Monday, May 12, 2014
Trail has gone cold
By Daniel Nowell Special to ESPN.com
Anything seemed possible for Portland last week, but San Antonio is dishing out the cold, hard truth.
When a team is down 3-0 in a series, every media availability becomes a dance. What’s most frustrating? Well, we need to focus for the full game. What’s most disappointing? Well, obviously it’s tough to lose a game on your home court, or obviously it’s tough to let the other team get off to a hot start. And so on, for somewhere between four and six minutes. The questions must be seen as tough but not insulting, and players have to acknowledge responsibility without admitting any real emotion. As Wes Matthews put it perhaps a dozen times between Saturday night and Sunday’s practice, “It’s not ideal.”
For the Portland Trail Blazers, this is more or less the norm. A second-round series between them and the San Antonio Spurs was never going to produce off-court fireworks; both simply put too much effort into cultivated steadiness (or dullness, depending on where you’re sitting). But on the court, this series has been nothing short of revelatory when it comes to the scope of the Blazers’ limitations, which was difficult to see as recently as a week ago.
For three games, the Spurs have ferreted out every possible advantage they have over the Blazers and pressed it for everything it’s worth before moving on to the next Portland weakness. In each game, the Spurs have gotten out to a massive early lead, and in each game, the Blazers have shown signs of life before finally succumbing to San Antonio’s superiority.
The Blazers’ defense is built to encourage midrange shots; Tony Parker was built to drop floaters in from the elbow. The Blazers, despite making efforts to upgrade their bench, are now perilously thin after a groin injury to Mo Williams; a sequence in Game 3 saw a Kawhi Leonard post-up bucket over Will Barton immediately followed by a Tim Duncan post-up bucket over Thomas Robinson.
What’s particularly striking is that the Spurs are doing this without likely a single All-NBA player or even a stable of top-flight athletes. Their execution is such that even the slightest of mismatches -- mismatches that, in the hands of other offenses, might scarcely be recognized as such -- can topple a defensive structure. You wouldn't think, for instance, that Matthews switching on to Leonard to cover a weakside screen would expose much vulnerability. But several times as the Blazers fought back into the third quarter of Game 3, Leonard sealed Matthews, took an entry pass and worked to shoot over or, more frequently, fire a skip pass to the opposite corner. A mismatch of the slimmest margins -- a difference in wingspans, basically -- became a viable target for entire sets.
In a sense, it’s Matthews who embodies this dynamic from Portland’s perspective. He’s had a remarkable season, and his intensity and defensive selflessness are sources of strength for the entire team. But Matthews has always been just a little undersized, and a little slow. Over 82 games, against the entire league, he’s an inspiration. Against the Spurs, for seven, he’s a collection of small deficiencies thrown under a magnifying glass. It’s not ideal.
It’s easy to extend that sort of thinking to the entire team. The Blazers were one of the league’s least injured teams, and rode a subpar defense to a win total (54) that seemed at least a year early. It’s hard, now, to see where they might suddenly grow over the next week.
It’s unlikely that Damian Lillard becomes capable of staying in front of Parker, but it’s unlikely that having Nicolas Batum check Parker for more minutes won’t yield some sort of advantage the Spurs can contort into a massive leak.
It’s unlikely that the bench -- which, thanks to Williams’ injury, now prominently features players who wouldn’t be trusted even in meaningful regular-season moments -- will be able to curb the onslaught from Patty Mills, Boris Diaw and Marco Belinelli, as unlikely as that sentence seems. San Antonio has had so many answers that it’s hard to imagine the Blazers introducing a question that might help.
It’s fitting, in a grim way, that this series should follow the elation of Portland’s victory over the Houston Rockets. The Rockets were willing to match the Blazers stylistically, and lacked the discipline to consistently put the Blazers on their heels. The Spurs, though lacking Houston’s top-end star power, are years into their reign as the league’s most disciplined offensive team, and so the Blazers’ limitations are inescapable.
At practice Sunday, LaMarcus Aldridge was asked whether a sweep in this series would taint Portland’s season. He paused a bit, before offering a noncommittal, “I can’t look at all that right now.”
My own feeling is that it shouldn't -- that as thorough as this demolition has been so far, the Blazers far exceeded even internal expectations, and that their season is beyond tainting. But now that the Blazers have announced themselves as an upper-echelon team, if they can’t manufacture some source of improvement, this may be the sort of loss that taints the next few seasons.