PORTLAND -- He's known around Portland as "The People's Champ," but perhaps fans in Rip City should start referring to second-year guard Will Barton as who he really is: The man who saved the Blazers' season.
Barton exploded off the bench for 17 points on 7-of-13 shooting Monday, creating some much-needed bench production against the San Antonio Spurs in a 103-92 victory in Game 4 . The seldom-used guard looked confident and smooth as he faced off against the NBA's best regular-season team. Lucky, too, since Barton's crucial involvement in Game 4 wasn't planned.
"I never got that word," Barton chuckled. "Sometimes it just happens that way."
Barton combined with forward Thomas Robinson -- who finished with nine points to go along with five rebounds, a steal and a block -- to lead the charge off the bench. Robinson set solid picks and moved well without the ball, and Portland's offense finally seemed to click for the first time in the series.
Game 4 Recap
"To be honest, we had no clue that tonight was going to happen like that," Robinson said. "We stayed ready."
The unexpected explosion was more than welcome. The Blazers' bench had been outscored 140-43 in the first three games of the series, all easy Spurs wins. With backup point guard Mo Williams out with a groin injury, Portland desperately needed Barton and Robinson to get into the mix.
In addition to increased bench production, the Blazers made several major adjustments for the first time in the series. Notably, All-Star guard Damian Lillard had his best game of the series against the Spurs, scoring 25 points on 11-of-21 shooting.
Will Barton slams home an alley-oop from Nicolas Batum.
Lillard noted before Game 3 that San Antonio had made it difficult for him to operate in the lane. In Game 4, Lillard took quick, rhythm shots off the pick-and-roll, which opened up drives for him later in the game. It also helped that Nicolas Batum -- who finished just two assists shy of a triple-double at 14 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists -- took some of the pressure off Lillard to create.
"I thought with Nico playing the way he plays, the game came a lot easier," Lillard said. "He was attacking, he was making plays. I didn't have to bring the ball up a lot."
Coach Terry Stotts experimented throughout the entire game, at one point throwing out a lineup that didn't include Lillard or backup Earl Watson. Portland took what the San Antonio gave it , allowing Robinson, Barton and Robin Lopez to take jumpers when open rather than try to pound away with Lillard or LaMarcus Aldridge on the low block. To everyone's surprise, it worked.
Oddities aside, neither team was too up or too down about its situation after Game 4. In the Blazers' locker room, a sense of calmness returned, but very few were excited about having won their first game in a tough playoff series.
"We felt embarrassed being down 3-0," Robinson said. "We don't want to lose like this. We don't want to lose, period."
A sense of relief, bolstered mostly by pride, was palpable from Portland. San Antonio had crushed it in the first halves of the first three games. Both Aldridge and Lillard, though they tried their best, were unable to pull back their simmering contempt for their team's performance after each loss.
"I was embarrassed about how they won the [first] three games," Lillard said. "I thought tonight we played our basketball, we competed and we showed why we've been able to get to this point."
On the other side, the Spurs' letdown at failing to close out the Blazers was noticeable. Coach Gregg Popovich was in such a hurry to get out of the Moda Center on Wednesday night that he started his press conference before most of the media had arrive to ask him questions. Point guard Tony Parker was similarly upset.
"The energy was weird tonight," Parker said, giving frustration-tinged short answers to waiting reporters. "It just didn't happen."
Now, the series returns to San Antonio. Portland not only faces the team that claimed the best regular season record in the NBA, but the weight of 68 years of NBA history without a team coming back to win a playoff series after falling down 3-0.
Maybe the Blazers found a bit of the magic they left on the court in the Rose City when they beat the Rockets. If they expect to win Game 5, they're going to need it. Next time, The People's Champ might not be enough.