In arguably their best all around performance of the season, the Portland Trail Blazers stomped on a direction-less Milwaukee Bucks team, never pausing to take a breath and barely resting their key players during a 106-80 drubbing at the Rose Garden on Monday night.
The Bucks functioned about as well without starting point guard Brandon Jennings as I function when my high-speed internet goes out. Meltdown status. Jennings, the team's leading scorer and only play-maker, missed his first game of the season tonight due to a foot injury that will keep him out for a month or more, and the Bucks looked like their heart had been ripped out of their chests from the jump. Keyon Dooling isn't going to cut it, folks. Milwaukee stumbled to 18 first quarter points, relying almost exclusively on one-on-one action and perimeter shots, and they mixed in tons of really sloppy turnovers early.
The Blazers, on the other hand, rode the hot hand of Wesley Matthews to an early lead and never looked back. Matthews, who loves his heat checks like few other NBA players, kept cashing in tonight, hitting three first-quarter three-pointers on his way to 13 first-quarter points and 22 on the night.
From there, it was the LaMarcus Aldridge highlight tape again, as he converted alley oops in bunches and put up a whopping line: 29 points and 19 rebounds. The only question? Why did Aldridge play 44 minutes and why was he in the game with less than two minutes to go, with the Blazers leading a rolled-over, short-handed opponent by 20 points at home?
Unfortunately, coach and player didn't get their answered synced up.
"He can rest [this week]," Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. "We have three or fours days. It's not a blowout, win the game. That's the bottom line."
Aldridge, however, admitted that he was in the game to chase his career-high for rebounds, which was 18 before tonight. "I was so tired. I was like, 'Nate, just take me out.' He was trying to leave me in to get it but I was so tired, I was like, 'just take me out.'"
Shamelessly setting records in garbage time or not, Aldridge was mean and vicious tonight, going over, above and through anyone Milwaukee threw at him. Over the last four games, Aldridge is averaging 29.3. points and 12.8 rebounds, and he had the local media buzzing about whether he'd turned a page in his development. Aldridge said afterwards that he "definitely" feels like he is playing the best basketball of his career. "This is the best I've played, as far as points in the paint, going to the basket, getting to the free throw line, all of those things."
The interesting thing about Aldridge's stretch of excellent play is that it's come against good and bad defenses alike. While the Blazers did run over both Golden State (No. 27 in defensive efficiency) and the Minnesota Timberwolves (No. 28), Aldridge also put up numbers against Dallas (No. 6) and Milwaukee (No. 7). So is he for real?
It's too early to be able to comfortably answer that question in the affirmative, but there is plenty to like. He's responding to an increase in touches well and without ball-stopping. On the contrary, the off-ball movement from his teammates and the perimeter ball movement in general have been better in recent days than at any point this season. "We've talked about establishing the paint and going inside and playing from the inside out," McMillan said. "We can't go away from this. We won't go away from it. I think he's getting more comfortable with that role of being the guy that we go into and making decisions, and he's been great."
The difficulty in coaching any post threat -- Dwight Howard included -- is weaving that player's one-on-one abilities into the overall offense and achieving the proper balance between star and everyone else. By both hitting the glass and finishing his patented wheel lob play at such a stunning rate, Aldridge has mitigated those concerns to a large degree. The easy points from both are upping his efficiency and creating a positive reinforcement cycle. Get in the paint, score points, hit the boards, score points, get in the paint, score points. As the season wears on, and teams finally adjust by staying basket-side on him and by religiously boxing him out, Aldridge will need to show that he has the ability to counter and to prove that he will continue to work for rebounds despite extra attention. During this stretch, he's shown how dangerous he can be when fully motivated. Hopefully he's watching himself on tape.
Ditto for Rudy Fernandez, who is getting back to an all-around game on offense that Blazers fans haven't seen in ages. He's dribbling with conviction, he's shooting with confidence, he's running with purpose, he's celebrating with goggles. He finished with 17 points and seven assists and he played around a cold outside shooting night very well.
With the win, The Blazers nudge past .500, but if you're looking to grade this week they earned a solid "A" on the court. Not only did they go undefeated in Brandon Roy's absence, they showed cohesion and energy throughout, avoiding a stumble on Saturday and responding by dropping the hammer tonight. Their reward: four days off before a Christmas date with the Golden State Warriors in Oakland.
While huge questions still loom for the Blazers -- none bigger than "How do they incorporate Brandon Roy back into this offensive machine?" -- they can wait until tomorrow at the very least. For now, rewind those LaMarcus Aldridge highlights.
Random Games Notes
- Video: LaMarcus Aldridge puts Andrew Bogut on a poster on the great pass from Rudy Fernandez.
- Video: LaMarcus Aldridge puts Luc Richard Mbah a Moute on a poster on the alley oop from Luke Babbitt.
- In case you missed it, John Canzano wrote another "do something!" column this weekend. It included a vignette about Blazers Owner Paul Allen, Bob Whitsitt, and how a coin was slid across a table by Whitsitt to remind Allen how rich he is so that he would pony up for an expensive deal. On Monday, Blazers Broadcaster Mike Barrett blogged that the penny story "never happened." After tonight's game, Allen took to Twitter to write, "Mike Barrett has good take on Blazer season, debunks bogus "penny story" & makes up for missing fact checking."
- There are no winners in this story and I don't often come to the defense of those being assailed for not checking their facts. But any discussion of "bogus" starts and ends with firing a general manager on the night of the NBA draft, fleeing the scene in a chauffeur-drive SUV without taking questions from the media, leaving your employees to clean up the mess, then turning around six months later to take blind shots at a media member from your Twitter account to dispute a triviality. You're better than that, Mr. Allen. Try a non-scripted interview with any independent media member before complaining subliminally on a social network.
- Speaking of fact-checking, on Sunday night's Oregon Sports Final with Matt Smith I made a reference to the Wizards/Suns/Magic trades over the weekend and said that the timing of the deal was influenced by the Dec. 15 date when summer free agent signings become eligible to be traded. As none of the guys in that trade were summer free agent signings, I regret that error. If you both caught the error and actually cared, I'm impressed.
- Patty Mills addressed the Blazers crowd before the game to offer fans a nice holiday message. During the game, the team showed holiday-themed messages from players and coaches on the jumbrotron. When Brandon Roy appeared to say, "I'd like to wish you and yours a happy holiday," a fan down the aisle from my seat immediately shouted in response, "Trade him!" Cold-blooded.
- The Sean Marks highlight of the night (a new feature) came early in the game, when he decided to throw on a one-man full court press before thinking better of it and swiveling to high-tail it the other direction as if struck by a lightning bolt. The runner up, of course, was when Marks was thrown to the ground by Drew Gooden, discarded as if he was a bag full of beard and back hair clippings.
- Blazers rookie Luke Babbitt missed the rim completely on an unguarded 8-foot jumper, drawing backboard only. Not the easiest thing to do.
- More on Babbitt: I've been studying the offense very carefully when he's in the game, and I've picked up an interesting tell from his teammates. Whenever Babbitt finds himself open and in scoring position, he motions to his teammates to let them know by putting his hands up in a catching/shooting position. This is, apparently, a clever deke, because his teammates don't respond as you might expect. Rather than feeding him the rock, they immediately look the other direction, as if Babbitt is invisible, and move quickly to pass the ball to anyone besides him, unless there is absolutely no other option. Certainly, NBA advance scouts will catch on to this ingenious opposite day strategy in no time.
- Bucks forward Ersan Ilyasova is an internet favorite and there's a lot to like about his game. One thing I noticed watching him warm up is that his poor three-point shooting this season (he's down to 28% from 36% and 33% in his first two years) isn't a fluke. During warmups, he missed a ton of shots to the left or to the right, far more than a reliable shooter would. If your shot mechanics aren't aligning the attempt properly horizontally there's no way you're ever going to hit regularly from outside. Ilyasova did the smart thing and didn't attempt a single three-pointer during tonight's game.
- Dante Cunningham left the game in the first quarter with an ankle injury and did not return. Blazers coach Nate McMillan said Cunningham was not able to return health-wise. McMillan also said Cunningham will be reevaluated later this week. The Blazers have an off day tomorrow.
- Jason Quick of The Oregonian reports on Twitter: "Joel Przybilla (sprained left ankle) says he won't play Christmas night in Golden State and might not even make trip to Utah and Denver." The Blazers face the Jazz and Nuggets on December 27th and 28th, respectively.
I think he's playing great basketball. It's continued from the Dallas game, just being aggressive in the paint, establishing the paint. This is something we've talked about, really for the last few years, being able to establish an inside game. I thought tonight they did a great job doing that, going through LaMarcus, going through Miller. Playing from the inside out as opposed to settling for the perimeter game. It starts with LaMarcus, he did another great job of attacking the basket, making decisions, kicking it out.
Great. I thought they played just solid, team basketball. The ball movement has been good. 27 assists tonight. Rudy comes off the bench with 7 assists, so we're moving the ball, that means we're executing. We're setting screens and getting the ball to the open man. You can knock down shots when you play in a rhythm like that.
It started with LaMarcus and he got a quick foul so we put Dante on him. Dante does a great job of moving his feet, Sean, we kind of mixed up our defense and tried to get him off the block and not commit to a double-team. We really didn't have to tonight. We really just made him shoot over the top.
As a team, we have to take advantage of what he's capable of doing. We've talked about establishing the paint and going inside and playing from the inside out. We can't go away from this. We won't go away from it. I think he's getting more comfortable with that role of being the guy that we go into and making decisions and he's been great.
He can rest, we have three or fours days. It's not a blowout, win the game. That's the bottom line.
Win the game.
We'll take tomorrow off and come back Wednesday to practice and go from there.
He couldn't go.
We're moving. We talk about ball movement. We talk about execution. We talk about setting screens. We're doing all of those things. We're pushing the ball in transition. We're getting up and down the floor. We have guys out there who bring some speed to the floor with Nicolas and Wesley and Rudy, and we're getting out and moving.
We've been able to fill in for guys that have been out. They've stepped up and played great basketball. Guys like Rudy and Nicolas and LaMarcus. We've had to make some adjustments with guys being out of the lineup, injuries, and we've always said it's an opportunity for other guys to step up and these guys have done that.
He gets his opportunity and I don't think DC has had an injury since being here. It's just one of those things. You try not to think too much about it. Go to the next play, which is who we're going to fill in with. Nic did a good job, Babbitt came in and played some four, it was good for us.
I love all wins. I do. But it's just like a loss, you enjoy this and you start thinking about the next game. What I do like about this team is I think we've gotten better each game. That is what you want to see. See the team improve, even though we've had a pretty good margin there, we continue to play good basketball, we didn't start to play with the game and get sloppy. They continued to execute and did a good job.
I've always coached Rudy, especially this season, on what I've seen. He's been a professional since returning here. I know how he feels. We know the feeling early this season. Even though he was expressing himself about wanting to play somewhere else or go home, he always has come into the gym and played hard, games, he's played hard, and that is what I coach, not what I've heard. From what I've seen from Rudy now is what I saw in September.
Yeah, well, I wouldn't say career. I think he's had some good stretches. But certainly [best of] this year. He seems to have a rhythm. He is getting more minutes, he's playing in more of a flow. Rudy is a rhythm guy who needs minutes. He's getting those minutes now and he's showing he can do more than shoot the ball. He's making plays, tonight he has seven assists, showing more to his game. He's doing a great job.