The Trail Blazers’ one-point win over San Antonio Friday night provided a clear window into the whole idea of “clutch defense” in the NBA.
Clutch situations are defined as games that are within five points with five minutes to play, in regulation or overtime.
For a time, Portland’s clutch defensive rating was at the top of the NBA. Right now, it ranks fifth.
The win over the Spurs was one of those clutch situations. But first, let’s take a look at the big picture. This narrow victory came against a team that has now lost 11 of its last 15 games.
Portland got the lead after a terrific steal by Robert Covington and a feed to Norman Powell, who hit a layup under pressure. But San Antonio got three shots in the final 20 seconds that would have won the game, including an open three from the top by Rudy Gay. Twice the Spurs rebounded their misses, even though Portland had a foul to give and could have used it to help get position for a rebound.
And here’s another issue with Portland’s record in close games: Not many of them have come against upper-echelon teams. The Blazers have played many close games that, like this one, probably shouldn’t have been that close.
The Spurs have only one player, DeMar DeRozan, who would be a starter for the Trail Blazers. And a couple of their starters – choose from Jakob Poeltl, Keldon Johnson or Derrick White – might not even be able to crack Portland’s eight-man rotation.
In fact, most of San Antonio’s young players aren’t as talented as Anfernee Simons, who has trouble getting onto the floor for the Blazers unless there is an injury to a player ahead of him.
Should this game have been that close? Probably not, like a lot of other Blazer clutch games.
Some of that “clutch defense” is needed against all those teams ahead of Portland in the Western Conference. And, more important, enough of it is needed earlier in the game so that it’s close enough to be a “clutch” situation with five minutes to play. The team's overall defensive rating is still 29th, as it has been most of the season.