• This is why recent defeats to the lowly Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks loomed so potentially large for the Portland Trail Blazers.

    Terry Stotts’ team lost for the fourth time in six games on Saturday night, falling to the San Antonio Spurs 116-105 at AT&T Center. Damian Lillard scored 33 points and connected on six 3-pointers in his return from a left ankle sprain, putting to rest any concerns that minor injury would plague him going into the playoffs. LaMarcus Aldridge was typically stellar against his former team, pacing the Spurs with 28 points on 13-of-22 shooting. Manu Ginobili and Dejounte Murray had 17 points apiece, and Rudy Gay frustrated Portland all night long en route to 16 points and a game-high +16 plus-minus.

    Defense doomed the Blazers far more than anything else. San Antonio made six of its first eight shots and hardly slowed down from there, finishing the game shooting 56 percent from the field – a season-high for a Blazers opponent – despite going 7-of-21 from beyond the arc. But Portland kept up regardless, taking a one-point lead into halftime and tying the game at 84-84 on a three by Meyers Leonard, who was rock solid in 20 minutes off the bench with Ed Davis sidelined, early in the fourth quarter. That’s when Ginobili took over.

    The 40-year-old, future Hall of Famer scored eight straight points during a vintage personal run, abruptly extending his team’s lead to 101-89 in less than 50 seconds of play. First was a catch-and-shoot triple off a kick-out from Gay. Next came another 3-pointer, this time of the pull-up variety. Seconds later, with the AT&T Center going wild, Ginobili ripped the ball from Lillard and calmly made his way to the rim for an off-hand layup.

    Portland never recovered. C.J. McCollum went 1-of-6 in the fourth quarter and 2-of-9 overall after intermission, spoiling a solid first-half performance to finish with 17 points on 7-of-19 shooting. Evan Turner did his best all game long to keep the Blazers competitive, including late, connecting on 8-of-12 from the field for 18 points and four assists. Jusuf Nurkic played well for Portland, too, notching another double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds while also dishing four assists and blocking three shots.

    But the Spurs’ relentless attack, sparked by Ginobili’s outburst, simply proved too much for the Blazers on Saturday. Portland has now lost three games in a row, and drops to 4-6 since the end of the 13-game winning streak that helped it clinch a playoff berth, thankfully, before the frantic final week of the regular season. The Blazers only have home-court advantage to worry about, and still control their own destiny for the three seed and a potential second-round date with the hobbled, struggling Golden State Warriors.

    It’s become increasingly clear, though, that Portland, at least at less than full-strength, is merely among the overcrowded Western Conference upper-middle class rather than alone in one by itself. That’s no great criticism, either. A 50-win season and hard-fought playoff appearance would have been considered progress for the Blazers before 2017-18 tipped off. Teams more talented and more historically successful still sit behind them in the standings,. But every loss magnifies existing concerns: Al-Farouq Aminu‘s increasingly detrimental offensive impact and the team’s recent inability to limit the influence of floor-stretching big men, to name a couple.

    Of chief concern right now, however, has to be Portland’s slippery grip on a top-four seed that once seemed a formality. The surging Denver Nuggets are fighting for their playoff lives, and the downright dominant Utah Jazz have now have their eyes on the third spot in the Western Conference. Both of the Blazers’ remaining games will feel like the playoffs, basically. They could easily enter the second season on a multi-game losing streak that not only costs them home-court advantage, but also saps them of any momentum remaining from March whatsoever. Even the circumstantial good vibes emanating from that shocking all-bench comeback against the Houston Rockets on Thursday would be worthwhile for Portland right now.

    “I don’t want to say it was a playoff game,” Stotts said, “but it was a playoff tuneup.”

    At least the Blazers have a couple more before the playoffs actually start, right?

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