Media Row Report: Blazers 101, Mavericks 89

A man with principle.

If the Portland Trail Blazers played every game like they played tonight, forcefully dismissing the Dallas Mavericks 101-89, it would be significantly more difficult to write at length about this team.  In fact, tonight was about as cuteoverload.com as the Blazers get.  Puppies, fast break points, rainbows, ball movement, baby koalas, super effective team defense. Group hug and go home smiling? Just keep your hands where I can see them.

This team is at its best on offense when the scoring load is evenly distributed.  That means attacking guard play, good reads, sharp passing, clean catching, confident shooting and aggressive rebounding.  Tonight we saw all of that. But what really popped was the passing, not always a Blazers strong suit.  

In the first quarter the Blazers had 10 assists for 12 baskets and all five starters had at least 1 assist.  By halftime, it was an astonishing 17 assists on 24 baskets.  (By comparison, the Mavericks, led by one of the game's premier set-up point guards, totaled 20 assists as a team for the entire game.)  Even when both teams tightened up on defense in the second half, the Blazers continued at an absurd assist/basket pace, with 22 dimes for 33 buckets after three quarters and 25 for 40 over the entire game.  

All the pretty passing in the world doesn't matter if you can't slow down Dirk Nowitzki.  And rarely will you see the Blazers execute a team defensive gameplan so thoroughly against a team with as many offensive weapons as the Mavericks. On Wednesday I wrote about some of the defensive adjustments assistant coach (and former Dallas assistant) Joe Prunty was implementing.  Tonight, we saw all of them.  

LaMarcus Aldridge got up into Dirk Nowitzki's body early and often, getting an early touch foul as feared but disturbing Dirk on multiple possessions.  "We were just trying to be physical," Aldridge told me after the game. "Not let him get comfortable, not let him find his balance." It worked: Dirk finished with just 15 points on 5 of 13 shooting.

The Blazers also aggressively played the high pick and rolls, daring the Mavericks to look for secondary options like Shawn Marion and Caron Butler and physically preventing Nowitzki from establishing his preferred position at the top of the key. Importantly, they limited Dirk to just 4 free throw attempts for the entire game (and gave up just 9 total free throw attempts to the Mavericks). 

After the game, Nate McMillan singled out Prunty and his assistant coaching staff for their work on the scouting reports and noted, with more pride and forcefulness than usual, "we executed the game plan tonight." He also rightfully credited Marcus Camby's influence on the team's overall defensive success.  

Let's face it: earlier this season gambling out on the perimeter or aggressively doubling up top would have led to a layup parade.  Without long, athletic defenders like Camby and Batum, the team had to turtle itself into the paint on occasion and send five guys to the glass to have a chance to stay in games.  And still, it didn't always work out in their favor.  But with Camby the Blazers now have a safety-valve of sorts.  Obviously, he's no Dwight Howard but he does understand defensive spacing very well and he contests shots without taking himself out of rebounding position.  Importantly, his presence frees up his teammates to pressure ball handlers and body guys like Dirk without worrying about getting beat for uncontested layups. "You know me, I'm just roaming and trying to guard the paint," Camby told me after the game. "Trying to have my teammates' back out there."

Two defensive plays really stood out for Camby tonight.  To close the first quarter, he picked Jason Terry's pocket out near the three point line and smartly threw ahead to Jerryd Bayless for a transition layup.  Even though the quarter's time was about to expire, Camby was exhorting his teammates to get back on defense to prevent a fluke last-second attempt.  A most unusual combination of versatility, basketball intelligence and presence of mind from a guy his size. 

A much more critical play, though, came with just under three minutes to play in the fourth quarter.  The Blazers held a 10 point lead when Andre Miller had his jump shot blocked.  As the Mavericks pushed the ball up the court, there was a tension hiccup in the Rose Garden, as if everything had the potential to go drastically wrong in a hurry.  "Not another home collapse," the crowd seemed to sigh in unison.  The ball worked around to Caron Butler -- Dallas's leading scorer on the night with 25 points -- and he looked to drive on Camby.  Camby shadowed his movements brilliantly, never giving any contact that could lead to a foul, and extended a long arm to block Butler's eventual shot attempt. Ball secured, the Blazers came down and scored on their next possession.  

Collapse averted, order restored, and arguably the biggest Blazers victory of 2010 secured. 

Random Game Notes
  • Buried under the Paul Allen press release last night: Some final thoughts on Larry Miller, in response to a post on True Hoop
  • With some time and space (not to mention a solid win), the local media conversation seemed slightly more optimistic with regard to Kevin Pritchard's future prospects here in Portland.  Reconciliation seemed to be the operative word.  One writer whose work is regularly linked here commented to me after the game that he sees Pritchard's return next season as a virtual certainty.
  • The KP support signs and shirts were noticeable but not overwhelming.  It was great to see "Don't Ditch Pritch," "KeeP" and "Keep KP" all make the TNT broadcast.  There are only 4 more regular season home games. I would encourage those who brought signs today to continue that presence at each of those games.  Will it have an effect?  Will it save Pritchard's job?  Who knows. But consider your active advocacy to be Platelet Rich Plasma therapy for Pritchard's career. If he's here next year, the treatment was successful! If not, no harm was done and the science just needs more exploring.
  • Paul Allen attended tonight's game with a lady companion and Vulcan Flunky Bert Kolde.  Neither Miller nor Pritchard sat courtside with Allen.  I'll track that through the remainder of the season.  More on Allen tomorrow morning.
  • Two of the sharp young minds that you might expect the Blazers to consider as a replacement Assistant GM or VP Basketball Ops -- Houston's Sam Hinkie and Sacramento's Jason Levien -- both received promotions from their respective organizations this week. Coincidence? Or proactive protectionism? Or more?
  • Heading out of the Rose Garden I happened to walk past Mavericks Owner Mark Cuban standing alone outside their team bus.  I briefly told him that I had enjoyed his appearance on the Sloan Basketball Analytics panel. He offered a gracious smile and handshake, despite being clearly disappointment by his team's loss.  Say what you will about Cuban and his antics (it's all justified). But after the things we've witnessed (and not witnessed) from Vulcan over the last week, his hands-on, always-connected management style has some serious benefits.
  • I made a mental note when Rudy Fernandez knocked down his fourth quarter three pointer: that was the beginning of the end for Dallas's hopes.  Nate McMillan referenced the same shot below.  Huge make at a big moment.  A playoff shot.  Great to see from Rudy.  The fallaway out of control floater he threw up?  You already know how I feel about that one. 
  • Roddy Beaubois was a flat out warmup freak.  So smooth, effortless with the dribble each direction, nailing shot after shot after shot from all angles and all situations. Focused throughout.  Next year, why even think twice about the novelty act of JJ Barea when, with a full summer of refining his game behind him, Beaubois has so much breakout potential? On talent and upside, I wouldn't trade Beaubois for Darren Collison.  Could Beaubois do what Collison has done this season for New Orleans in Chris Paul's absence?  Possibly.  Would Collison get any run if he played for the Mavs, stuck behind veterans Kidd, Terry and Barea as they make a championship push?  Probably not.  I suppose that's why you always hear about the importance of "opportunity" in the NBA. 

Nate McMillan's Post Game Comments

What did you like most about that tonight?

I just thought we played a good complete game. From start to finish our defense was good tonight. I thought we were the aggressors and other than that 6-0 start, after that I thought we got aggressive on both ends of the floor. Defensively this time of the year you're making adjustments. We played this team a little different as far as our schemes against Terry and Dirk and I thought our guys did a great job of executing our defensive game plan. It's always good to knock down shots and tonight when the shots were falling for us we get more aggressive and more excited about playing defense. We've seen that go the other way but from start to finish I thought our guys played good basketball.

Marcus Camby

I think it's a matter of him getting used to how we want him to play that center position. He got into the paint, ducking in, making himself available. Teams are double teaming and leaving guys open. He got rewarded tonight. He was in the paint, got to the free throw line, was knocking down his shots, got a rhythm. Defensively part of the game plan was to get him on Dirk some and we thought he did a nice job of using his length against Dirk.

Closer to being prepared for playoffs?

We take tonight's game and showed that we can play with those guys that's ahead of us. Tonight, it was definitely a game we needed desperately. Very good team. We've had success against them but it's a very good team. They've been hot. It should give our guys confidence to go on the road this weekend and try to take care of New Orleans.

We're going down the stretch. The teams we've beaten the last week or so are teams under .500. The teams we've played here the last two games are teams that are in the playoffs. We need to see ourselves be successful against this type of team.

Scrappy play tonight?

This was a team effort. You can just go down the list of guys. I thought they all played well. 25 assists tonight. We shot over 50 percent for the game. Good ball movement. Did a good job of taking care of the ball. Defensively we disrupted enough to take some of their guys out. It wasn't just Camby on Dirk. It was LA. Our switches. We had some schemes we wanted to run if we had mismatches. Terry tonight we did a good job of Nic and Rudy chasing him around. It was a solid team effort. With both groups tonight.

Switched schemes tonight. Would you elaborate?

Not really. We just did some things we normally don't do. You've got to be able to make those adjustments. We started out doing some things but we executed the game plan and I thought -- Joe (Prunty) -- my assistant coaches did a great job with the scouting report.  

Nice hustle block by Roy and no fast break points given up

You need to see that. We talked about rotating. A lot of times our guards are penetrating. Miller is on the baseline. Brandon is penetrating. We've been getting hurt because our offense has been flat, those wings haven't been rotating out of the corner. Great effort by Brandon. Normally you see Nicolas in that situation. Brandon needed to get back tonight, he did that. Did he turn the ball over? He tried to make up for it. Good for him. You can't give up on a play because you just don't know. We're playing a lot of two or one possession games. He was able to get possession back.

Did the hot shooting tonight validate your thoughts about how effective zone d was against you in previous games?

I thought we were more patient tonight. We were looking inside. We had our spacing. Rudy hit a big three. You've got to make shots against the zone. Sure enough we didn't make a lot of shots but we made a couple. I thought after Rudy made the shot, they got out of the zone. Normally that's what happens. Teams will try and disrupt your rhythm with a zone, make a couple of shots and they get out of it.

Crowded them on the perimeter

We did. That was part of the game plan, to get into their guards, get our bigs up on the pick and rolls.

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter

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