At the beginning of the Western Conference semifinals, the Portland Trail Blazers looked capable of giving the San Antonio Spurs a strong challenge and a potential series upset. After two games, they can be forgiven for wondering what they'll have to do to take a game against the NBA's top regular-season team.
In a marginal improvement on their Game 1 trouncing, the Blazers came back from a big second-half deficit to give the host Spurs a minor scare. Unfortunately for them, that comeback was short-lived, and San Antonio went on to win 114-97 to open up a well-deserved 2-0 series lead.
The Blazers entered Game 2 determined to gain more control at both ends, but the early results were mixed. On offense, Nicolas Batum managed to shoot 2-of-3 from beyond the arc in the first quarter, giving the perimeter-oriented team their first 3-pointer of the game nearly three full quarters before their first in Game 1. The problem was that the team as a whole managed only one other first-period 3-point attempt (a miss), which indicates that the Blazers weren't really dictating the terms of their offense much better than they did in Game 1, when they attempted only five 3-pointers in the entire first half. Portland did manage to spread their opportunities across their lineup, not relying quite so heavily on LaMarcus Aldridge, but they were still getting contested shots and found themselves in a 29-26 hole after one quarter.
At the defensive end, Wesley Matthews took the primary assignment on Tony Parker and saw obvious benefits. Matthews held Parker to 1-of-8 shooting to start the game, cutting off the Spurs' most effective scorer in Game 1. However, the Spurs made up for it by getting terrific starts from Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili, the latter of whom failed to make a field goal in Game 1. Portland figured out a way to stop Parker, but it appeared that they had no answer for all of San Antonio's weapons.
Nevertheless, the Blazers could take solace in keeping the game close during the first quarter. Their fortunes changed very quickly in the second. In a display of dominance that looked a whole lot like Game 1, the Spurs topped the Blazers 41-25, using a 23-6 run over 3:53 to turn a one-point lead into a 52-34 advantage by the 7:33 mark of the second quarter. The Spurs did everything right: hitting shots, defending, grabbing offensive rebounds, scoring in transition, etc. By the end of the half, the Spurs had taken a 70-51 lead. It was enough to raise legitimate concerns about Portland's ability to stay competitive in any games this series.
The Blazers managed to make the second half more interesting, largely by stopping the Spurs from scoring. After the explosive second, San Antonio managed only 25 points from the start of the third quarter to the 6:35 mark of the fourth. The Blazers also managed to gain some control over play at the other end. While they shot only 2 of 7 from long range in the third quarter, those seven attempts matched their entire total from the first half. For a team that relies so heavily on 3-pointers, even getting those shots off represents some improvement. That point may sound like a moral victory rather than a practical one, but the Blazers need any help they can get.
With 5:37 remaining in regulation, Portland managed to get the lead down to just 99-91, setting up the chance to win the game in the final minutes. It did not end well. With Aldridge tearing up Boris Diaw in the post, Gregg Popovich subbed in Tiago Splitter at the 4:26 mark. That move ended whatever offensive threat Portland had — they didn't score again until there were 52 seconds left in the game. Over that same period, the Spurs scored 10 points to put things out of reach.
Things will almost certainly be easier for the Blazers at home in Games 3 and 4. The Spurs' terrific bench doesn't figure to be quite as excellent on the road, and it should be easier to get open shots at home. But "things getting easier" doesn't necessarily put the Blazers in a position to win games. The Spurs have dominated these first two games in impressive fashion, controlling every aspect of the game in their desired fashion. It's often a dumb move to count a team out entirely, but there's little evidence that suggests the Blazers can win this series. They'll need a massive turnaround to change that impression.
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