By Mike Monroe
PORTLAND – Given his recent history, both in this last outpost of NBA basketball in the American Northwest and on TNT’s featured Thursday night telecast, the first question for Spurs coach Gregg Popovich before his team’s against the Trail Blazers was a natural.
After all, Popovich had to play his key players big minutes in a disheartening 99-96 loss in Salt Lake City the previous night and the Spurs were playing their fifth game in seven nights, just as they were on Nov. 29 when he sent Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green home from Florida rather than play the Miami Heat in the second game of a back-to-back set.
That set off a firestorm of controversy that ended with a $250,000 fine for the Spurs from NBA Commissioner David Stern.
Then there was the game late in last season’s rodeo road trip Popovich angered Portlanders by resting his Big Three in a game at the Rose Garden that resulted in a 137-97 Spurs loss.
Thus, the question: Same starting lineup?
“Yeah,” Popovich said. “I wonder why you’d ask a question like that?”
This time there was no reason for outrage. All healthy Spurs suited up and the same five Spurs who opened Wednesday’s game in Utah were on the floor at tipoff.
Oregonians who fretted they wouldn’t get to see the Spurs stars in person were relieved and then delighted that their Trail Blazers were able to score a 98-90 victory over the full complement of healthy Spurs.
Thursday’s loss had much the same feel as the previous night in Salt Lake City, where Mo Williams’ buzzer-beating 3-pointer came after an offensive rebound by Utah’s Paul Millsap.
This time J.J. Hickson rebound a Damian Lillard miss to give the Trail Blazers a second chance to extend a 93-90 lead with little more than a minute remaining.
Nicolas Batum, 0-for-5 from beyond the arc up to that moment, nailed a corner 3-pointer with Ginobili closing out on him to give the Blazers the breathing room they needed to get their 10th win of the season.
“We hung in there, but Nicolas killed us with that three at the very end,” Popovich said. “It could have been anybody’s game but for that three. “We’ve all been there, on both ends of it. We’ve just been on both ends two nights in a row. Such is life. Go to dinner.”
The Spurs had no good answer for Lilland, Portland’s Rookie of the Year candidate point guard, who scored a season-high 29 points, 27 of those coming in the first three periods when Portland built a double-digit lead.
They tried double-teaming him on pick-and-roll plays in the fourth quarter, but he played like a seasoned veteran and gave up the ball to open teammates.
“We started to blitz him in the fourth quarter because we really weren’t handling him very well,” Popovich said. “He was smart enough to get rid of it and hit the open man and play with his teammates and that’s the sign of an intelligent player.”
The Spurs played a choppy game and were within three through a combination of grit and guile. They assisted on 23 of 33 baskets and got the foul line 25 times to the Blazers’ 12 trips. “I was real proud of their effort, considering the circumstances,” Popovich said. “They busted their butts to try and stay in the game. There just wasn’t enough fuel in the tank.”
Fatigue appeared to play a role in some of the Spurs’ mistakes, but Duncan said the real problem was a lack of rhythm. “Call it fatigue, whatever, we just couldn’t find our rhythm,” Duncan said. “But give credit to them. They made shots when they needed to and kept us at bay.
“We just couldn’t find a good rhythm for any period of time and even when we did find it and fought back in the game they made a shot or two to hold us off. So give credit to them. It’s a loss.” Spurs Nation