The postgame podium is supposed to serve as a spotlight for those with the top performances of the night, but under the wrong circumstances, the glare and heat from the cameras can just as easily feel like an interrogation room.
On Thursday night, Nicolas Batum experience the latter following the San Antonio Spurs 114-97 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers behind a hyper-efficient 20-point performance from Kawhi Leonard, and suffocating team-wide defense to take a commanding 2-0 series lead.
Batum was one of the few Trail Blazers to find success, scoring 21 points on 13 shots to go with nine rebounds. But when pressed for answers to Portland’s shortcomings, Batum turned to empty clichés and platitudes like energy and intensity.
“It’s interesting that, when a team loses, everybody says they didn’t have enough energy. And when you win, you had more energy,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich remarked before the game when asked if he expected the Trail Blazers to come out with more intensity. ‘I’ve always wondered, if you lose a game, I think my guys have energy. They just maybe didn’t do some things as well as the other team on that night.”
The San Antonio Spurs have done so many things well through two games that they’ve made the Trail Blazers look downright listless, though not through lack of effort or focus on Portland’s behalf. At the moment, the Spurs are simply coming from so many different angles that it’s hard to figure out where Portland can plug the leaks, so the default answer becomes to just do everything harder.
“We’re younger than them, we shouldn’t be outworked that way,” Batum said. “We can do a better job right from the start showing them who we are, we did that in the first series against the Houston Rockets. We’re hungry and we have to come onto the court wanting it more than them, and I don’t see that right now. I don’t see the same energy that we had in the first round and we have to get back to it.”
Heading into Game 2, Danny Green said it was obvious some of the younger Trail Blazers weren’t used to certain playoff situations, which isn’t a surprise given the relative lack of inexperience in such pressure situations. Green wondered aloud how the Trail Blazers would respond; reporters took that to mean would they come out with more intensity?
As Popovich said, it’s the playoffs. Energy or focus isn’t really the issue at play here. Portland came out aggressive, matching shot-for-shot with the Spurs and getting a big boost from Batum’s eight first quarter points. They moved the ball, they attacked the basket, and generally played stayed stride-for-stride with the Spurs down only 26-29 after 12 minutes.
When everything finally unraveled for Portland, and things fell apart rather quickly, it wasn’t because they eased up on the gas or lost focus. There are simply things they don’t do as well as the Spurs on most nights, like move to their third or fourth options as the first and second are taken away.
On a night when the trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker combined to shoot just 19 for 47 (40.4 percent), Leonard scored 20 points on nine shots and the bench came through with its second consecutive 50-point game of the series.
One of the counters the Spurs have come up with to opponent’s switching and cross-matching schemes these playoffs has been to run Parker through pick and rolls with Kawhi Leonard or Danny Green to get the defense back into favorable matchups.
With Wesley Matthews guarding Parker from the opening tip, the Spurs ran a 1-3 pick and roll designed to get Kawhi Leonard in an isolation that allowed him to simply shoot over the top of the shorter Matthews for his first points of the game.
Leonard’s always capable of filling up the box score in different ways, and his five rebounds, two steals and two blocks are a testament to that. But in Game 2 Leonard was also aggressive in seeking his own offense, connecting on all four of his three-point attempts and attacking mismatches zealously in the post.
“We tell him to be more aggressive and don’t worry about us, we will find our own shots,” Parker said. “When he plays well, we usually win. It was the same thing when Manu and I first arrived with Tim in his prime, and David Robinson and Steve Smith pushing us to be more aggressive.”
Explosive as Leonard was in the first quarter, it was the bench that blew the game open as it had all season. When Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts had Boris Diaw in Atlanta, he remarked that the notoriously gun shy Diaw was even more hesitant to take shots as a rookie. But this year Diaw has operated as a key playmaker for the Spurs second unit, doing a much better job of balancing his own offense with his playmaking predilections.
In the first five minutes of the second quarter, Diaw scored seven points, pulled down two rebounds, finding Danny Green for a three-pointer after tearing an offensive rebound away from the clutches of Robin Lopez. In the first five minutes of the second quarter, the Spurs turned a 3-point advantage into 18.
“[The bench] was great tonight, and it’s definitely the identity of this team,” Boris Diaw (12 points, four rebounds) said. “We play nine, 10 players each night, and everybody’s able to come in the game and produce and bring something to the team.”
Portland lacks such depth, which was said to matter less in the playoffs when star players could afford to spend significantly more time on the court. But it’s not the energy that depth brings to this series so much as it is the variety. Portland spaces the floor well, moves the ball, and is both athletic and dangerously explosive on offense when LaMarcus Aldridge or Damian Lillard draw enough attention. But stall those two enough to keep up with everyone else, and things tend to break down.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Splitter was the primary defender on 14 of Aldridge’s shot attempts, of which the Trail Blazers’ All-Star hit just three. Because Splitter has been successful defending Aldridge on an island, and Lopez is a relative non-factor on offense, Duncan has been able to deter any dribble penetration from Lillard.
Their struggles weren’t due to lack of trying. If anything, they might have been too aggressive in seeking shots. It’s the playoffs, every team comes with energy. The difference right now is the Spurs have a seemingly infinite number of more ways to channel their energy into something useful than Portland does right now.
“The onslaught at the beginning of the second quarter was obviously the turning point in the game. I thought Boris Diaw during that stretch made the plays that kept that group afloat,” Stotts said. “Again, their bench just did a great job of coming in and having an impact on the game. It happened pretty quickly.”
Portland is a better team than this, and they’ll come out with the energy of the home crowd and all the wonderful narratives we like to deliver. But it’s the playoffs and the stakes are just as high for San Antonio. These series are rarely decided by who wants it more, but rather, who can channel that desire in a way to execute better on the court.