A short-handed Portland Trail Blazers had their offense in high-gear early and they never looked back, raining down points on a new-look Golden State Warriors team that still can't stop anyone, before pulling away for a 118-105 win Saturday night in the Rose Garden. The Blazers improved their preseason record to 2-3; the Warriors fell to 2-2.
For Portland this was a good reminder of who they are when things are going right: a talented, deep basketball team that is difficult to beat when it is hitting from deep. Four first-quarter three-pointers set the tone and opened up the floor for LaMarcus Aldridge, who led the charge tonight with 25 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks, an assist and a steal in 28 minutes.
The Blazers started Dante Cunningham in place of an injured (again) Marcus Camby and they interchanged lineups and combinations more than we've seen during the preseason because a sore right Achilles limited Wesley Matthews. The biggest beneficiaries from the absences of Camby and Matthews were Andre Miller, Armon Johnson, and Nicolas Batum, as all three turned in impressive efforts.
Tonight, the energy and intensity was back, so let's break this down in player-by-player evaluation style to give each player his just due.
For all the criticism he receives, LaMarcus Aldridge is one of the best power forwards in the league to have if your team plans to lose 3 or 4 centers due to injury. Playing next to Cunningham (and occasionally Luke Babbitt) and against a small front line like Golden State's, Aldridge's length and versatility have a much more pronounced impact. Aldridge succeeded in a number of different offensive situations tonight: face-up, back-to the-basket, on the block, and he was active on the offensive boards as well. Any time Aldridge goes 10-14 from the field, you know he is getting high-percentage looks.
As the Blazers lineups started to flow together a little more loosely, they got out in transition a bit and Rudy Fernandez hit Aldridge on back-to-back alleyoop passes, both of which Aldridge flushed nicely. The highlights were nice but the steadiness, consistency and energy were even better. Tonight's performance was the kind that left you believing that Aldridge is worthy of all star consideration and a true difference-maker that can help keep the ship afloat until Joel Przybilla and Greg Oden return. I'm not sure a flat 18 and 7 from Aldridge through the first six weeks will be enough; tonight was evidence he is capable of more, perhaps much more, especially against weaker competition.
Believe it or not, Nate McMillan played Nicolas Batum and Dante Cunningham together in the froncourt for long stretches tonight, alongside a second-unit perimeter combination of Armon Johnson, Jerryd Bayless and Rudy Fernandez. Only in the preseason (hopefully). While the pre-game talk had been about Portland going into the post to exploit Golden State's smaller backcourt (and there was some of that, keep reading), Batum did something equally intelligent: he made Golden State's mismatches pay on the perimeter, by creating and knocking down easy looks against slower-footed defenders.
Indeed, it was an aggressive offensive night all-around from Batum, who finished with 19 points on 14 shots, including 3-7 from deep, to go along with 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, and a block. He alternated with Brandon Roy in guarding Monta Ellis, who went just 5-16, and he defended a bunch of different Warriors when he moved to the frontcourt during the later rotations.
Tonight Batum looked much more comfortable with the ball in his hands: it was all attacking, no thinking. He also went into the post a few times, especially early, and although he didn't look as comfortable there he did score an early basket down low. With Batum, as much fun as the post is theoretically, the next step in his offensive development is the mid-range, off-the-dribble or to-the-rim efficient point production. He will be a menace to society if he continues to show progress on that front like he did tonight.
The Golden State Warriors are the type of team that make you think it's no big deal to prominently feature the undersized Dante Cunningham in the frontcourt. Tonight played out much like you might expect for Cunningham, who was able to get out and run (and finish), hold his own on the boards, and get some scrap points by sticking with plays. He finished with 10 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal.
On defense, Cunningham saw a lot of David Lee (17 points and 11 boards) and while he lost the statistical match-up he did more than enough to neutralize Lee's impact. Again, it was just like you would expect: Cunningham up in his man's shirt, aggressive, moving his feet, closing out after the shot goes up.
The most interesting thing I noticed about Cunningham tonight was his all-in commitment to the team on offense, regardless of time/score situation. Late in games (or early during preseason games for that matter), some of his teammates tend to green light themselves more quickly. Not Cunningham, who turns, faces and surveys from the high post the same way no matter how many points Portland is ahead or behind. He played the most minutes of any Blazers tonight (38), including the entire fourth quarter, when the game was in hand, and took just 9 shots.
Brandon Roy's night was better than Monday, for sure. He finished with 6 points, 2 rebounds, 5 assists and a steal, but he got himself into some foul trouble, primarily because Monta Ellis was extremely aggressive off the dribble early on. Roy's assertiveness was not all the way there again tonight (he took just 4 shots) but his play-making was improved. He was deferring rather than looking uninterested, and there is a big difference.
A major reason for his relative lack of offensive involvement was match-ups: with the bigger Andre Miller able to isolate on the undersized Stephen Curry, with Aldridge clicking so well in the post against some soft interior defense, and with Portland's shooters so hot, so early, the Blazers didn't need to turn to Roy for help as they often do. Roy was able to rest for most of the fourth quarter, with the game comfortably in hand.
Much like Roy, Andre Miller didn't look great but he did look better, much better even. We saw many more things from him than we have to date in the preseason, including some aggressive work in the block, some crisp passing in the paint (setting up Aldridge on multiple occasions), some off-ball movement and, most importantly, the ability to get to the free throw line. Miller finished with 15 points, 3 assists and a steal. He also had 3 turnovers.
While both Roy and Miller didn't have great games, the ball movement on offense was significantly improved over Monday. Whether that was due to the opposing defensive personnel, a re-focusing, or a bit of both, is still an open question. Any time a team puts up 71 points in the first half it's cause for celebration, not concern. Big credit to the starting guards for getting the offensive ball rolling early.
Luke Babbitt got into the game so early -- the six minute mark of the first quarter -- that he apparently didn't even have enough time to get the rookie jitters. Babbitt stroked an early three off of a kick-out pass and then had another basket, off-the-dribble going left to the hoop, that led to some oohs and aahs from the Rose Garden crowd. He competed gamely but continues to get picked on at the defensive end. After some early run, McMillan opted to use Batum in the frontcourt and that limited Babbitt's playing time to just 12 minutes. Nevertheless, he chipped in 5 points and 3 rebounds and his confidence and readiness looked much better.
Rudy Fernandez was sensational at times tonight, not only for his 4-8 three-point shooting and alleyoop passes to Aldridge but also because of a number of intelligent, instinctive defensive plays that changed momentum.
One came when he took an open court charge from Stephen Curry. Sure, that's not exactly stepping in front of Shaq Diesel. But body was sacrificed and the timing and setup was perfect. Curry changes direction incredibly quickly and has premier footwork. Fernandez got to the spot, got there at the right time, and made it an easy call for the official. The play prevented transition points and makes Curry just a touch more hesitant on subsequent breakouts.
Later, Fernandez watched from the weakside as Curry ran a high screen on the right angle at the three-point line. Before Curry had even mentally committed to passing to his screener, who was popping to the top of the key, Fernandez bolted towards the play, leaving his man unattended. Curry never saw him through the high screen crowd and Fernandez made the clean swipe, going the other direction with the ball. Again, the timing was phenomenal, the instinct and knowledge of the situation perfect. He, literally, knew what Curry was going to do with the ball before Curry did. Exciting to watch that play out.
Fernandez finished with 14 points, 3 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals and made everyone forget about Wesley Matthews, at least for a night. He then dressed quickly, put on a European raincoat and walked through a back hall filled with reporters while staring at the ground, saying nothing, although he didn't appear obviously unhappy.
The longer the preseason continues, the more heckling Jerryd Bayless receives from around my media row seat. Bayless had an average game tonight but the newness and excitement about his skillset has evaporated entirely and that has led to a lot of griping about his deficiencies, which are mostly still there from last year (especially finishing in traffic when he's not fouled or opts for a floater). Tonight, Bayless had a very respectable 4 assist to 1 turnover ratio, but something was still off: passes would be slightly late or slightly low, they would come after he got himself into trouble in the paint, open players would be missed on his way to the hoop.
His final line reveals relatively efficient production for a backup - 8 points, 2 rebounds, 4 assists in 23 minutes -and he played hard on defense. The problem for Bayless, in addition to familiarity catching up to him, is comparative: next to rookie Armon Johnson he looked less productive and less exciting.
Armon Johnson played his best game in a Blazer uniform tonight, Summer League included. His on-ball defense has been very good all preseason. Johnson was probably chest-to-chest with the doctor after his mother delivered him. "I bet you want to walk across the hall to check on that other woman who is delivering a baby, don't you? Sorry, but you'll have to go through me to do that, Doc. That's just the way I am wired."
Aside from the defense, Johnson showed he has been listening to McMillan preach the past few weeks about five guys hitting the glass on both ends. Johnson had 5 rebounds in 17 minutes, a number of them in traffic, the kind of rebounds that make you slap yourself on the forehead and say, "Man, that's a great rebound for a point guard," and then slap yourself again for boring yourself with such a self-evident observation. Johnson also hit a three-pointer (!), a sweet pull-up jumper and a memorable runner to the basket.
Add it up: 14 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 0 turnovers on 5-8 shooting. A coach's dream, for a night. Areas of concern or needed development for Johnson at this point: consistent decision-making, running the pick-and-roll sets more smoothly and increasing his familiarity with Portland's best players. He is challenging Cunningham for title of "Hungriest Blazer".
Random Game Notes
- Elliot Williams received a DNP-CD and was the first Blazer dressed and out of the locker room. He even beat Rudy Fernandez.
- Steven Hill was nowhere to be found tonight (DNP-CD and he wasn't visible during warmups or on the bench).
- Fernandez threw a backdoor pass that missed its target and landed in GM Rich Cho's lap.
- Look for more on Stephen Curry sometime early next week. He finished with 17 points, 11 assists, 7 rebounds, 8 turnovers and a steal. He will be an NBA all star sooner rather than later and within a few years I expect the Warriors to be in regular playoff contention regardless of who he is surrounded with. The only player I have seen go through a more rigorous pre-game routine than Curry is Kevin Durant and I think the two players share the same determined, confident but humble, dedicated to improving mentality.
- The Warriors as a whole should be much improved over last season. David Lee didn't drop any jaws but his skill level and ease of production were markedly improved over the MASH unit Golden State threw out last year. He put together 17 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals in 27 minutes and he made it look pretty ordinary. That should add up.
- Aaron Miles from Portland's Jefferson High School saw some time tonight off of Golden State's bench. Mike Tokito has more.
- it was a big Rose Garden crowd, announced at more than 19,000, and it was loud.
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter