A wild, winning end to the Blazers' 4 game road trip. This 97-93 victory over the Detroit Pistons-- which evened the trip record at 2-2 -- had a little bit of everything.
Long Story Short
The underchildrened (similar to undermanned, but younger) Blazers came out tamale hot before narrowly avoiding a second half collapse; Charlie Villanueva took some time out of his busy schedule to give Rudy Fernandez a free ride on a merry-go-round and and to screen Juwan Howard for Adam's Apple reduction surgery.
The Blazers unexpectedly threw out two new members in their starting lineup: Steve Blake (starting in place of an injured Jerryd Bayless) and Jeff Pendergraph (starting in place of a cryogenically frozen Juwan Howard, who didn't quite thaw out in time for the tip). Miller, Blake, Webster, Aldridge, Pendergraph. Since day one this season, I've argued that that's the ideal starting lineup for the Blazers and it's nice to see Nate McMillan finally come around to this obvious quintet. Just look at the results: 32 first quarter points, including 3 threes from Webster, a power slam from Pendergraph and 8 points on a variety of looks from LaMarcus Aldridge.
The fun didn't stop after 12 minutes, though, as Rudy Fernandez put his Boston flail party behind him, running slaloms through picks, returning to the air for a beautiful alley oop from Steve Blake, and knocking down a three pointer. His off-ball energy proved to be infectious; Webster got in on the alley oop act on a great backdoor pass from Andre Miller and continued his hot shooting from distance, canning a total of 5 three pointers before halftime. Webster was taking rookie Austin Daye like veterans used to get after Wester earlier in his career. He finished with a career high 28 points, playing every second of tonight's game.
The Blazers' defense, minus some struggles on the defensive glass, was solid throughout the first half. The Pistons -- missing Ben Gordon and Will Bynum -- were content to simply chuck up three pointers (they finished 4-21 on the night) and didn't even seem fazed by Portland's superior energy. Down 56-42 at the half, they looked like they didn't much care what had hit them.
The third quarter saw Portland's shooting come back to Earth and Detroit's intensity increase considerably. The Blazers stumbled out of the gates with some pretty atrocious turnovers, miscues and miscommunication while Detroit was busy getting energy on defense and some scoring from invisible-until-now role guys like Jonas Jerebko and Chris Wilcox. The Pistons clawed all the way back from a double-digit deficit, cutting Portland's lead to 1 with 2 minutes to play in the third.
The third quarter had already seen some chippiness thanks to a classic " **** you, ********** " from Steve Blake to Jason Maxiell after a rebound scrum. But Charlie Villanueva really pulled out the trident when Rudy Fernandez drove hard to the basket in transition. Villanueva grabbed Fernandez just as he was taking off and swung him to the ground in full 360 degree fashion. Surely Rudy's chiropractor is drunk or dead by now. Juwan Howard, who had previously defended Blake during the profanity exchange earlier, immediately took exception to the flagrant foul by Villanueva and gave him a nice push to let him know that grandpa wouldn't be tolerating that, thank you very much. Villanueva responded by using his hand to examine Howard's throat for any unusual bumps. Both teams got into the pushing and shoving fracas which ended up spilling over into the Pistons bench. Calm waters returned when Dante Cunningham flashed his "My teeth are missing! Just kidding!!" mouthguard and everyone lined up for a parade of Rudy Fernandez free throws. After roughly 635 touch fouls and 8 made free throws by Fernandez in the quarter's last 97 seconds, the Blazers took a 5 point lead into the final period.
The Blazers again hit some bumps in the road offensively, managing just 4 points in the fourth quarter's first three minutes. Meanwhile, Detroit's best player, guard Rodney Stuckey, had some success in attacking the hoop and the Pistons took a 2 point lead on a Rip Hamiton jumper with less than 5 minutes to play.
Much like Wednesday night's game in Philly (broken down in detail here), the Blazers were in a late-game execution dogfight against a bottom 10 defense. It would again prove to be execution by committee for the Blazers, as Miller got to the hoop and drew fouls, Blake hit a big corner three, Webster knocked down 2 clutch free throws and Aldridge sealed the 97-93 win by making the back half of two free throws with 2.2 seconds on the clock. Meanwhile, Detroit's late-game offense was all over the place, with Hamilton forcing a contested 3, Villanueva choking on an open look (some symmetry and karma at work on this one) and Tayshaun Prince telegraphing a pass out of a timeout that was brilliantly tipped away by LaMarcus Aldridge.
This game ended up being more difficult than it probably should have been for the Blazers yet, when all was said and done, it kind of felt like they stole it. Just look at Dante Cunningham's hilarious reaction to Aldridge's game-icing free throw.
Andre Miller had a quiet 11 points (just 6 shot attempts) but a tone-setting 13 assists. Indeed, the television broadcast rightly lauded the Blazers' 20 first half assists as a team. That's pretty amazing. Miller's game tonight was mostly about passively captaining the offense with his vision rather asserting himself off the dribble, although he did look to drive a little bit more late in the game. His first-half lob to Webster was a thing of beauty.
LaMarcus Aldridge had 21 points, 8 rebounds and 1 big-time game-changing deflection (mentioned above). There's still work to be done -- both by the coaches and Aldridge himself -- in finding his comfort zone late in games. He had a nice face-up shot with about 5 minutes to play and the game-ending free throw, but he also disappeared for stretches. A number of times Blazers guards ran the high pick and roll and pulled up their dribble indecisively, as if expecting Aldridge to somehow make the play without the ball in his hands. Perhaps this was fatigue due to the back-to-back coupled with the absence of Jerryd Bayless.
Martell Webster was straight balling. 28 points, six three pointers, 7 boards and a steal. After the game, Gilbert Arenas picked him up and used him to intimidate Javaris Crittenton. One thing I haven't mentioned yet this season about Webster is that it's a real testament to his professionalism that he's able to play 48 minutes in a game. That's an extremely uncommon request by an NBA coach (not named Don Nelson) and, truth be told, there's a fair percentage of players in the NBA who physically and mentally couldn't play 48 minutes on the second half of a back-to-back, period. The perfect bounceback from an invisible Friday night in Boston.
Grand Slam for Rudy Fernandez: he rediscovered his shot, free throw perfection, gravity and back pain all on the same night. 19 points, 2 boards, 2 dimes and hustle play throughout. He was seeking offense off the dribble, something he hasn't often done this season. Hopefully this will serve as a nice stepping stone game as he continues to work his way back after his recent surgery.
Steve Blake was just as instrumental as Andre Miller in working the ball around the perimeter to set up easy shots. He finished with 11 points, 10 assists and 3 steals. Blake's 1 made three was oh-so-necessary and perfectly timed.
Juwan Howard just knows every trick in the book. He came off the bench tonight and never really found his shooting touch (1 for 5) but he filled the minutes, stood up for his teammates and worked the refs throughout.
Jeff Pendergraph (SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE) started the game but finished with just 2 points and 4 rebounds (SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE). The 2 points were memorable as they came in the form of a rim-shaking dunk. (SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE) On defense he got beat pretty badly to the baseline by Charlie Villanueva and he probably should have slithered laterally more quickly. (SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE SNAKE) Did you hear that he has a new nickname?
Dante Cunningham found himself in some early foul trouble which helped limit him to just 10 minutes of play. He knocked down a nice baseline jumper and grabbed 3 boards. Down the stretch both he and Pendergraph got out of the way as Nate McMillan went with experience to pull out this nailbiter.
The team's composure and resourcefulness in response to the late-game physical tests from Villanueva, Ben Wallace, etc. were a welcome sign. Some guys that might usually be on the sidelines getting held back by the assistant coaches were out there mixing it up and, more importantly, rallying together in the scrum's aftermath. Other guys who might have leaned on Brandon Roy to restore order and bring the win home had nobody to turn to but themselves. That's invaluable experience.
Every game won without Roy is a solid victory for the Blazers, especially considering the difficulty of the upcoming schedule. Rough(er) times could be ahead.
Note: For those of you wondering about the Jersey Contest, Dave is en route to Portland for Blazersedge night on Monday night. Please be patient. He should have you fully updated soon enough.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter