AT&T CENTER–Standing in front of reporters, having long already shed his usual coaching attire in favor of something more basketball casual–an opportunity made possible due to his ejection from the game in the third quarter–San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich calmly fielded questions from the media scrum.
A late fourth quarter collapse on defense negated what had been a brilliant individual performance from Manu Ginobili in the third, as the Portland Trail Blazers pulled away on the strength of LaMarcus Aldridge's 26-point, 13-rebound night.
Friday night was another disappointing loss to yet another elite team, which was enough to finally embolden a reporter to broach the subject with Popovich. Hesitantly, the reporter provided Popovich with an out before asking about the team's record against the league's best.
"No, we don't ignore anything," Popovich said, referring to the team watching Game 6 of the NBA Finals before the start of the season as a means of confronting their issues. "We look everything in the eye and talk about what we need to do."
This season the Spurs have had trouble with some of the top teams in the NBA, having gone 1-8 against the West's five best teams and the Indiana Pacers. But the Spurs have had trouble with the Blazers long before they became an elite team this season, and while they've largely been able to ignore these blips against Portland in their schedule due to the Blazers utter irrelevance come post season in recent years, the first half of this season suggests a possible collision course.
Not many players can claim to boast a winning record against Tim Duncan, though LaMarcus Aldridge happens to be one of them–the Trail Blazers have now taken 13 of their last 17 games against the Spurs; this despite the Trail Blazers fielding some less than stellar teams over that time.
This rare success against San Antonio can largely be attributed to Aldridge and the unique ways in which he can bend the Spurs defense against their principles. Long, rangy, and blessed with an elite midrange jumper, Aldridge flourishes in the very spots the Spurs defense is designed to concede. While Duncan and whoever occupies the front court spot next to him would prefer to drop back on screens and protect the paint, Aldridge presents a rotation point that can stress the Spurs defense to breaking points should they be forced to rotating out to him. He's also adept enough in the post to take care of mismatches.
For a half, the Spurs willing conceded these jumpers, limiting Aldridge to six points on 2-5 shooting while also limiting the Blazers to just six three-point attempts. But point guard Damian Lillard was electric, scoring 14 of his 21 points in the first half to lead his team to a 54-49 lead.
The 54 points come as little surprise, the Blazers being an elite offensive team anchored by a particularly problematic (for the Spurs) focal point. Guards came off screens with clean driving lanes, and between Lillard (21 points, eight assists) and Wesley Matthews (24 points, 6-7 from three) the absence of Danny Green was sorely felt. Aldridge helped space the floor while Robin Lopez sealed off help defenders and Nicolas Batum filled in the gaps.
For the Spurs, Parker (12 points, fours assists, 5-12 shooting) struggled through a bruised shin while Duncan (13 points, 6-16 shooting) had trouble finding his shot. Backup point guard Patty Mills shot just 3-11, calling his number perhaps a few times too many while cancelling out any defensive hustle plays with an inability to elude screens, forcing the Spurs to switch into mismatches.
The Trail Blazers started the third quarter noticeably trying to establish Aldridge in the post on Diaw (14 points, 6-9 shooting), while Aldridge successfully established his off arm as a tool to keep Diaw at bay. It was a tactic that drew the attention of Popovich's wrath while eluding the referee's whistle. A toxic combination that led to an explosion and expulsion midway through the third quarter.
The ensuing chaos and injection of emotion was enough to bring to life the one Spurs player who thrives on both. Manu Ginobili closed the quarter with 18 straight points, connecting on a variety of long range jumpers while also slithering through the lane for some vintage Ginobili drives.
The adrenaline boost was enough to propel the Spurs to a 33-12 run to retake the lead, but such measures aren't lasting. Once it wears off, the Blazers are still the Blazers, and they still present a problem.
"We couldn't keep that emotion up," Ginobili said. "Every time we made a run or played good defense, then they would get a three or an isolation for Aldridge and a bucket."
Aldridge scored eight points in the fourth quarter, most of them with Duncan on him, answering any Spurs run. Trailing by one, the Spurs gave up an offensive rebound, resulting a three-pointer by Matthews. Shortly after, Aldridge drew a double team and found Matthews for three again. A third consecutive three-pointer proved to be the final nail in the coffin.
In a tight game it was the Blazers that executed down the stretch and made all the plays while Popovich watched from his office, taking notes. The Trail Blazers are a problem the Spurs will have to look in the eye.