Parker, who finished with 16 points and 10 assists on the night, to six points and four helpers after the break. Will Barton, the lone bright spot off the Blazers' moribund bench, poured in nine of his 13 points over that same span. Collectively, Portland was able to whittle what had been a 20-point deficit in the third quarter down to eight with five minutes, 37 seconds left in the game.
But the Spurs, ever the smart alecks, pushed back with a 13-2 run of their own to stretch their lead back to 19.
If the Blazers are to get into this series in their building, they'll need to play with the sort of effort and intensity on the defensive end that allowed them to crawl back into Game 2—and make sure they, not the Spurs, are the ones dictating the action.
“It’s pretty dang important. We need to shift some of this momentum.” LaMarcus Aldridge on Game 3— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 9, 2014
That'll be no simple task for these young Blazers, who've yet to experience the unsettling sensation of having their backs against the wall like this. As much of a sanctuary as the Moda Center may be for Portland—the Blazers went 31-10 at home during the regular season—it doesn't figure to be much of a deterrent for San Antonio. The Spurs were an NBA-best (and franchise-record) 30-11 outside of the Alamo City in 2013-14, with a 111-109 February win in Rip City on their resume.
It'll take more than a raucous crowd, then, for the Blazers to have a fighting chance Saturday.
They'll need more toughness out of LaMarcus Aldridge, who shot 2-of-14 against Tiago Splitter's defense and didn't register a single make in the post. They'll need Damian Lillard (14-of-35 from the field so far in this series) to rediscover the venomous shooting stroke that paralyzed the helpless Houston Rockets in Round 1. They'll need to do a better job of contesting the same open jumpers of which the Spurs converted 52 percent in Game 2.
They'll need to not only answer every Spurs run with one of their own but, ideally, be the aggressors themselves, the ones forcing San Antonio to battle back. Instead of being spooked by serpentine surprises, the Blazers must be the ones to put the Spurs on their heels at the outset.
That won't be easy, especially when the Spurs have all the answers and the Blazers only questions.
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