A career night, including five first-half three-pointers, from Wesley Matthews in his first start of the season, plus some dominating play by Andre Miller down the stretch pushed the Portland Trail Blazers to a 100-99 victory in Memphis, their eighth straight road victory against the Grizzlies.
This was a win after which both Rich Cho and Mrs. Cho should feel comfortable reading the comments.
It's going too far to call this a must-win game for Portland, but it was absolutely an early-season character check and momentum fulcrum. No Brandon Roy for the first time this season. On the road. A motivated, talented opponent returning home after a tough loss the night before. A productive pair of big men in Marc Gasol, who averaged 18 and 11 against the Blazers in four games last season, and Zach Randolph, who averaged 20 and 10 against the Blazers last year. Three straight sure-fire playoff opponents in the next three games.
Tonight's win is the kind of game the Blazers have gotten over the last few seasons, the kind of close game against an inferior opponent that add up over the course of a season so that the final win total starts with a 5 instead of a 4. The Blazers pulled it off again tonight, but it took a number of big efforts. It seemed like a charmed night from the very first possession, when Marcus Camby corralled an offensive rebound and put home a layup.
Let's start with the headliner, Wesley Matthews, who was so hot during the first half that he knocked out power, internet and telephone service at Dave's house, forcing me to step in as a last-minute substitute. While the five three-pointers will get a lot of attention, and they should, Matthews wasn't simply spotting up and bombing. His activity in both the halfcourt and in transition was excellent. His cuts were sharp, his movement off the ball was consistent whether he received a pass or not, his instincts took over and allowed him to run out on a few breaks and, most importantly, his shooting was confident and efficient. He mixed in a few heat checks in the second half, but who could blame him? His final line is a jaw-dropper: a career-high 30 points, three rebounds, three assists, two steals, and one block on 11-19 shooting in 42 minutes.
As Matthews was tallying 22 first half points in 21 minutes I couldn't help but think back to this piece from a few weeks ago, when he talked about adjusting his mentality back to that of a bench player rather than a starter. His comfort level from the get go was plainly evident tonight, which is no easy task given that he was forced to adjust back once again. You want guys in that situation to seize the opportunity; it's just as possible, especially against a high-energy defender like OJ Mayo, that they could shrink from the moment. Matthews was the anti-Costanza. There would be no shrinkage.
The Blazers came out flat during the third quarter, as the offense started to tighten up a little bit, settling for jumpers, and then Marcus Camby went down briefly with an ankle injury. Panic started to set in, but Andre Miller was there, in a flashback to spring of last year, finger on the pulse of the game, eyes constantly darting to spot new angles. Miller had some exceptional passes tonight, even by his own standards. By my count, he hit four different Blazers on backdoor or near-backdoor plays, feeding the ball over and through Memphis's defenders, squeezing the ball into tight spaces for easy buckets.
When it came to crunch time, Miller looked to himself for the offense, teaching Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley some moves that Miller patented when Conley's dad was still teaching him how to walk, not negotiating absurd contract extensions for him. Into the post Miller went, shaking and baking. To the basket to collapse the defense. To the free throw line to finish off the game. It was a commanding performance, perfectly timed, and it ensured Portland had just enough of a cushion to stave off two late Memphis three-pointers that prolonged the stress level until the final buzzer. Miller finished with 19 points, two rebounds, nine assists, five steals and five turnovers.
This wasn't a perfectly crisp game for Portland but it was a performance that had the mark of a back-against-the-wall team. Hard rotations on defense. Plenty of extra hands on the boards. Lots of offensive rebounds, especially of the tipped variety. A couple of big time defensive plays down the stretch, including a nifty pocket-picking by Miller and a deflection by Matthews.
Statistically, this was a very even game. Portland won on effort, and that's important to remember entering this tough upcoming three game stretch.
Zach Randolph got his for Memphis -- 19 and 14 -- but Marc Gasol was held in check for most of the night: a pair of late baskets were too little to late, as he dealt with foul trouble and finished with 9 points and 4 boards. Camby returned to form in a big way tonight, grabbing 17 rebounds and playing through pain in the fourth quarter.
I wouldn't say Portland was looking to push the pace in any meaningful way in Brandon Roy's absence, but they were very opportunistic in attacking the basket off of turnovers. The Blazers succeeded in turning steals into baskets and trips to the foul line. Most memorable, of course, was this fantastic dunk by Matthews.
Aside from Matthews, Miller and Camby, who were covered above, some thoughts on the rest of the Blazers tonight.
LaMarcus Aldridge had a tone-setting block on Gasol early in the game and finished with three blocks on the night. He wasn't a dominating force, drifting in and out of the game, but he used his length well on occasion and he knocked down some open shots on his way to 23 points, four rebounds, two assists, and a steal. It's always a good night when he goes 5-5 from the free throw line too. Aldridge wasn't as big of a factor down the stretch as you would like -- just one basket in the fourth quarter -- but Miller more than covered for that tonight. Against better opponents, Portland will need more from Aldridge if Roy continues to be out.
Nicolas Batum also had some very quiet stretches tonight, but just when you were getting ready to bemoan his invisibility, he would dart in for a point blank lay up. He finished with 11 points, six rebounds, two assists, and two steals hitting 5-10 from the field. His touches and shot attempts were ceded in large part to Matthews.
Dante Cunningham had an excellent tapped offensive rebound almost as soon as he checked into the game. Just when I was saying last week how rare it is for him to shoot an airball, he had another one of those tonight. It turned out to be inconsequential as he hit three of his other four shot attempts to finish with six points, six rebounds, one assist, one steal and two blocks in 15 minutes. What a line; he needs more time. That half-rhymed.
Rudy Fernandez, who was passed by for the starting role in Roy's absence, was awful. 1-7 from the field, including 1-6 from deep. His attention to detail on his shot form got progressively worse over the course of the evening and I was surprised to see that he played 23 minutes. Surprised that Nate McMillan stuck with him that long and surprised that he contributed so little during his time on the floor. It wasn't all bad though: Fernandez did have the well-timed setup pass for the Matthews dunk in the video above.
Armon Johnson had some issues. A little spastic with the ball in his hands; unable to get his shots to fall. He managed 4 assists in his 11 minutes of burn, which made his 2 turnovers and inability to find his shot effectively a wash. He came out of the gate charging, when steady might have been a better look. If Roy is out for any meaningful period of time, you can expect Johnson to receive all the coaching he can handle in an effort to help lift the playing time burden off of Miller, who would be carrying a substantial load as he did during the second half of last season.
Sean Marks played six minutes and hit a mid-range jumper. I look forward to the day, reportedly coming soon, that Joel Pryzbilla's name appears on this line in place of Marks'. Paging you video fiends: a highlight reel of Marks running in circles while playing defense in the halfcourt would be pretty re-watchable.
Stats of the Night
Aside from Matthew's treys, Camby's boards and Gasol's impotence mentioned above...
25 assists on 40 baskets for Portland.
Memphis's bench was largely ineffective, shooting a combined 5-18. They were unable to take advantage of Portland's shallow bench, which combined for 5-17.