Blazers come close, but Spurs pull it out
The San Antonio Spurs didn't have Kawhi Leonard or Tony Parker Wednesday night at Moda Center.
But they had LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol.
That, and just enough grit down the stretch, propelled the Spurs to a 93-91 victory over the Trail Blazers.
"(The Blazers) play well here," said San Antonio's LaMarcus Aldridge, the former Trail Blazer. "They have a bunch of guys who can make shots. We had to grind it out."
Aldridge scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds and Gasol totaled 20 points, 17 rebounds and five assists as the Spurs (22-10) won their third straight and for the 11th time in 14 outings.
With Leonard and Parker both sitting out the game under coach Gregg Popovich's "injury-management plan," San Antonio needed its two veterans to come through, and they did.
Aldridge, though, was wrong in both of his assessments of Portland, at least of late.
The Blazers (16-15) have lost five straight games at home for the first time since the 2012-13 season, when they closed the campaign by losing their final eight contests at Moda Center.
And Portland didn't have a bunch of guys who could make shots Wednesday night.
Jusuf Nurkic (7 for 11) and Evan Turner (7 for 12) found the range often enough, but their teammates combined to make only 24 of 73 casts from the field. The Blazers shot poorly — .396 from the field, .240 from the 3-point line and .643 from the free-throw line — but still had a chance to beat the Western Conference's third-best team at the end.
With 2.6 seconds to go, the Blazers in-bounded the ball to CJ McCollum in front of the Blazer bench. McCollum — suffering through a miserable shooting night — missed a 3-point attempt that bounced off the front rim at the buzzer, sending the Moda partisans home unhappy yet again.
"I thought it was going in," said McCollum, who missed his first 11 shots from the field and finished 5 for 22. "It felt good coming off my hands. I had (2.6) seconds, so I knew I had two dribbles. I turned, got squared and let it go. Just left it short."
Damian Lillard was on the court at the end, too, but was pretty much a decoy after suffering a knee contusion early in the third quarter. The Blazers' meal ticket returned in the fourth quarter and was hobbling on one leg by the final horn.
Lillard suffered the injury as he drove past Gasol with the ball.
"I got around him and his knee ran right into the back of my knee," Lillard said. "He ran into me hard. Earlier this season in Philly, I had a similar situation, but it was nowhere near this. It felt like he was running full speed into the back of my leg.
"I couldn't move. Otherwise, I probably would have had much more of an impact on the game down the stretch."
Lillard — who scored 14 of his 17 points in the first half — felt it was important to be on the court at the end with the game on the line.
"My (defender) never left me, so I felt like that would give us at least a little more space out there," said Lillard, who finished 6 of 17 from the field in his 34 minutes. "If I could move, I would have been a lot more aggressive. I would have been a lot more hands-on at the end.
"If I'm able to play (at the end), I think we win that game, no question about it."
The Spurs shot .512 from the field and outrebounded Portland 53-38, but had a season-high 22 turnovers that resulted in 26 Blazer points.
"It's tough to win on the road, especially with 22 turnovers," Popovich said. "I thought we hung in there pretty good. We didn't play great, but I was proud of the effort. They just kept pushing. That's what this group does."
San Antonio trailed by six points early in the fourth quarter but hung tough and pulled it out with a determined effort down the stretch.
"I told (the players) if I could bottle their effort at the end of the game, they'd win 82 games," Popovich said. "Somehow, players don't play like that unless the game's on the line."
San Antonio scored only 39 points in the second half but still managed to escape Portland with a victory.
"I was proud of our defense throughout the game," Portland coach Terry Stotts said. "To force 22 turnovers — that's uncharacteristic of (the Spurs). We struggled through some difficult shooting and still had a chance to win the game."
The Blazers' shooting wasn't "difficult." It was lousy. To be fair, though, there were plenty of near-misses.
"I don't think I've ever seen so many in-and-outs misses in my life," McCollum said. "Not just from me but a lot of guys."
The Blazers — 9–6 in road games but 7-9 at home — were discouraged after taking the Spurs to the wire but coming up empty-handed again.
"We're struggling at home," said Ed Davis, who came off the bench for seven points and 10 rebounds in 23 minutes. "It would have been good to get a win. We're fighting, giving ourselves a chance every night. But we haven't made enough plays to quite get it done."
Lillard's injury, McCollum said, "is kind of how our season has gone. Guys have gone down. Guys are battling injuries. But we have to figure out ways to still win games. We had a chance to tonight. I had a couple of opportunities to win the game."
NOTES — The Blazers' next action is at home Friday night against Denver. … Popovich, explaining the decision to sit Leonard and Parker in the first of back-to-back games instead of the second (the Spurs play Thursday at Utah): "It's never (set) in stone. We don't have a formula. The medical people felt it would be better to have two days rest instead of one. They played Monday, so they'll get two days rest before the next game. Depending on how they feel at Utah, they may get limited minutes against Sacramento on Saturday." Popovich said he never worries about the opponent in such a situation. "If you start thinking, 'This team is better than that team,' it always bites you in the rear end," he said. "It doesn't work out the way you want it to." … Somehow, the Spurs have managed to lead the NBA in opponents' scoring despite the loss of Leonard, a two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year. "Everybody talks about missing his scoring, but he's our best defender on top of being our leading scorer," Popovich said. "We're missing him in creating turnovers, contesting end-of-shot clock shots … he is really missed in that area as much as anything. And he sets the tone for the rest of the club. Against a team like Portland, with McCollum and Lillard being so dangerous, he'd probably end up a good portion of the game on Lillard, because he's such a tough cover and fantastic player."
Aldridge was booed lustily by Blazer fans in pregame introductions and occasionally during the game. "I love playing here," he said afterward. "It feels like home. They can boo all they want, but it still feels comfortable out there for me." … Aldridge leads the Spurs in scoring (22.3) and rebounds (8.4) while shooting .495 from the field, .349 from 3-point range and .851 from the foul line. "He's been an All-Star performer," Popovich said. "He has carried us consistently at both ends of the court. Some nights, Rudy (Gay) or Manu (Ginobili) or whomever will have a good game. But it seems like every night, (Aldridge) has been at the top of his game at both ends — running the floor, rebounding, protecting the rim, scoring for us. He is a leader in timeouts. He has taken on a big responsibility and realizes (Leonard and Parker) are two pretty good players, our best pick-and-roll players, so we need more from him. He has handled that really well. He has been fantastic." … Stotts said Aldridge is the biggest reason the Spurs have continued winning without Leonard, who has missed 28 games, and Parker, who has missed 20. "(Aldridge) is playing at a very high level," the Portland coach said. "He looks like the LaMarcus we had here. He's on the block, playing with a lot of confidence. Everything is going through him." …
Zach Collins has become a fixture in the Blazers' rotation, playing at least 14 minutes in each of the past seven games. "I wanted to give him some playing time," Stotts said. "He's staying there because he's playing well. He plays with aggressiveness on both ends. He contests every shot within his area. He's unafraid. If he has a shot, he takes it. He's not afraid to mix it up on either end. He and Ed (Davis) have been going in and out together, and that's been a good combination. You can see him growing." … Portland's other rookie, Caleb Swanigan, was inactive Wednesday and has played one minute in the last 13 games. "Caleb is the odd man out right now," Stotts said. "You have 14 healthy bodies; somebody has to be inactive. Right now, it's Caleb." … Meyers Leonard played three scoreless minutes, and Noah Vonleh and Moe Harkless each picked up DNP-CDs (did not play/coach's decision) Wednesday night. Stotts went with basically a nine-man rotation with Davis, Collins, Shabazz Napier and Pat Connaughton coming off the bench. … Napier had a strong offensive game with 14 points on 6-for-10 shooting in 21 minutes. … Since the start of the 2008-09 season, Portland is 19-14 against San Antonio — 10-5 at home. Last season, the teams split four meetings.