In a Nutshell: The Blazers hold on to defeat a hard-nosed Sixers squad in a game that showcased nearly every strength and weakness Portland fans can expect to experience this season.
The Blazers opened their season on a positive note behind the attack of forward Gerald Wallace. Other Blazers scored inside off of offensive rebounds but Wallace was the lone voice in the wilderness scrambling for the hoop and making things happen. His teammates fed off of his energy and confidence, hitting an array of face-up shots between 5 and 15 feet plus the occasional deep ball. Portland's screening was particularly efficient in freeing up jumpers throughout the first half. The Blazers also started a night-long trend of looking to push off of the defensive rebound, spinning and firing outlet passes instead of dumping down to the point guard on the sideline after opponent misses. Defensive intensity was also high against a streaky Philadelphia offense...the streak in this case being downward. Impeccable rebounding sealed the deal. The combination of speed, energy, veteran fundamentals, and a few made jumpers off the slip propelled the Blazers to a 26-15 lead after one.
Then the bench came in.
Coach McMillan showed incredible confidence in his reserves for the first (and likely last) time this season, running a lineup of Nolan Smith, Jamal Crawford, Nicolas Batum, Kurt Thomas, and Chris Johnson at the beginning of the second period. That lineup got killed by Philly's superior scoring bench players Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young. The lead evaporated faster than Christmas Joy on Returns Day. Fortunately the Blazers kept their receipt on that bench lineup and managed to exchange it for the same old starting corps before Philadelphia overtook them, but the margin was down to 3 halfway through the period. Rebounding woes and a lack of interior scoring kept Portland from succeeding but forcing turnovers without committing them kept Portland in the game. The same formula of transition when possible, picks otherwise plus some well-timed hoops from Crawford and LaMarcus Aldridge proved enough of a life-preserver to maintain a 48-44 lead going into the half.
Wesley Matthews was the story of the third period early, hitting back-to-back threes. Wallace followed that up with forced offensive fouls on Philly and some more opportunity buckets as the Blazers' first unit surged ahead again. Wallace was once again the only consistent inside scorer, though, and rebounding remained sketchy, all but disappearing on the offensive end and coming only with serious effort defensively. Portland did get the chance to run, but not long enough. Having fewer rebounding problems themselves, Philly now played confidently, running the ball themselves. The result was a 29-28 quarter with the Blazers upping their lead by 1, 77-72 heading into the deciding period.
Great energy plus made three pointers equaled Blazer success as the fourth quarter began. Portland stretched the lead to 15 with 7:35 remaining on a Wallace three and kept it there for a couple minutes as Batum hit another. Portland went cold at the end of the game, however, making only one field goal (that from Thomas) in the final six minutes of the game, trying to eke a living at the foul line. Philly, meanwhile, started hitting opportunity shots and rebounding even harder. Worse, their three-pointers started falling as well. Soon the lead was under double digits and fell to three with 30 seconds remaining. The Sixers had an attempt at a tying jumper late but Andre Iguodala couldn't hit it and Raymond Felton iced the game with 1.2 seconds left. Portland holds on to win by 4, 107-103.
As I said in the opening, this game was a microcosm of everything we expect to see from the "new" Blazers:
- With more veteran defenders in tow Coach McMillan has taken the reins off of the defense, allowing his players--particularly Wallace--the freedom to go for the steal and take risks on the perimeter instead of just containing. This is positively affecting both tempo and energy.
- Those same veteran players are setting and using better picks than we've seen from the Blazers in years.
- Portland's mid-range game is exquisite on offense, particularly with those screens.
- Portland's long-range game is not. When they hit the three they almost can't help but win. Most times they don't hit though.
- The interior game is limited to offensive rebounds and occasional drives by Wallace or deep posts by Aldridge. The Blazers can get their feet and the ball inside at the same time but they can't convert consistently in there. Mike and Mike from the Blazer Broadcasting team lamented that the Blazers were just "missing good opportunities". Get used to that. It's endemic to most of the players the Blazers field.
- With this style the Blazers have trouble drawing foul shots (understandably so) and likely will for the majority of the season.
- They make up for that disadvantage in part by forcing turnovers without committing them. The real issue will come when they either have an off night themselves and spill the ball or come up against a team that's unwilling to make mistakes.
- When the Blazers rebound they have a chance. When they don't they're like a slowly leaking balloon.
- Portland feeds off of energy and teamwork.
- Transition basketball is one hallmark of that energy. That said, when forced to walk the Blazers look pedestrian.
- The problem with the energy approach is their lack of depth. The second unit isn't ready for sustained NBA basketball. Injuries, season-fatigue, and certain demanding spots in the schedule are bound to create trouble.
LaMarcus Aldridge led the Blazers with 25 points on 11-25 shooting. There's no overestimating how much better Portland's halfcourt offense looks when Aldridge succeeds inside. Defenses have to collapse on him which opens up the floor for everyone else. The game looks easy at that point. The Catch-22 is that Aldridge needs the face-up shot to fall in order to set up his scoring confidence. The Blazers can't afford to send him inside for missed shot after missed shot either because they need his point production to stay afloat. Elton Brand is not a fantastic defender at this point in his career so Aldridge caught a break after a shaky start and dominated the game with his jumper. But Portland needs to find a way to set him up better inside when he faces better defenders or this story will not end well. The halfcourt alley-oop is sorely missed at this point. Aldridge also has to buckle down and just hit those inside shots from the post.
Gerald Wallace was fluid and somehow maniacal while remaining in control tonight. He was the hammer that smashed the face of the 76ers, stunning them enough to make Portland's other attacks tell. His 21 points and 9 rebounds shone brightly but this was the kind of night when you would have wanted him on the floor even had he scored 6. He was that forceful on both ends.
Marcus Camby had 13 rebounds and 6 assists, the latter while playing up high. This was classic "little bit of everything" Marcus, including nice defense (natch). The worry-spot for the Blazers is that the team wasn't nearly the same without him on the floor. They need Marcus a scary amount right now.
Wesley Matthews went 3-6 from the three-point arc tonight but only 1-8 otherwise, another culprit in the "missing the 'easy' shot" epidemic. The thing is, inside shots aren't easy for Matthews by definition. On the plus side he played great defense, looking plenty agile no matter who he was on.
Despite a bad shooting night Raymond Felton mixed 12 points, 8 assists, and 6 rebounds into a casserole of decentness. Like Matthews he was able to get inside but had a hard time converting when he did. No individual part of his game was that tasty but when blended together it came out well.
Jamal Crawford had an iffy start off the bench but kept on gunning and found the range when it counted. He's the one Blazer you can count on to try and win the game instead of mostly not losing it. He just looks at the ball and the hoop and says, "These are mine." If you had three players like that you'd go crazy and probably win 33% of your games but having one is actually a relief. He scored 12 on 5-10 shooting and added 4 rebounds and 4 assists.
Nicolas Batum went 4-10 for 10 points, deferring repeatedly to other players late. His defense was good as usual. His offense actually looked pretty good too when he went for it. The big development in the three games we've seen so far this year has been his extra rebounding intensity...sorely needed on this team. Still he can't allow himself to get overshadowed by more assertive players.
Kurt Thomas played 14 minutes and didn't hurt the team.
Chris Johnson and Nolan Smith got a couple minutes apiece and that was enough.
Stats of the Game
The Blazers spanked the Sixers in field goal percentage in the first half but ended up in a 41%-48% hole by the end of the game.
Turnovers made up a large part of the difference. Philly committed 20, Portland 12.
The Blazers shot 47.4% from the three-point arc thanks to their fourth-quarter flurry. The scary part is that they needed that flurry to win.
Ditto the free throws. Portland ended up shooting 23 to Philly's 19 but that was a fourth-quarter, catch-up phenomenon. The Blazers had fewer free throws than right-hand fingers in the first half. Good teams would have had the Blazers hogtied and rotating on a spit by the halftime horn with that kind of production.
Portland 17 offensive rebounds, Philadelphia 9.
1-0 looks good. Portland's energy and camaraderie looked even better. It's likely that the combination of spunk and enjoying playing together will rescue a couple of games this season that the Blazers would otherwise lose because of their lack of full-dimensional play. Classic Portland drive and attitude should appeal to Portland fans no matter what the ultimate record.
Check out the reflections at LibertyBallers.
Reiterating from the preview: the Jersey Contest won't start until after January 1st.