Saturday night, Portland felt almost like a real big-time sports town. At the same time as the MLS’s Portland Timbers took on their archrival Seattle Sounders in the first leg of their playoff match, a few hours to the south, the Trail Blazers took on the visiting San Antonio Spurs in the home opener at the Moda Center. The “whiteout” crowd, happily wearing the free t-shirts passed out by the team before the game, resembled a gathering of Southern Baptists ready to dunk John Turturro’s head into a river – befitting for a theme of rebirth. Although the Blazers’ 115-105 could have just as easily felt like a kind of last rites for the aging Spurs.
After his clinical destruction of J.J. Hickson and the Nuggets in the last four or so minutes on Friday, LaMarcus Aldridge carried that form right into Saturday’s game. Only instead of Hickson, Alridge was doing it on Saturday against the likes of Tim Duncan. Back after missing the Spurs’ contest against the Lakers on Friday with a deep chest bruise, Duncan had no answer for the efficiency and precision of Aldridge in the early going. In fact, it didn’t look terribly different from the way Duncan himself used to employ his variety of near-perfect post moves to reduce even the most experienced defenders into mere ornaments decorating his own greatness. Aldridge of course bombarded Duncan and others with the usual onslaught of midrange jumpers, but he also spiced up his performance with hard back-downs, aggressive drives to the rim, and even a genuinely spectacular alley-oop finish after bursting in from the wing. Aldridge would finish the game with 24 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists. Duncan, meanwhile, used his typical subtle Duncan tricks to also somehow wind up with 24 points and 7 rebounds.
The other spotlighted matchup was that of the two point guards, Damian Lillard versus Tony Parker. Lillard earned the upper hand here as well, leading all scorers with 25 points to go with 7 rebounds and 7 assists. Parker would finish with a respectable 17 points and 9 assists, but struggled mightily on defense against the Portland backcourt. When Parker matched up against Lillard, the younger guard would shake free almost instantly, effortlessly splitting the defense on the pick and roll, or creating space in isolation to attack the rim or hoist jumpers with ease. Mo Williams found similar success against Parker, scoring 13 points off the bench in 23 minutes and anchoring another strong performance from the Portland bench – every Blazer that played in this game recorded at least 2 points. The other member of the guard trio, Wes Matthews chipped in 20 points including 3-6 from beyond the arc.
Surprisingly, the Spurs who gave the Blazers the most trouble were Boris Diaw and Marco Belinelli. The Blazers led by as many as 12 points with 8 minutes to go in the contest when Belinelli and Diaw led a run that closed the Portland lead to just 4 with a little over a minute and half remaining. While the Blazers would benefit from solid free throw shooting and a momentous dunk from Wes Matthews on a loose ball play to close out the game, the renewed urgency nearly cost Nicolas Batum his triple double. Nico needed just the buckets to hit the milestone, but it’s generally unwise to run sets with the intention of getting a particular player shots for his stats, over trying to win the game (unless Ricky Davis is involved, obv).
Sitting on 8 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists with only a couple seconds remaining, Nico casually tossed up a running 30-footer as the final buzzer sounded, only to watch it drop through the net and secure his triple double. Sayeth Batum on the accomplishment after the game:
“That is maybe the worst thing I’ve ever done in my career.
“It went in – I was like, ‘Oh no,’ […] I didn’t mean to disrespect this team. This is the San Antonio Spurs, the best team from the last 15 years in the NBA. I’ve never disrespected this team. I love this team. I have a lot of friends on this team.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich responded:
“Why would I be mad at that? He’s a good kid. I don’t care.”
And just like that, all Batum’s transgressions were washed away.
Oh, and the Timbers beat the Sounders, 2-1.