I didn't get to watch the game until late. Apologies for the tardiness of the game recap.
Smashing good show for Portland tonight, with emphasis on the smash. But that's exactly what the Blazers needed to do to Minnesota. The ‘Wolves weren't fielding a complete team and they don't have the talent or continuity at this point to hang with Portland unless Portland allows them to do so. This is exactly the type of game Portland needs to get used to taking every time if they want to bolster that record. Job well done.
In the earliest moments of the game it looked like the Blazers might make this one harder than it needed to be. Portland's first 6 offensive possessions consistent of an Aldridge 20-foot miss, a reverse dipsy-doodle by Oden from underneath the backboard which also missed, a Roy missed three, a 20-footer from Blake which connected, two Miller free throws, and a 22-foot miss from Aldridge. That's a lot of jump shooting against a team that doesn't move its feet quickly. Meanwhile the Blazers were letting the ‘Wolves pass the ball on the other end of the court, a huge mistake since they basically can't do it. I had the antacid ready. But then the light bulb switched on. The Blazers tightened the screws and started to run out. The next buckets were an assisted jumper, an assisted dunk, another assisted jumper, an assisted layup, an assisted four-footer and the foul, an assisted jumper, and a layup. In fact the Blazers wouldn't convert for the entire rest of the quarter unless it was off a pass or was right at the cup (and they converted a bunch). Whappity-whappity-whap, Portland leads 33-24 at the end of the period.
The offense stalled a wee bit at the start of the second but picked up speed again as the quarter progressed. Again the Blazers feasted on chip shots and passes off of penetration. It was like a shooting gallery. Meanwhile the ‘Wolves were either hoisting jumpers or turning it over. They would make only one field goal in the period from closer than 17 feet. Portland's scheme was direct and efficient. Anybody who penetrated, which was basically just the point guard off of the dribble, was met by at least two guys. Closed off from the interior Minnesota simply bailed and then shot. The Blazers also limited their offensive rebounds. Without quality shots or second attempts the Timberwolves just couldn't keep up. 62-45 Blazers at the half.
The third period is often the place where trailing teams make a run as the lead team gets complacent. But with Minnesota representing defense like Arby's represents roast beef that wasn't going to happen tonight. Unfortunately for the ‘Wolves the Blazers have experienced a fair amount of offensive frustration this year. Everybody who came in the game wanted to score, period. It was like guys crawling through the desert finally finding their oasis. Greg Oden and Andre Miller destroyed the ‘Wolves early in the period and everybody else canned shots in their wake. Neither Flynn nor Al Jefferson scored a single point in the period. Everybody else in blue combined couldn't hope to make up the difference. 92-67 after three.
The fourth period was mostly second-third-fourth unit fun time. Nate unleashed the hounds and they feasted. Even in garbage time the Blazers only gave up 2 points of their margin, finishing the game ahead by 23.
So why did this work? The Blazers recognized the opponent's weaknesses and exploited them. Only one guy on the Timberwolves side could penetrate with any reliability, that being Flynn. Shut down his dribble and they have a choice between moving the ball for nothing or hoisting a highly-contested shot off of the drive. The Blazer three-guard lineup didn't hurt them a bit against Minnesota's forwards because none of those forwards could create for themselves off of the dribble and none of the ones the guards matched up with could post well. Knowing exactly where the ball was going and exactly what would happen with it in each case the Blazers could exploit their quickness advantage mercilessly. Those forwards aren't any quicker on the defensive end than the offensive end either. Run the floor and you probably beat them to the rim or at least your spot. Swing the ball twice and they can't catch up. Not being great individual defenders they had to commit to doubling key Blazers. Recovering was all but impossible. It was a dream for both cutters and catch-and-shoot guys. Portland shot 50%, edging the ‘Wolves by over 5 percentage points. They killed them in fast break points, stayed mostly even in offensive rebounds and second-chance points, and hit 15 more foul shots. Portland generated 12 steals and turned the ball over only 13 times themselves...that would cover all permutations of turnovers. The most glaring advantage of all--not always indicative but in this case completely so--was Portland's 35 assists on 41 made buckets. That's a smidge over 85% of Blazer made field goals following assists tonight. They won't get that ratio every night because the defense won't let them move like that but even knowing the potential is there is a good thing for this team right now. Production and stellar individual efforts don't necessarily go hand-in-hand. It's easier to have a great night with a bunch of teammates than it is to do it alone.
Brandon Roy shot 1-6 tonight for 2 points total, to which I say...standing ovation. For one thing he also added 7 assists and 6 rebounds so it's not like he was shying away from the ball or his other responsibilities. This wasn't a J.R. Rider pouty special. For another, the ‘Wolves planned to shut him down with Ryan Gomes and whatever help they could throw. They only managed to light everyone else up by doing so. This team needed to be lit. Brandon did his job by not trying to take over and make it all about him. 5 other Blazers scored in double figures. Every other Blazer who played got at least 4 shots. Show me the downside. In my mind this was a perfectly acceptable outing, hitting them where they ain't. Had the Blazers lost by 6 with everyone else bricking all over the place that story would change but we knew by the mid-point of the first quarter that was not going to be the case.
Beneficiary #1 of Roy's egoless night was Andre Miller. He got to push the ball, zing passes, and he put up a game high 14 shots. The latter part of that wasn't the most intrinsic aspect of his game though. In fact I was surprised to see he had taken that many. When you're shooting wide-open jumpers that have to be taken and layups that get the crowd on its feet there's no such thing as too many shots. He hit 9 of those shots for 21 points. Also notice something with Miller when he's going well. Even though he handles the ball and initiates the offense the ball doesn't stay in his hands for a long time. He's setting without slowing. Some of that was the defense tonight, to be sure. Some of it was his teammates understanding that motion against this team was the key to offensive success and easy looks. But Andre at his purest has that point guard knack of not over-dribbling whereas the other ball-handlers on this team tend to dribble too much when they try to set something up.
Beneficiary #2 of the egalitarian offensive approach was LaMarcus Aldridge. At first his 5-11 shooting clip looks pedestrian. But when you throw in his 9-9 free throw rate you understand that he was able to move, receive passes, and convert through an attack that went well beyond his catch/hold/turn-around post game. It was exciting watching him work in motion instead of from a set position. It was exciting (as always) watching him run the floor. His fluidity also provided him 5 offensive rebounds. He finished with 10 total boards, 3 assists, and 19 points.
Greg Oden made some nice moves on the smaller Minnesota defenders, held onto the ball (0 turnovers!), and finished with authority on most of his attempts. I think he's starting to figure out that if he makes his moves under control and with correct body and foot position nobody is going to block his shot. He was 4-8 with 11 points, was the recipient of a couple nice passes, and made a couple wonderful passes from the post as well. He's really got a nice eye for the court and you can see where he'll eventually become devastating when people try to double team him.
Steve Blake was set up nicely for this game and he took advantage of it. He served as an outlet for some of those passes off of pressure on his teammates. He served as a conduit to open shooters. When he had to defend the point guard he had plenty of help. Nobody else could drive past him as he was quicker. (These both applied to Miller as well.) As long as he stayed active there wasn't much that could go wrong, and it didn't. He had 4 rebounds, 5 assists, and 6 points blending perfectly with his teammates. I liked this Steve Blake game as well as any I've seen this season.
Travis Outlaw played the Aldridge role to perfection tonight, initiating his offense farther out but basically buying into the moving, jabbing, and hitting Minnesota's weak points rather than pounding the ball. He was 5-9 from the field and 6-6 from the line for 19 points in 19 minutes. He didn't rebound fantastically but he didn't need to.
Part of the reason Travis didn't need to rebound that much was Joel Przybilla swallowing up 13 of them on his own. Przy often has good games against the ‘Wolves. The open offense really helped him look better near the rim as well. He could catch the ball without so much traffic around him, gather a little, and convert.
Jerryd Bayless got some more run and looked more comfortable than he did last game. The pace, motion, and spread floor played to his strengths. He had open jumpers he could take his time hitting. He saw defenseless lanes and drove deep, drawing fouls. With more time and space to make decisions he found teammates and gathered 4 assists without a single turnover to go along with his 12 points. The defensive end wasn't as big of a success for him tonight, as he drew 5 fouls. It was a nice game though. A comfortable, motivated Bayless isn't a bad thing for this club.
Rudy Fernandez had an interesting night overall. In some ways he was quite active. He got 4 steals and 6 assists and seemed eager to run with the greyhounds. He finished 2 of 6 for 5 points, not looking particularly comfortable with his shot but also realizing that this was a good night to shoot it anyway as most of the attempts were open.
Dante Cunningham got 6 minutes tonight. He is well-built compared to a lot of NBA forwards, you have to give him that. He also converted 3 of 4 shots...jumpers even. 6 points in 6 minutes. Let the call for him to get 48 commence.
Final Thoughts and Links
Yes, this was a win against a struggling opponent with a raft of mismatches. But we've come up against mismatches before and failed to exploit them. We've wanted to run before and failed to do so. We've needed to move the ball before and not had the trust and commitment necessary to make that happen. The team needed the kind of shot in the arm this game provided. It's not much good in and of itself. Most games aren't going to be this easy...even against Minnesota again on Wednesday probably. But with the pattern set and some beatable teams on the horizon on this road trip, maybe the Blazers can capture the momentum and start making a few more games easier. Lord knows it's a pain watching them struggle for wins.
Check out what the Minnesota fans think at CanisHoopus
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