The Portland Trail Blazers needed a victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday night to solidify their claim for one of the top six places in the NBA Western Conference playoff race. After beating the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday, they won the tiebreaker against their famous rivals from the South. Another win would go a long way to helping them avoid a play-in seed.
Behind Damian Lillard’s big score and masterful play from center Jusuf Nurkic, the Blazers got what they needed, winning easily, 124-102. The game started off slow for both teams, but once Portland’s offense opened up, San Antonio couldn’t find enough defensive sandbags to stop it. Lillard had 30 points and 8 assists, carrying Portland in the first half. Nurkic added 17 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists, helping his team open it in the second. CJ McCollum provided the knockout punch with 27 points on 10-21 shooting.
The victory takes Portland to a record 39-29, good for 6th place in the West. They are half a game behind the Dallas Mavericks for 5th place, 1.5 games ahead of the Lakers in 7th. Portland has tiebreakers against both teams.
The Blazers did not make it easy for themselves to start the game. They moved away from their recent tendency to assault Damian Lillard early in the game. CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic just couldn’t provide the same zip. Portland missed its first 8 shots as San Antonio took a 9-0 lead. Spurs kept that margin for the first half of the period, but a few turnovers and a run or two helped Portland retreat. The score was not abundant, so the ranged shots had a disproportionate effect. Lillard and Norman Powell tracked long-range bombs with hard drives for layups. When McCollum got one and one on an uncontrollable skinny at 4:00 am, the Blazers came all the way home, taking a 19-17 lead. Scoring remained relatively rare afterwards. Lillard collected points from foul shots. The Spurs were released for open shots with screens, but failed to hit most of them. The result was a relatively arduous, but still acceptable period that ended with the Blazers leading 27-26. Lillard had 10 points in the period, 8 excluding free throws.
The teams continued to play ‘miss it or turn it around’ early in the second period. It’s not like the defense is great. The game just felt like “playing with fatty jelly”. Gregg Popovich appeared to be annoyed by his team at the halfway point as they failed to cover the arc, in favor of McCollum. A guard trio consisting of McCollum, Lillard and Anfernee Simons proved surprisingly effective in defense. The downhill momentum finally got the Blazers out of the mud and a decent 8-point lead. Then Dame started torching Spurs in the three-point arc, the steel-eyed air coming out of Jusuf Nurkic’s screens, pouring out the points. The lead increased to 11 before the suspect Portland home defense helped San Antonio get back there. But three-point dams rarely hurt the Blazers. This one either. Portland led by 10, 57-47 at the half. Lillard’s total was up to 21 at this point, thanks to three triples in the second.
The Blazers started the third period with the same plan they started the game with, this time with much more success. Nurkic has scored several times inside. He also fed McCollum for the open riders. San Antonio, still keeping a half eye on Lillard, couldn’t keep up. Portland sprinted with a 72-56 lead. Spurs fired back playfully, but Nurk kept rolling. He’s had layups, throwbacks, and even hit Dame with a nice pass or three. Suddenly the Blazers looked unstoppable. Portland’s rebound remained strong, holding the Spurs to one shot. When San Antonio hit, they looked good. However, that wasn’t often enough to change the game. It’s hard to build a comeback on one-and-done, especially when Lillard takes the plunge, as he seemed to do every period tonight. Portland led 90-75 after three.
The fourth quarter resembled the second at the start, with a dominant mud play. Since the Blazers grew 15-16 points, slow pace and poor attacking helped them. The clock continued for a good 5 minutes before the teams combined for 16 points. There was no way San Antonio would be able to make up such a shortfall in this period, or any period. Portland was fortunate enough to rest most of its starters, leaving McCollum to shine as the top scorer. He delivered, scoring 7 to drive the victory bus home.
Stay tuned for the evening’s Marlow Ferguson Jr. analysis, coming soon!
The score of the box
The Blazers host the Houston Rockets in their penultimate home game of the season, Monday night at 8:00 p.m. in the Pacific.