After struggling through a few marginal games we were looking for a professional-type win from the Blazers tonight. We got exactly that with a couple of great performances thrown in besides. It is what it is: a win against the Grizzlies. But you can't take things for granted with this team yet and it was nice to see them on track in this game.
The Blazers jumped on the Grizz in the first quarter tonight like Tom jumped on Oprah's couch. Had this been a military engagement LaMarcus Aldridge would have been the artillery. He began the game hitting 7 of his first 8 shots. After he softened up the Memphis defense a little the armor (Joel Przybilla) and snipers (Blake and Batum) started busting up the remnants. Just when you thought it couldn't get worse, in came the paratroopers (Travis Outlaw) and finally the shock troops (Brandon Roy). The Grizz defended hard and got their own shots in but the combined attack was too much to handle. It didn't help that they lost backup center Darko Milicic and starting power forward Darrell Arthur to injury in the first eight minutes of the game. That left Marc Gasol all but alone in the middle. He's been a great player for the Grizzlies and has a ton of skill but he's not the type of guy you can just throw in there for 40 minutes and say, "Save our defense!" They did throw him out there for 42. He didn't save the day.
The Grizzlies made several runs throughout the game. Most of them occurred when our interior defense broke down. That happened when Joel was out of the game or when the perimeter players turned the ball over and Memphis ran before the Blazers could set up the "D". Memphis also did pretty well on the offensive boards for being short-handed. But none of these conditions lasted for long. Through will, a substitution or two, or a well-timed time-out the Blazers righted the ship and clamped down again. Without easy access to the paint Memphis had to depend on jumpers to sustain their comeback. It never worked long enough. Much as Dallas did to the Blazers a couple games ago, Portland shoved the Grizzlies off every time they got within 4-5 points. You'd blink and the lead was double-digits again. There's only so many runs like that you can make before you run out of energy and confidence. That happened for Memphis about 1/3 of the way into the third period. After that the Blazers just bulldozed them for the win.
The Blazers performed impressively in several areas tonight. One key was their physicality. They shoved the Grizzlies around instead of getting shoved by them. You don't often see the Blazers hard-nosed but when they are they're a scary team. I pray that in a couple years you're going to see wonderful, charming guys off the court who morph into a team nobody wants to face after the opening tip goes in the air. Winning is so much easier when you're dishing the blows instead of taking them. Except for the brief spells mentioned above the Blazers also did a magnificent job making sure everybody who came down the lane met at least two defenders. It was everything you could hope for in a defensive plan against this kind of team. Portland was also pretty aggressive with the ball, getting past their own defenders for short jumpers if not drives. The rebounding was solid. The Blazers forced some turnovers and converted. Second chance points were there also. It was just a good, all-around game.
The Blazers made more field goals, threes, and foul shots than the Grizzlies did. If there's a way to lose when that happens somebody will have to explain it to me. Portland outrebounded Memphis as well.
--LaMarcus Aldridge is just on a tear lately. Some of the kids I work with love to spout those Chuck Norris Facts. (Example: When the Boogeyman goes to sleep every night he checks in his closet for Chuck Norris.) Pretty much every one of them applied to LaMarcus tonight in the first quarter. He was devastating. And it looked like he wasn't even trying. He ended the night 8-15, 5-6 from the free throw line, 22 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals, and a block. And remember, folks, this is not a late-season stat surge in otherwise meaningless games. The Blazers are in the thick of a massive playoff-seeding battle and LaMarcus is just plain stepping up.
--Free from the burden of being the offensive guy all game long, Brandon Roy picked his spots. He was particularly active in the middle quarters, carrying us through whenever the Grizz pushed us. He finished with 20 points, 9 assists, and 6 rebounds. Basically after LaMarcus' onslaught Brandon was the guy who made Memphis say, "Now that's not fair!"
--You may not be able to put Marc Gasol in the middle for 40 minutes and say, "Save our interior game!" but you can say that to Joel Przybilla. Technically he only played 33 minutes but he had 13 points and 13 boards. His offensive rebounding (5 for the game) helped keep the Grizzlies' focus on securing the ball instead of running with it. I'm not ashamed to admit it. I heart Joel. Normally you'd worry about that making you seem less masculine somehow. But it's Joel. What real man could feel differently?
--Nicolas Batum redeemed himself a little tonight with some decent defensive hustle. Neither of the Memphis wing guys were Joe Johnson, thank goodness. That's not to say that Batum was flawless. But he did keep with his man and bother shots tonight.
--Steve Blake had a rotten time defensively tonight but he did go 3-6 from the arc, 5-9 overall, and contribute 13 points and 6 assists. More to the point, he's not just the best point guard on the team right now, he's just about the only point guard on the team right now. (That's going to be worrisome if it doesn't change before the playoffs.)
--Travis Outlaw scored 18 points tonight, which isn't that unusual. He did it in 24 minutes on 11 shots though. That's pretty nifty playing. Add in 5 rebounds and that's a nice little game. When Travis plays compact, efficient basketball he really, really helps this team.
--Channing Frye had a nice 17 minutes as well. The interior intimidation factor wasn't the same but he did register 2 blocks and 5 boards in a short amount of time. He looked more feisty than usual and he was bumping in the paint. Nice!
--I'm still pretty mad at Trevor Ariza because it's pretty apparent that he bumped the shooting module inside Rudy's brain clean out of its socket. Rudy was 1-7 tonight, making him 1-11 overall since his return. And it's not like his shot was rattling in and out either. I've heard quieter "thunks" at a Monster Truck rally. He had 2 assists and 1 rebound.
(Side note here: Does anyone else notice every Blazer alone on the break looking over his shoulder before he goes up to dunk? Sad.)
--Sorry Bayless fans, this was another rough one. It seemed like Jerryd was either handling the ball and turning it over or keeping away from the play entirely. He had 3 turnovers in 11 minutes, one of them downright ugly. He also had 4 points. You have to remember that he's a rookie and it's the time of year for serious basketball. Nevertheless it's looking more and more like the real answer to the great Bayless vs. Sergio debate is "no".
This game gives me somewhat more confidence in our chances going into Indiana, where frankly I had a loss half-penciled in. The Blazers had been playing so flat lately that it was easy to imagine a motivated Indiana team taking the game from them. That could still happen, of course. But at least we know the team remembers how to play with energy and execution in games that aren't against elite powers and aren't in the Rose Garden. That's what we'll need Wednesday night.
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