Sweep averted, Blazers eye next step


PORTLAND, Ore. -- After the Portland Trail Blazers' practice Sunday, guard Wesley Matthews ticked off the reasons the San Antonio Spurs had played so well in winning the first three games of the teams' Western Conference semifinal series: their depth, their execution, their ability to take advantage of Portland's mistakes.

"But they're beatable," Matthews insisted. "They are beatable."

Had the Spurs completed the sweep Monday, Matthews would have sounded hopelessly in denial. Instead, he proved prophetic. By improving their execution and playing with energy befitting a team on the verge of elimination, the Blazers rallied for a resounding 103-92 Game 4 victory to avoid the sweep and extend the series.

"You have to give a lot of credit to Portland," San Antonio guard Tony Parker said. "They played great."

The game's tone was different from the opening tip. Portland, which had led just twice in the series for less than a minute combined, scored the game's first two points and held the upper hand for nearly 20 of the first 24 minutes. But by halftime, the Spurs had shaken off a flurry of crowd-pleasing Blazers plays and trailed by just two.

"We were hanging in," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said.

Enter Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez. Portland's versatile small forward and new center have enjoyed uncanny chemistry as a pick-and-roll duo all season long, and they used the play to pull away from the Spurs in the third quarter. Batum had seven points and four assists in the quarter, and Lopez had eight of his nine points (to go along with 12 rebounds).

While Batum finished two assists shy of a triple-double (14 points, 14 rebounds, 8 assists), that doesn't capture his entire versatile performance. Batum had the primary defensive assignment on Parker, who was held to 14 points on 6-of-12 shooting after averaging 26 points per game in the first three games of the series. And, with backup point guard Mo Williams missing his second game in a row with a strained groin, Batum ran the offense when starter Damian Lillard got a break.

"I thought Batum was great tonight," Parker said. "He gave them a big boost. He got on the boards and was everywhere."

"With Nico playing the way he played, the game came a lot easier," Lillard added. "He was attacking, he was making plays."

Even with Williams absent, the Spurs couldn't rely on their bench to bring them back, unlike the first three games of this series. Although San Antonio's reserves outscored their Portland counterparts 40-26, the Blazers' second unit had more impact on the game.

Second-year players Will Barton and Thomas Robinson, the lone Portland reserves who played in the second half until garbage time, were difference-makers with their activity and athleticism. Barton scored 17 points, fearlessly driving into defenders in transition for scores. And Robinson had nine points, five rebounds and a monster rejection in 24 solid minutes, earning an ovation from the sellout crowd on his way out of the game.

"Will and Thomas off the bench were terrific," said Blazers coach Terry Stotts. "For Will to have 17 off the bench, that's big for us. Because of those two guys, we were able to keep the starters' minutes at a decent number."

With the bench maintaining the lead, it was up to a more rested Lillard to finish the Spurs off. Scoring from a variety of angles around the basket, with or without contact, Lillard had nine points in the fourth quarter to put the game away. The lead never dropped below double digits. Popovich conceded with 6:47 to play and his team down 19, going deep into his bench. Neither Parker nor Tim Duncan played in the final period.

"The way the game was going, the flow, it just didn't happen," Popovich explained.

And so the series heads back to San Antonio for Wednesday's Game 5, with Portland in need of another surprise to play again at home on Friday. But now the Blazers can dream of repeating their 2003 comeback against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, when they forced Game 7 after falling behind 3-0, and perhaps even becoming the first team in NBA history to rally from a 3-0 hole. "Why not us?" has been Batum's mantra since the end of Game 3.

"Someone has to make history at some point," Matthews told reporters this time around.

It won't be easy, but it can be done. After all, the Spurs are beatable.

"We did what we needed to do, and we're looking forward to going to San Antonio to keep competing and keep playing our basketball," Stotts said. "It was a good game, but we still have another few to go."