With one eye on the upcoming playoffs, the Trail Blazers on Monday rested their stars, but that didn’t stop Portland's late-season momentum.
Noah Vonleh picked up a loose ball and scored the game-winning layin before the buzzer on a busted play, leading the Blazers to a stunning 99-98 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, giving the Blazers a chance at securing a winning season with a victory in their season finale on Wednesday.
Behind a Damian Lillard-like performance from point guard Shabazz Napier, the shooting of center Meyers Leonard and the passing of Evan Turner, the Blazers beat one of the West's top teams without stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
Napier had a career-high 32 points, Vonleh 12 points and 11 rebounds and Pat Connaughton had a career-high 15 for Portland (41-40) while Leonard hit his first five shots on the way to 13 points. Turner had 16 points and seven assists.
The Blazers' final shot came after the Spurs threw away an inbounds pass with 6.0 seconds left.
The Blazers rested stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, as well as starter Maurice Harkless and had Allen Crabbe (foot), Jusuf Nurkic (leg) and Ed Davis (shoulder) sidelined with injuries.
It was the season’s penultimate game and the first since the Blazers clinched the eighth and final playoff spot in the West on Sunday.
“It was the time and the opportunity to do it,’’ Coach Terry Stotts said before the game of resting players.
Stotts started Napier at point guard, Pat Connaughton at shooting guard, Turner at small forward, Vonleh at power forward and Leonard at center while the Spurs started their regulars - Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Dewyane Dedmon.
The biggest benefit of the night was supposed to be resting Lillard and McCollum. Lillard entered the game averaging 35.9 minutes (9th in the NBA) while McCollum averages 34.9 minutes (16th). But now, the victory has given the Blazers the chance to secure a winning season with a victory over New Orleans on Wednesday.
Stotts and the team’s health and performance staff met with the starting backcourt in the morning to tell them they would like each to sit in order to rest for the upcoming playoffs.
Lillard said he intended on playing in the Blazers regular-season finale on Wednesday against New Orleans.
McCollum, who had played in every game leading up to Monday, said it wasn’t his choice to sit, but he said he understood after listening to the reasoning.
“It’s a chance to refresh, recharge,’’ McCollum said. “It works for the Spurs, so we might as well follow their blueprint.’’
McCollum and Lillard both engaged in a hard workout before the game, going against each other in pick-and-rolls and 1-on-1 scenarios, while also taking part in extended three-point shooting drills.
Lillard, who scored a franchise-record 59 points on Saturday, said he planned on playing Monday against the Spurs.
“I was prepared for an encore,” Lillard said.
Lillard has always been a proponent of playing whenever he is able, but he knew what was coming when he was called in for a meeting and told to take a seat.
“They knew they would have to sit me down,’’ Lillard said with a smile. “But after hearing them, I know they are coming from a good place.’’
Without the big names, the Blazers got a look at some of their youngsters, and for the most part, they played well against the Spurs’ accomplished lineups.
The Blazers led 31-28 after the first quarter, thanks largely to Meyers Leonard’s 5-of-5 shooting, and 47-43 at halftime after both teams survived a dreadful second quarter. Both the Spurs and Blazers started the second quarter by missing their first 10 shots.
The Spurs (61-20) have the West’s No. 2 seed locked up and have been resting players during April, but after their last game, coach Gregg Popovich was unhappy with their physicality and effort and declared that no players would rest for the remainder of the season.
Popovich played his starters for the first three quarters, which is how long they needed to establish a lead. Portland led from the early moments of the game until midway through the third, when Kawhi Leonard scored nine of his 18 points and Tony Parker had six of his 12 points.
Next up: New Orleans at Blazers, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (KGW/ESPN)