By John Hollinger
PORTLAND -- All Tony Parker could do was sit and watch. Marooned at the scorer's table while he waited for a whistle to get him back in the game, he saw the clock tick inside 4 minutes ... and 3 ... and 2 ... while a six-point San Antonio lead turned into a dispiriting 96-93 defeat to Portland.
Parker’s whistle never came, courtesy of a 3:32 stretch without a dead ball, and by the time Parker got back in his team was trailing 88-87 and he was ice cold after spending five fourth-quarter minutes on the bench. San Antonio went 3:29 without scoring, encompassing five trips, until Manu Ginobili's lay-up with 18.5 seconds left and the outcome largely in hand.
The defeat continued a recent Spurs' pattern of floundering late in games, something Popovich mentioned before Sunday's game against Denver and again after tonight's defeat.
"We turned it over down the stretch," said Popovich, whose team made four miscues in the first 44 minutes but two in the five-possession sequence that basically cost them the game.
“Usually we’ve been a very mature team,” said Ginobili, “very experienced closing out games, and now we are not doing it right. I don’t think it’s a secret or something we’re messing up, but it’s a play here, a possession there. ... Since we’re not winning that often it puts a lot of pressure on every possession and things are not going our way."
The ending ruined what had been a near-perfect start. With Parker back in the lineup from an ankle injury, the Spurs looked like a much more formidable unit than the one that had lost four of six in its last homestand. Parker burned Portland for 16 first-half points by combining his speed off the dribble and periodic midrange jump shots, and he finished with 18 and six assists in 30 minutes. Ginobili (23) and Tim Duncan (15 points, 12 boards) looked like the Big Three of old for much of the night.
Until the fourth quarter, that is, when a 76-66 San Antonio lead wilted under Portland's defensive pressure and clutch shooting by Martell Webster, who made all five of his 3-point attempts. LaMarcus Aldridge had a breakout game with 28 points and 13 rebounds to help the undermanned Blazers rally.
The Spurs had a chance to tie after a missed Andre Miller free throw left the door open and ran a beautiful play out of a timeout to free Ginobili in the corner, but he missed a wide-open 3 with 11 seconds left to seal the Spurs' fate.
“I thought [George Hill] was going to shoot it so I was going to the rebound and then I came back. But I had plenty of time, I stayed with the shot, but it didn’t look good from the beginning.”
Andre Miller left the door open with a brain-dead foul on George Hill with 2.1 seconds left and his team ahead by four. Hill made the first and intentionally missed the second, but the Spurs couldn't tap the ball out for another game-tying 3 attempt.
But the crucial sequence came with the Spurs up by four, just under five minutes left and Parker, who checked out at the eight-minute mark, at the scorer's table ready to check in for Hill. Popovich said the team weighed calling a timeout to get Parker back in the game, but never did until the Blazers called one of their own with 1:45 left.
While the timeouts proved useful at the end, helping design the play that nearly tied it, in 20-20 hindsight they probably wish they used it at the three-minute mark for Parker to help salvage an offense that was going off the rails.
If there’s a positive for San Antonio, it’s that Parker and Ginobili looks as good as they have all season. Ginobili told me this is the best he’s felt physically this season, while Parker tore up the Blazers defense in the first half in his first game back from a sprained ankle.
Nonetheless, the results need to change for the Spurs to start feeling good about the renewed vigor of their stars. San Anotnio’s Rodeo Road Trip continues with a winnable game against the Clippers on Saturday before heading into the break with a Lakers-Nuggets one-two punch, and it would help their psyche immensely if they could finish off a win against a quality team -- something they’ve struggled to do in losing seven of their past 11 games.
"We just haven't played well and hit shots the last minutes of the game or executed the way we need to," said Richard Jefferson, and for a Spurs team that doesn’t deal in moral victories that will need to change quickly.