Memphis by way of Baltimore? It doesn’t get much grimier than that. So is it any surprise that it was the rugged, skinny kid from Mobtown who had the Blazers’ backs when they needed it the most?
For more than a week now, the Blazers have been wondering what happened to their pride. In Game 4 against the Spurs, it was the inspiring, and improbable, play of Will Barton that showed everyone just what pride looks like.
Barton has seen inconsistent minutes throughout the season (with several DNPs – Coach’s Decision), but due to an untimely injury that has sidelined backup point guard Mo Williams the past two games, the seldom-used reserve guard has suddenly been asked to step into the rotation and give the Blazers meaningful minutes off the bench in a pressure-cooker playoff environment.
His all-around effort in Game 4 was a master class in rising to the occasion. When he wasn’t playing scrappy defense, he was attacking the basket on the other end with his oftentimes erratic, yet unexpectedly-effective moves, and he was the main catalyst for the Blazers’ second unit during much of the first half, scoring eight points on 4-for-6 shooting. He finished with 17 points, six rebounds and two assists (all career playoff-highs, needless to say), and he became the first Blazers’ bench player with a stat line of at least 17 points and six rebounds in a playoff game since Brian Grant did it back in 2000 against Utah.
It was a night punctuated by a big-time alley-oop dunk drawn-up for him during a timeout and even a reluctant three-pointer that rattled in for him almost in spite of himself. Why not? It was just that type of night.
It was fitting, then, that it was Barton who was bringing the ball across midcourt with the game all sewn up late in the second half and getting a well-deserved ovation from the raucous crowd as he took a moment to soak it all in. You could see it on his face, even if he downplayed it after the game.
“I’m always just focused on making winning plays,” Barton said. “I’m not really too concerned about my stats, not how many points I score and things like that, just trying to make winning plays to help our team get a victory.”
For all his aw-shucks heroics, Barton was just one part of a balanced Trail Blazers’ attack and a newfound sense of urgency that helped stave off the Spurs and force Game 5 back in San Antonio tonight.
Nicolas Batum once again flirted with a triple-double with 14 points, 14 rebounds (a career playoff high) and eight assists, while taking on the bulk of the Tony Parker defensive assignment, a configuration that worked wonders–and has some scratching their heads as to why they didn’t figure this out sooner–as Parker was held to 14 points and just one assist.
“He did a good job,” Parker said. “He did a good job, but I got the shots that I wanted. He was great tonight. He was playing very well for them. He was everywhere.”
Damian Lillard seemed to have his swagger back as he (somewhat) recovered from a ghastly shooting slump that started the second he made that miraculous shot against Houston (1-for-13 from behind-the-arc and 37 percent from the field this series going into last night’s game). He finished with 25 points, five assists and four rebounds, and was eager to establish himself early and often.
“It was a completely different feel from the first three games,” Lillard said. “Our backs were up against the wall. We knew that this could have been our last game if we didn’t come out and correct the things that we had been doing wrong over the first three games. I think guys were locked in. Everybody competed. We played physical, we played fast and we got out in transition and we got to the spots on the floor that we like to get to.”
One thing that was completely different was LaMarcus Aldridge’s play against Tiago Splitter, who has been giving him fits all series long. Through the first two games, the normally-efficient Aldridge shot just 8-for-25 (32 percent) against Splitter, including a grim 2-for-13 outing in Game 2, per NBA.com. He jumped on Splitter from the opening tip, forcing Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to switch the assignment over to Boris Diaw, who didn’t fare much better as Aldridge finished with a respectable 19 points on 50 percent shooting from the field.