How Much Longer Can Portland Trail Blazers Delay Inevitable Playoff Exit?

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How Much Longer Can Portland Trail Blazers Delay Inevitable Playoff Exit?
Eric Gay/Associated Press

The Portland Trail Blazers were playing for pride Monday night.

It's amazing how powerful of a weapon that can be.

More than any strategic adjustments made by Blazers coach Terry Stotts, it was obligation that willed Portland to a win-or-go-fishing 103-92 Game 4 victory over the San Antonio Spurs.

"It was about wanting it more," Blazers All-Star point guard Damian Lillard said, via Kerry Eggers of NBA.com. "The Spurs are a championship team, but we didn't want to be that team to get swept, or the team that facing uphill battle that gave up. We weren't ready to go home."

A few tactical ploys utilized by Stotts paid major dividends.

First, he stuck 6'8" Nicolas Batum on the 6'2" Tony Parker right from the opening tip. Parker had been dicing up the Blazers defense to the tune of 26.0 points and 8.3 assists a night over the first three games of the series. He managed just 14 points and a single assist in 27 minutes of action.

Stotts also handed Will Barton a surprisingly heavy workload. The 23-year-old's playoff experience to this point had largely been confined to garbage-time appearances or DNPs, but Game 4 saw him log 30 productive minutes (his second-highest total of the entire season). He stuffed his stat sheet with 17 points and six rebounds, nearly matching Portland's nightly reserve scoring average by himself (23.7 points, via HoopsStats.com).

"Any time you get a boost off the bench it's always good for a momentum swing," Spurs guard Danny Green said, via The Associated Press. "When he comes in and gets the crowd into it, they pretty much get it going, and it helped them a lot."

No one had delivered that kind of boost for the Blazers all series. Not that it would have mattered if they had, though, considering there was no momentum to swing.

If NBA commissioner Adam Silver hadn't been sidetracked by the Donald Sterling fiasco, he may have enacted a mercy rule to stop the Blazers' bleeding after three games. The Spurs took those contests by an average of 18.7 points. San Antonio had a staggering 140-43 advantage in bench scoring heading into Monday night.

There's a level of separation (or more) between these teams, yet none of that mattered in Game 4. The Blazers fought with the tenacity of someone with everything to lose, while the Spurs seemed content to head back to the snake pit.

"Fifty-fifty balls, physicality, I thought they were much better than we were," Gregg Popovich said, via Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News. "They played with great physicality and passion. We just didn’t match it. I don’t think we had the energy, the focus."

Portland brought the fight to San Antonio, and the defending Western Conference champions seemed uninterested in providing any resistance:

The Blazers played like a team that didn't want to be embarrassed, or no worse than they already had, rather. It seemed like nothing short of a flawlessly executed offensive game plan could save Portland, but that's not what happened Monday.

The Blazers shot just 43.9 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from deep. Lillard poured in a game-high 25 points, but he needed 21 shots to hit that mark. All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge finished with 19 points on 8-of-16 shooting. Nicolas Batum did a lot of things well (14 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists), but he had an average night from the field (5-of-11).

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Any positive contributions from Barton and Thomas Robinson are found money for the Blazers, and 26 combined points from the two is like a jackpot lottery ticket. Throw in the increased intensity spurred by Portland's survival instincts, and there's the strange recipe for a delayed elimination.

It's also apparently provided this team with a renewed belief in itself and overcoming the challenge ahead. The challenge that pits Portland against the numbers, leaving the Blazers grasping to the belief they'll be the first team in NBA history to recover from a 3-0 deficit.

"Like we say, why not us?" Batum said, via Joe Freeman of The Oregonian. "It’s never been done before. We had no pressure. It was do-or-die. If we lose this, we’re headed for vacation. So we just go out there and play. We played a great game, we played our game, the game we used to play all season long."

Too bad there's no chance of a repeat performance.

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Just like with the first three games of the series, Game 4 had nothing to do with Portland. Everything that could go wrong for San Antonio did go wrong in a way this franchise had never seen before and may never see again, as Matthew Tynan of 48 Minutes of Hell pointed out:

Dating back to the 1985-86 season (as far back as Basketball-Reference can take us with these statistics), San Antonio had never combined to shoot worse from the 3-point arc (3-of-18) and free-throw line (11-of-19) on as many attempts as it did Monday.

And it wasn’t as if the opportunities weren’t there. According to NBA.com’s SportVU data, 49 of San Antonio’s 88 field-goal attempts were uncontested (no defender within four feet), and it managed to knock down only 16 of them. That’s absurd on both fronts. Spurs shooters were open all night, but they just couldn’t hit a damn thing.

Something is amiss when a Popovich-led team finishes the evening with 13 assists. The Spurs had averaged 23.7 in this series before Monday night.

The ball was finding shooters, but those shooters couldn't find any makes. Manu Ginobili shot 1-of-6 from the field. Danny Green went 1-of-7 from three. Marco Belinelli missed six of his nine field-goal attempts, including both of his shots from long range.

Still, add up all the missed shots, late rotations and lost loose balls and what do you have? An 11-point loss for San Antonio—that's all. If the Spurs simply had an average shooting night from three and at the foul line, this series is already over.

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Or officially over, rather.

When these teams reconvene for Game 5 on Wednesday night (9:30 p.m. ET on TNT), that technicality will be cleared.

The Blazers have no obvious advantages in the series.

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Parker has largely outplayed Lillard, while Tiago Splitter has sapped Aldridge's efficiency. Portland has a deep collection of shooters, but not as many as San Antonio. The Blazers have an innovative coaching mind, but so do the Spurs, and theirs is battle-tested. Portland's second unit already faced a sizable disadvantage before its only reliable reserve, Mo Williams, went down with a groin injury.

Pride, with a big assist from San Antonio's shooters, overcame those odds for 48 blissful minutes Monday.

It was a win worth celebrating, if for no other reason than it will be a long time before Blazers fans are cheering again.

The Spurs machine doesn't break down often. On the rare occasions that it does, Pop gets it back up and running in no time.

 

Statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com.

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