When a team is making its reputation around the league for allowing its opponents to score at will, perhaps the last opponent they want to see taking the floor is the San Antonio Spurs.
The Blazers have already weathered an early season slate including offensive dynamos like Chris Paul, James Harden and the Lakers’ hydra, but the Spurs have proven themselves the gold standard of mechanistic team-wide efficiency the past several seasons. For a team like the Blazers, who are, on the season, conceding a literal majority of their opponents’ field goal attempts, the Spurs would seem a daunting bellwether.
Before the game, Terry Stotts hedged somewhat on the root of the team’s defensive issues. “I would say sometimes there’s a lack of communication, lack of focus, a lack of immediacy,” he told reporters, as if reading off of an elementary school character traits poster. What he stopped short of saying, however, is that the roster is nearly devoid of strong individual defenders.
“I think we have good defensive players,” he said. “Wes, Nic, and Lamarcus have shown me that they’re all very good defensive players. J.J. has activity.” And that’s about the current state of the defense—the fourth strongest regular player can be said, charitably, to “have activity.”
This was a game that the Blazers, despite all, were in a position to win. A frenzied final possession saw Nic Batum miss a three pointer to take a one-point lead in the waning seconds and another last-ditch bomb missed the mark as well. This despite the fact that the Blazers’ bench was outscored by 59 points—no misprint—and that they made it four out of five games now allowing an opponent to shoot higher than 50%.
The first half was a showcase for the Blazers’ explosive first unit. Behind a balanced attack of Aldridge, Lillard and Batum, Portland led 53-42 at the break. Most noticeable, and lasting throughout the game, was Batum’s torrid shooting; at the point where he missed the go-ahead shot, Batum was 5 of 7 for three, and he finished with 33 points on 18 shots. He continues to stand out as the Blazers best player even on nights where Aldridge and Lillard provide full offensive support.
The story of the second half was Gary Neal and the Spurs’ offensive explosion in the late third and early fourth quarters. Led by Neal’s career high 27 points, accrued on a variety of runners, set shots and pull-up jumpers, the Spurs opened the fourth quarter 8 for 8 to open a lead that would prove, just barely, insurmountable.
After the game, Stotts and players reiterated their focus on the mental aspects of defense. “We’ve just got to be more deliberate, more attention to detail in some of our coverages,” said Stotts. “That being said, I have a hard time faulting effort.”
Stott’s opacity is a bit frustrating, but the truth is that the Blazers are not built to defend well. Focus is not going to turn J.J. Hickson into Chuck Hayes, and Damian Lillard is giving back a fair portion of what he’s creating on offense. The first unit can score with—and better—than just about any team in the league, but that’s simply not going to matter with the lack of bench scoring and a consistent inability to produce regular stops.
So where to go from here? Some of these questions will doubtless answer themselves as the quality of the opposition declines somewhat. The Blazers find themselves in an opening stretch a few pessimistic observers feared would mean an 0-7 start. But it’s also true that we’re witnessing the end of the honeymoon, and that the realities of this roster are going to start to become real frustrations. Lillard has been more than Blazers fans could have rationally hoped for, and Nicolas Batum has been one of the most valuable two-way players in the West. It’s going to be maddening to watch parts of this roster flourish while the rest of it torpedoes their chances of winning, but that’s the reality.
What emerges is an opportunity for Stotts to assert himself and start to fashion a legible identity in this phase of his career. After his unsuccessful stints coaching in Atlanta and Milwaukee, Stotts has a chance to live up to the Carlisle coaching tree aura that made him a target for the Blazers in the first place. Six games in, with a roster this thin, Stotts can be forgiven for leaning on his gifted starters and letting the rest of the variables play out. But as the season progresses, Stotts will have to prove himself capable of isolating those variables and finding some ways to buoy the best parts of this roster.