It was quite a night in Moda Center Monday. Given the expectation level, it was a shocking evening.
With the San Antonio Spurs committed to using their starting lineup at least a part of the game and the Trail Blazers saying they weren't going to use Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Allen Crabbe, there was every reason to expect a night of little emotion without high drama.
But sports are funny that way. You never quite know what you're going to find with your next ticket. Portland's 99-98 win over the Spurs was exciting and even featured a surprise ending, as Noah Vonleh found a gift directly under the basket and dropped in a layup to win the game a whisper before the final horn.
A few things I wanted to point out about this game before we move on to all the playoff fuss:
- I say this over and over but a lot of people don't seem to understand it. Men on NBA benches are very good basketball players. In many cases, they just don't have the opportunity to show it. When you watch Shabazz Napier, Pat Connaughton and Jake Layman play, you're seeing people with terrific athletic ability and good basketball instincts. They can play this game -- but they are in line behind more experienced or talented players. It's all the more reason I just laugh when people tell me some of the great college teams could beat an NBA team. They wouldn't come close. These days it takes a heck of a talented player just to make a roster in the league.
- I can't emphasize enough what a terrific job the Trail Blazer assistant coaches do in keeping their entire squad ready for duty and on solid improvement curves. Portland's bench played the normal San Antonio starting lineup on an even basis whenever it was matched up that way. That kind of thing doesn't happen by accident. Yes, the fourth quarter was a bench game, but prior to that the Blazer reserves didn't blink against Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker and the rest of that roster. Kawhi Leonard, by the way, managed no rebounds or assists in his 20 minutes of duty. Those guys wearing Trail Blazer jerseys Monday night competed hard and smart.
- A lot of times a team will run a lineup consisting of bench players out for a late-season game and chaos ensues. These guys played together and with purpose -- and just nine turnovers. It was an impressive display of unity, talent and confidence. And after decades of covering the NBA, I can tell you that kind of game doesn't happen without countless hours of work by the coaching staff and the individual players.
Games like that one Monday are good for a team. They build pride in the franchise and confidence within all involved. It was a very impressive night.
And fun, too.