PORTLAND, Ore. -- Spurs coach Gregg Popovich wanted to see “just discipline and consistency” from his team over the last two games of the regular season, as San Antonio rounds into postseason form for an opening-round Western Conference matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies.
The problem is, it was unclear whether the Spurs actually displayed either trait in a 99-98 loss on Monday to a Portland Trail Blazers squad that sat its four top scorers after clinching the eighth seed in the West the day before by virtue of the Denver Nuggets’ loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Asked whether the Spurs got what they wanted in preparation for the postseason in this matchup, Popovich nodded.
“Oh yeah, yeah,” he said. “Everybody’s just trying to sharpen up as much as possible before the playoffs. There’s always some good, always some bad to work on.”
The bad came in the form of a slow start for the Spurs that saw the Trail Blazers knock down seven 3-pointers in the opening half, as Portland shot 7-of-16 from deep, led by Meyers Leonard, who was 5-of-6 from the floor and 3-of-3 from 3-point range.
Portland’s starting lineup of Leonard, Evan Turner, Noah Vonleh, Pat Connaughton and Shabazz Napier led for all but 39 seconds in the first half and took a 47-43 lead into intermission.
The “good” for San Antonio manifested itself in the third quarter, when Kawhi Leonard scored nine of the team’s 33 points as it seized a six-point lead with 2 minutes, 6 seconds left on a 24-foot jumper from Patty Mills. Before that, the Spurs embarked on a 12-2 run that gave San Antonio its first lead since the 2:18 mark of the opening quarter on a Leonard 13-footer, followed by a steal and a Tony Parker 19-footer.
That surge showed a small glimpse of San Antonio’s potency on offense and stinginess on defense when fully focused. Danny Green, who rejoined the starting lineup after missing the previous five games due to a quadriceps contusion, believes focus is an area in need of improvement for the Spurs to thrive in the postseason.
But does a team ever truly know it’s ready for the playoffs?
“You do,” Green said. “A lot of times, you’re never really there mentally [satisfied]. You’re never satisfied with it. There were times in the past where we knew. Like, we were clicking, we were playing pretty good basketball and we had a good shot. We still think we have a good shot. But we don’t think that we’re mentally ready. Our focus, I don’t think we feel like we’re there, like we’re where we want to be.”
The loss at Portland drops San Antonio’s record in the month of April to 3-3 with a matchup looming Wednesday in Utah. When the Spurs captured the NBA title in 2013-14, they closed out the regular season with a 4-4 mark over their last eight games. Popovich said he’ll approach the regular-season finale in a similar manner to Monday’s game, in which he played the starters for three quarters.
Rookie reserve point guard Dejounte Murray, who has missed the past 17 games with a groin injury, also will rejoin the Spurs in Salt Lake City, according to Popovich.
In that upcoming game against the Jazz, Leonard wants to make sure the Spurs "execute plays" and that "everybody's mind is involved in that game, just being sharp, making gradual steps to being sharper."
With what’s expected to be a hotly contested matchup against the Grizzlies in the opening round of the playoffs approaching, Popovich wants San Antonio to ramp up the aggressiveness and physicality.
The contest against Utah on Wednesday could provide a taste of that, given the Jazz need a victory to remain in contention to capture home-court advantage in an upcoming first-round matchup against the LA Clippers.
“You’ve got to get into people,” Popovich said. “The playoffs are a lot more physical, and the aggressive team is gonna get the calls. If you’re not aggressive, you just fall by the wayside. They can’t call everything. So if you’re physical, it just works out better. If you’re just walking around and all of the sudden you hit somebody, it’s pretty noticeable."
Just like the way San Antonio has used different approaches over the past few games with varying rates of success. Mills said the team is switching up strategies to be able to better adjust on the fly in the postseason, should the need arise.
“I think we’re focusing on different ways, and I think that’s been our mindset the last couple of games,” Mills said. “The playoffs are a different beast, and then we need to be able to adjust on the fly, and that’s what we’ve been doing, testing things out. Different adjustments throughout the game. Memphis especially is very physical. So we need to be ready if things change or the game plan changes. That’s what the playoffs are all about.”
LaMarcus Aldridge offered his take.
"It's a different level, once [the playoffs] start," Aldridge said. "We've just got to keep fine-tuning things, and then just turn it up when [the playoffs] start."
That’s part of why Popovich said the Spurs, despite back-to-back 60-win seasons, never set lofty goals for regular-season play.
“We’ve always only had one goal. That’s to be the best we can be by playoff time,” Popovich said. “We’ve never had any goals about winning games, or this, that or the other during the season; just try to keep improving and be the best you can be by the time the playoffs come. It’s never changed.”