Soaring Spurs stuck in Game 7 mode
SAN ANTONIO -- Rick Carlisle has done a lot of good for Terry Stotts, such as bringing Stotts to Dallas as a lead assistant and lobbying hard for him to be hired when the Portland Trail Blazers had a head-coaching vacancy.
Pushing the San Antonio Spurs to seven games? That was far from a favor to Stotts' Blazers.
The Spurs flipped a switch in the first round for Game 7, finishing off a surprisingly competitive series by routing the Dallas Mavericks. San Antonio hasn't turned it off since, taking a 2-0 series lead over Portland with a couple of lopsided victories at the snake pit known as the AT&T Center.
"We know we didn't play well against Dallas except that seventh game," Spurs sixth man Manu Ginobili said after Thursday's 114-97 win over the Blazers. "I don't know if that triggered something or not, but for sure we started well this series. The aggressiveness, the concentration for 48 minutes, was off the charts, so we are very happy for that. Hopefully, we maintain that."
The Spurs suddenly look like the team that earned the NBA's top overall seed again. After struggling to dismiss a pesky eighth seed, San Antonio looks like the squad that reeled off a franchise-record 19 consecutive wins from late February to early April, posting an average margin of victory of 16.8 points during a winning streak that tied the fifth-longest in NBA history.
The Spurs have been even more dominant during this three-game run, winning by an average of 21.3 points since being pushed to the brink of elimination.
"It was a great test for us," All-Star point guard Tony Parker said. "I think every time you play a Game 7 and you win, it gives you confidence. The team right now is doing good, but we know it can change real fast, so we just have to stay focused."
Parker has been the Spurs' primary catalyst, following up his 32-point Game 7 performance by going off for 33 in Game 1 against the Blazers. Portland, using physical shooting guard Wesley Matthews as the primary Parker defender, accomplished its goal of keeping the Spurs point guard from dominating Game 2 in the paint.
Parker responded by dominating as a distributor, dishing out eight of his 10 assists in the first half as the Spurs raced out to a 19-point lead at the break. He finished with 16 points and 10 assists.
"Tony has been a great leader and a great force for us to start things off," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
Make Parker the focal point of your defensive game plan and the Spurs can still beat you so many different ways. The other two members of the Spurs' longtime big three didn't even have big games by their standards Thursday night. It was the Spurs' role players who pummeled Portland.
Small forward Kawhi Leonard, a 22-year-old rising star who won't be considered a role player for long, led San Antonio with 20 points on 8-of-9 shooting, including 4-of-4 from 3-point range.
Center Tiago Splitter got serenaded with a little "MVP! MVP!" chant while at the free throw line in the second half, as much for his tenacious defense on Blazers star LaMarcus Aldridge (16 points, 6-of-23 shooting) as his 10-point, 10-rebound line.
Reserve swingman Marco Belinelli, a candidate for the back of a milk carton during the series against Dallas, has 32 points on 11-of-14 shooting over the two wins against Portland.
And reserve forward Boris Diaw, who had seven of his 12 points during a 46-second span that sparked a 23-6 Spurs run early in the second quarter, was the first name Stotts mentioned during his postgame news conference.
"We're all contributing. We're all feeling important," said Ginobili, who had 16 points, five rebounds and four assists in Game 2. "We've got a deep team. We know that. That's a plus against guys that have got to play 40 minutes every night."
Stotts said, "They come at you in waves. Everybody that plays in the game is aggressive. They make shots, and we just have to sustain our focus, alertness and our intensity no matter who is in the game."
It was obvious that the Spurs would have a big advantage in the battle of the benches entering the series, but that's been enhanced by Portland sixth man Mo Williams' nagging groin injury, which limited him to less than nine minutes Thursday night.
The Blazers have to hope Williams heals over the next couple of days and that some of the Moda Center's home cooking can help an offense that ranked among the NBA's elite all season get rolling again.
That starts with Aldridge, who embraces the responsibility of being the tone-setter for a Portland team has been in huge halftime holes in the first two games of this series. He's challenging himself and every one of his teammates to be better for Game 3, which Aldridge called the "biggest game of our postseason."
Portland left San Antonio feeling like it had taken two of the Spurs' best punches.
"We have, but we don't feel like we've given them ours," Aldridge said. "We haven't played good offensively one game yet. We haven't put together a defensive game like we can. We had a bad first quarter last game, and we had a bad second quarter tonight. We haven't played our game yet."
The Spurs, meanwhile, are still playing like it's Game 7.