Trail Blazers teams of the recent past would have tried to win Tuesday night’s game versus the San Antonio Spurs with offense. The game had all the trappings of a contest between a team playing their first game at home after an extended road trip against a team playing on the second night of a back-to-back, and previously in those instances, Portland would try to rely on their scoring prowess to get the result, an approach that yielded varying degrees of success.
But the 2022-23 Trail Blazers, in their second season under head coach Chauncey Billups, have tried to do it the other way. And while Tuesday night’s contest wasn’t an exercise in lockdown defense for either team -- both rosters shot 52 percent from the field for the game -- Portland’s mentality, especially in the fourth quarter, was more about stops than buckets.
“I think in the past we would be like ‘Alright, somebody got to get it going,’” said Damian Lillard. “The energy on our team now, it feel like ‘We’ve got to get some stops. We’ve got to stop them and we’ve got to get rebounds.’ I think that’s the difference, that’s why we’re able to win a lot of these games.”
Lillard had that exact energy when he got switched onto Keita Bates-Diop, a 6-8 forward in his fifth season out of Ohio State, with a little more than three and a half minutes to play and Portland leading by one point. The combination of Lillard’s stature -- he’s 6-2 on a good day -- and his reputation as a subpar defender has led many an opponent to assume he’s easy pickings in the post, an assumption that Bates-Diop seemed to make.
But Lillard does some of his best work in those situations, so when Bates-Diop took one dribble into the paint and elevated for a one-handed floater, Portland’s point guard was ready.
“When guys see how personal I’m taking it and how personal Josh (Hart) is going to take it, when we take that challenge like that and we care about it, it’s infectious,” said Lillard. “I think people have said things about me defensively without understanding what real responsibility is when you’re leading a team and how hard that is. So I make it a point: We gonna see about it.”
Lillard blocked Bates-Diop’s attempt almost immediately after it left his hands, and was also able to corral the rebound before being fouled. And on the ensuing possession, after making the play he’s not known for, Lillard converted one that he is, a long three-pointer from three feet behind the line, to give the Blazers a 110-106 lead with 3:24 to play.
“Say what they want, but it’s been a lot of those moments and there’s going to be more of those moments where I’ve got to step in there and be willing to take that challenge. And I’m going to keep doing it. That just was one possession and it was a big possession.”
Lillard turning defense into offense wasn’t enough to give Portland the win -- they’d need an and-one by Drew Eubanks and a three-pointer late in the shot clock from Anfernee Simons to secure the 117-110 victory -- but by holding the Spurs to just four points in the final six minutes and 50 seconds, they showed yet another way that they’re able to win games this season.
“What it comes down to is the desire,” said Lillard. “You’ve got to want to do it. If we want to be an elite team, we’ve all got to be committed to that end of the floor.”
Jerami Grant led Portland with 29 points on 9-of-15 shooting from the field, 6-of-8 shooting from three and 5-of-8 shooting from the line to go with eight rebounds, an assist and a steal in 37 minutes.
Anfernee Simons went 5-of-10 from three on the way to posting 23 points along with three rebounds and two assists in 33 minutes. Lillard had a double-double with 22 points and 11 assist and Shaedon Sharpe came off the bench to score 13 points, which kept Portland in the game in the first half.
Spurs center Jakob Poeltl posted a career-high 31 points to go with 14 rebounds and five assists in 31 minutes.
Next up, the Trail Blazers continue a three-game homestand by hosting the Brooklyn Nets, a team they’ll face on their next road trip, Thursday night. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.