Spurs Know The Way. Blazers? Not So Much
SAN ANTONIO -- The San Antonio Spurs are experimenting, the Portland Trail Blazers are being tested, and the difference between those two terms is even greater than the 6½ games that separate them in the Western Conference standings.
The Spurs are at eight consecutive victories and counting, sitting atop the conference, winning games with enough ease as of late that coach Gregg Popovich can afford the luxury of trying different in-game lineups fueled by curiosity, not necessity.
The Blazers have lost four straight and are at risk of becoming embedded in the lower half of the West playoff bracket. They sent out a lineup of Damian Lillard, Dorell Wright, Will Barton, Meyers Leonard and Earl Watson for the first time this season at the start the fourth quarter, simply because they had to. All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge was back in the trainer's room, having bruised his back after a hard fall in the third quarter. Mo Williams was out with a hip strain, depriving the NBA's least productive bench of its top scorer. Williams said he's day-to-day, while the Trail Blazers did not provide a timetable for Aldridge's return. The only postgame update was that X-Rays on Aldridge's back were negative.
That patchwork Portland group was only on the floor for 36 seconds, but that was enough time to record a minus-six efficiency after back-to-back jumpers by the Spurs' Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli. The Spurs led by 15, the ballgame was pretty much over, and the Blazers were headed for a lengthy conversation in the postgame locker room, which stayed closed for well more than the mandated 10 minutes after the 103-90 defeat to San Antonio.
"I think this is the first time that we've been tested at this level, where we're losing some of our better players and we're losing games and letting leads slip," Lillard said. "It's one of those points of the year where it's, 'All right, it's test time.' I think it's another test that we'll pass."
The Blazers were the one who sprung a pop quiz on the rest of the league in the first half of the season. As in, "What are these guys doing up near the top of the Western Conference?" That's no longer the question. They had five losses through Christmas and still had a single digit in the loss column on Jan. 19, but have dropped 13 games since Jan. 20. The query now is ... what happened?
"Our rhythm has been kind of off," said Lillard, who struggled with 9-of-22 shooting after scoring 32 points in 39 minutes in Memphis the night before. "That makes everything harder. We're playing against good teams, closing in on the end of the season, and teams are fighting for their playoff lives."
The natural response would be to fight back, but Lillard had this telling quote: "We've kind of given ourselves some room for error, or some room for a time like this."
True, their strong start means the recent slump probably won't drop them out of the playoffs. That doesn't mean they can afford that mentality going forward. They're fighting for home-court advantage, which could very well determine their playoff lives. At the moment they're in the fifth spot, 2½ games behind Houston and a game ahead of Golden State.
The bigger picture: Aldridge told me before the game that his standard for considering this season a success and the franchise making the progress he wants to see is if they win at least one round in the playoffs. Something to keep in mind as his 2015 free agency approaches.
First the Blazers need to get Aldridge back on the court. He couldn't put weight on his right leg as he slowly made his way back to the locker room. Even the fastest possible return won't leave many games to get back on track before the playoffs start. Very unfortunate timing.
"Now it's just time for us to make our own luck," Blazers guard Wes Matthews said. "Get the 50-50 balls, turn these games around, stop waiting for it to happen and just compete like we were earlier in the year."
In other words, the future needs to be like their early-season past, or they'll be first-round history.
The Spurs, meanwhile, are drawing on their collective consciousness (or "corporate knowledge," as general manager R.C. Buford calls it), sharing the ball instinctively, looking much like the group that won the Western Conference last season.
In the fourth quarter, Tim Duncan didn't have to play and Manu Ginobili spent only 46 seconds on the court. Popovich sent Tony Parker back in for three minutes, mainly to see how a smaller lineup featuring him would look.
"We played physically, we moved the ball well and got a lot of people to play, so I think we are staying pretty fresh," Popovich said.
The words of a coach and team who don't need tests, because they've already demonstrated their knowledge.
2. Around the Association
MVP: Kyrie Irving. It wasn't the greatest shooting night for Kyrie -- he was just 9-of-19 from the floor -- but he came up big when it counted, hitting what was basically the dagger turnaround jump shot late in the fourth quarter with the Suns making their final comeback attempt. Irving filled out the rest of the box score nicely with his six assists and nine rebounds.
LVP: Gerald Green. All season long, Green's been granted the green light. Tonight, maybe it should have been red tonight. Green only shot 4-of-14 tonight, and missing badly from both deep and up close. He had no semblance of rhythm tonight, as his jump shot just flat-out did not look good.
That was ...a missed opportunity. Phoenix is fighting for its playoff life, and they desperately needed this win. Unfortunately, the Suns couldn't complete the comeback, and they now find themselves 1.5 games behind the Dallas Mavericks and the Memphis Grizzlies for a playoff spot.
MVP: Blake Griffin. The Clippers forward didn't shoot particularly well (13-for-28) from the field, but salvaged broken plays at key moments. Griffin was all the more crucial given Chris Paul's lackluster production against the Warriors.
That was... exhilarating: Danny Granger had an excellent 7-for-11 shooting night. But one of his few misses provided Blake Griffin the opportunity for a breathtaking, earth-shaking putback dunk.
Defining moment: Over an 11-minute stretch in the third and fourth quarters, the Golden State Warriors scored only 10 points while the Clippers posted 22. The prolonged run by L.A. cemented Golden State's demise and the Clippers' victory.
MVP: Tim Duncan. While the Spurs had six players in double-figures, Duncan set the tone and still managed to get some rest. In just 25 minutes, he scored 10 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.
X factor: San Antonio's bench outscored Portland's 46-23. Forced to play heavy minutes on the second night of a back-to-back, the Blazers' starters simply didn't have the juice.
That was ... adding injury to insult: While the Blazers lost their fourth straight game (their longest of the season) Portland is more concerned with the health of LaMarcus Aldridge, who fell hard on his lower back early in the third quarter and did not return.
MVP: Mike Conley was the Grizzlies' spark plug in the second half, scoring all 16 of his points after halftime. And it was his floater with 1.5 seconds left to go that gave Memphis a huge comeback victory to keep them ahead of Phoenix in the race for the eighth and final playoff spot.
LVP: Greg Stiemsma got 26 minutes and gave the Pelicans zero points and just three rebounds, finishing with a minus-12 in the plus/minus column. The curious part is that Monty Williams had far more productive options in Jeff Withey and Alexis Ajinca, but those two were nowhere to be found in the crucial fourth quarter.
Turning point: After Anthony Davis went off for 22 points on 11 shots in the first half, Memphis switched Tayshaun Prince onto him in the second half and from that point on Davis scored only seven points on three attempts.
MVP: Though the 16-point, 11-assist, seven-rebound performance from Monta Ellis was impressive, Dirk Nowitzki's 31 points on 12-of-14 from the field was lights out. He also passed John Havlicek on the NBA's all-time scoring list.
X factor: Though both teams shot respectable percentages from the field, Dallas was able to pull away with excellent 3-point shooting. The Mavericks hit 13-of-21 from beyond the arc (62 percent) compared to Utah's dreadful 5-of-26 (19 percent).
Defining moment: Leading 95-93 with 3:48 remaining, the Mavericks went on an 11-3 run over the next two minutes to seal the game. Monta Ellis had five points in the run while Jose Calderon and Dirk each hit 3-pointers.
MVP: Paul Pierce was unstoppable, with flashes of his vintage self as he scored a big bucket when the game was down to the wire. The Truth finished with 29 huge points, on a super efficient 9-for-12 shooting performance.
X factor: Mirza Teletovic scored 17 points in 16 off-the-bench minutes on 6-for-11 shooting from the field. He even guarded LeBron James successfully for a few late-game stretches, swatting a career-high three blocks.
Defining moment: The Heat were behind by a single point with 3.5 ticks to play. Shaun Livingston deflected an inbounds pass that was directed at LeBron James, who had an open lane in front of him. Livingston's length saved the Nets from a last-second loss.
MVP: Kenneth Faried (aka "Manimal") was practically unstoppable. Kyle O'Quinn struggled to contain him, as Faried was everywhere and anywhere on the court. He finished with 26 points and nine rebounds.
X factor: Denver really hurt Orlando on the glass (52-38) and in the paint (54-40). The Magic have never won a game this season in which they were out-rebounded, and that trend continued against the Nuggets.
Defining moment: With Orlando trailing 115-110, Jameer Nelson's errant pass to O'Quinn (which caused a traveling violation) with 1:03 remaining cost the team a chance to make it a one-possession ballgame. Denver iced the game shortly thereafter.
MVP: Rudy Gay was the best player on the floor between both teams Wednesday. Gay scored 13 of his 27 points in the opening quarter. He also set career-highs in free throws made (16) and attempted (19) in the victory.
X factor: Jason Thompson played much better in his second consecutive game off the Kings' bench. The veteran big man scored an efficient 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting while grabbing seven rebounds in less than 14 minutes of action.
That was... brutal: The Sixers came into Wednesday's game losers of 17 straight. That trend continued Wednesday as the Sixers' extended that streak to 18. They shot an abysmal 39.3 percent from the field in the 17-point loss.
MVP: Al Jefferson (26 points, 10 rebounds) put down a picnic blanket in the paint, uncorked a vintage merlot, and feasted on Washington's interior defense. Somewhere, Marcin Gortat's "biggest hero," Steven Seagal, shed a tear.
LVP: Bradley Beal scored 18 points, which is a fine total. But the opportunity cost of so many missed midrange jump shots (Beal was 7-for-18 overall) was as sky-high as Beal's potential, should Washington's sophomore guard ever deign to improve his shot selection.
Defining moment: Up 83-80 with 4:34 remaining in the fourth quarter, Kemba Walker rose up for an unlikely 3-pointer, closely guarded by John Wall. Wall fouled him on the play, and while the Bobcats guard was calmly knocking down three free throws, Randy Wittman prattled his way into a technical foul. Washington never recovered.
MVP: Although he scored only eight points, Jonas Valanciunas was a beast on the boards. He corralled 13 rebounds in only 25 minutes of play, and he was instrumental in helping the Raptors out-rebound the Pistons by 15 on the night. For the record, Detroit is one of the league's best rebounding teams.
X factor: Brandon Jennings caught fire in the third quarter, scoring 15 points and keeping Detroit's deficit within reason. Unfortunately, his Pistons ended up getting trounced, but Jennings had himself a night, scoring 24 points on 10-of-15 shooting from the field.
LVP: Everyone in the Pistons' backcourt not named Brandon Jennings was horrible. Rodney Stuckey, Will Bynum, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Singer combined for 17 points on 5-of-24 shooting. Yikes!
MVP: The Knicks couldn't miss in the first half, and predictably, Carmelo Anthony led the charge. After knocking down his first three field-goal attempts, all 3-pointers, Anthony led New York with 34 points and pulled down nine rebounds.
Turning point: The Celtics made a run in the third quarter, cutting the lead to 10 going into the fourth. But Pablo Prigioni splashed in the first shot of the final frame, a 3-pointer, which sparked a 10-2 run from which Boston would never recover.
That was ... scorching: New York finished 52.5 percent from the field and 57.9 percent from 3-point range, and for those watching, those totals seemed low. The blowout was New York's second trouncing of Boston since the Celtics embarrassed the Knicks 114-73 in December.
3. Wednesday's Best
Paul Pierce, Nets: The Truth's aim was true, scoring 17 of his 29 points in the third quarter and two crucial scores late as the Nets topped the Heat 96-95. Pierce sank five of seven 3-pointers, helping show that LeBron James perhaps hasn't had the last word in their rivalry.
4. Wednesday's Worst
Philadelphia 76ers: That's 18 straight losses for the Sixers, who fell to the Kings 115-98. At this point, it looks like this streak for the foremost tankers could stretch to infinity and beyond. The Sixers try to snap their skein when they face old friend Evan Turner and the Pacers on Friday.
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6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"It's extremely tough trying to do this thing again."
-- Heat center Chris Bosh, after losing four out of five games as the team gears up for a three-peat.
8. Return Of Eric Bledsoe
9. Stat Check
The Brooklyn Nets were 11 games below .500 entering January and currently sit in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, 8.5 games ahead of ninth place. The last team to make the postseason after entering January 10-plus games below .500 were the 1985-86 Sacramento Kings. The Kings were swept in the first round of Western Conference playoffs that season by the Houston Rockets. The Nets have posted a 22-9 record since Jan. 1 (.710 win percentage). To put that in context, no team in NBA history entered January 10-plus games below .500 and then went on to register a post-December win percentage of .600.
10. Top 3 Plays