The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Sacramento Kings, 101-79, at the Rose Garden on Tuesday night to improve to 2-0 on the young season.
This one started much uglier than it should have but ended exactly as it needed to. The Blazers simply neutered a young Sacramento team, holding the Kings to less than 80 points and just 14 in the fourth quarter. The Kings made nine shots in the second half, shooting 23.7% after the break. It's impossible to compete with those numbers, especially when your roster is built around a trio of score-first, score-only guards and asks one man -- Chuck Hayes -- to play a team's worth of defense.
What happened here? Blazers coach Nate McMillan made the correct adjustment.
There Blazers guard Raymond Felton was again, lying flat on the court with the ball no longer under his control during a critical fourth quarter possession. Portland led by 12 points with 5:35 to play, a similar situation to Monday night's eventual nail-biter against the Philadelphia 76ers. Leaving the game in Felton's hands on Monday saw Philadelphia storm back on a 19-9 run to make the game way more interesting than it needed to be.
Given a second chance, McMillan correctly pulled the plug, sending in forward Nicolas Batum to take Felton's spot in the backcourt, alongside Jamal Crawford, and never looking back.
"I thought guys looked a little fatigued," McMillan explained. "I thought Raymond got a little tired, turned the ball over a couple of times. Crawford had a bounce. His shot wasn't falling but he had a bounce."
From there, Portland closed on a 16-6 run, putting the game so far out of reach that the Rose Garden was able to serenade Gerald Wallace, the Blazers were able to run their patented "six players on the court" routine, Luke Babbitt was able to get a trillion in the box score, and Nolan Smith was able to shimmy while delivering Chalupas. That's shutting the door.
The run was the product of a smothering, active and unified defensive unit that consisted of Crawford, Batum, Gerald Wallace, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marcus Camby. McMillan arrived at that quintet in part because of a mild back strain suffered by starting guard Wesley Matthews, who struggled throughout and might have seen the bench late anyway even if he hadn't suffered the injury. Removing Matthews and leaving Camby created an ultra-big version of a possible Crawford/Matthews/Batum/Wallace/Aldridge finishing group I mentioned last night, one that presents a nightmare for any team that lacks veteran decision-makers and athletic, confident shot creators at multiple positions.
If you can't make this group pay for its aggressiveness plus score over the top or through the Aldridge/Camby tandem, then things will get ugly. Ugly it got on Tuesday. Sacramento shot 5-for-19 while committing six turnovers in the fourth quarter. Forget about it.
Defense first and defense creating offense are becoming early themes this year. Somewhat surprisingly, McMillan acknowledged that he doesn't really lose much offensively with the Crawford-for-Felton swap either. "We can run pretty much the same sets with Crawford or Raymond in the game," McMillan said. "That's a long, athletic team that should be able to defend as well as run." If the goal late is high pick-and-rolls with Aldridge, Crawford is more than capable. So far he's proven to be calmer and more reliable with the ball, although his shot is notoriously streaky and his trigger finger is notoriously itchy.
Bigger than the Crawford/Felton choice, right now, is the fact that Tuesday's late-game look once again raised the issue of finding minutes for Batum. His inclusion in the fourth quarter helped him reach 28 minutes of playing time, eight more than he saw on opening night. It wasn't looking good for him in the beginning on Tuesday, as McMillan waited to bring him on as the ninth Blazers player to touch the court thanks to Wallace's 10-point first quarter effort.
Asked if he wanted to play more than the 20 minutes he saw against Philadelphia, Batum, who averaged more than 31 minutes per game last season, didn't even let the question finish before answering.
"Yeah," he said. "I love to be on the court, I love to be on this court especially. The more I'm on the court, the more I'm happy."
Does he want to get back to closing games like he has in previous years?
"Yes. Yes. Of course. Yes."
His play through two games has shown an uncertainty often seen in players struggling to adjust into a new role or fit into a diminished one. Batum is 8-for-22 from the field and has regularly deferred when circumstances have provided the opportunity to think or over-think. In the open court, with instinct captaining the ship, he's been much better. Batum knows the lineup juggling isn't likely to end soon and he said that he is still unsure of who will eventually emerge as the go-to finishers.
"I don't know, it changes every time," he said. "Utah, yesterday, today, it was a different lineup. We have so many guys we can play."
Batum says he's willing and comfortable playing the two spot, citing his recent time in France, and he certainly wasn't fighting the idea that Tuesday's closing combination could have some staying power.
"We learned from our mistakes from yesterday," Batum said. "We kept playing defense, rebound, stay calm, execute the offense and didn't do the crazy things like we did yesterday... L.A., G, Camby and I, that's four long guys on the court and we can deny a lot of things."
One thing you can't deny is that something has to give. Another: Tuesday's version was a much better model than Monday's. Now we wait to see what Thursday reveals.
Random Game Notes
- As mentioned, Batum was the ninth member of the team to step on the court. Fellow reserves Jamal Crawford, Kurt Thomas and Chris Johnson all checked in before he did. McMillan said that the rotation tweak was a product of Wallace's fast start and not a predetermined lineup or rotation adjustment.
- On paper, Wallace should eat up every member of the Sacramento Kings. In reality, he did: 25 points on 11 shots, eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks.
- Great photo by Bruce Ely of The Oregonian: Wallace taking a courtside seat during the game. "Trying to play an uptempo game kind of gets to you sometimes," Wallace said after the game. "As soon as a break stops, you try to find the first seat you can."
- Wallace's weakside block shot and perfectly placed crosscourt pass to a streaking Batum for the finish was a thing of beauty.
- Blazers center Marcus Camby joked after the game that he was ready to play again on Wednesday night to complete the back-to-back-to-back. Informed of this, LaMarcus Aldridge deadpanned, "He can play by himself."
- Much was made of a pre-game ice bath that Aldridge took to reinvigorate himself. He said it's "definitely" not something he'll try again. "When the game started, I was in quicksand... It made me kind of slow in the first half." Aldridge finished with 24 points and 8 rebounds on 10-for-15 shooting.
- There was a substantial group of early-arriving fans in Jimmer Fredette jerseys and BYU sweatshirts. They shrieked with his every made field goal.
- Paging Tyreke Evans. Hello?
- Because of the back-to-back, the Blazers opted for an afternoon shootaround on Tuesday rather than a morning shootaround. This will be something to watch in the shortened season. The Blazers have gone to the afternoon variety on occasion in previous years but, the thinking goes, they will more often do away with the morning workout to allow for longer rest periods and more sleep during a compressed schedule.
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
What changed at the end of the first half
I thought the defense picked up. We got to our tempo. We started to get some stops defensively and we started to get out and run. The first half, that team shot 50 percent, pretty much got what they wanted, got to the rim, got a number of uncontested attempts at the rim and I thought that we were stagnant in the first half. The defense turned up which led to some transition and then we were able to get out and score some points.
Gerald Wallace wasn't stagnant
His energy was great. Whenever I've been able to get him at the four he's doing some aggressive things, trapping, running with Nic and Gerald, it really gives us a lot of speed. That combination in this short season has been pretty good for us. He's just all over the place providing energy, toughness on the boards, blocking shots, he got Salmons in foul trouble early by going to him in the post. I thought it was a solid job tonight.
Attacking their guards when Isaiah Thomas and Jimmer Fredette were in the game together
We just take advantage of situations that teams give us. We had some match-ups that I thought we did a nice job of taking advantage of that. I thought they took advantage of their match-ups in the first half where Fredette was pretty aggressive in the pick-and-roll and creating some opportunities. Second half, we made him work defensively and it gave us the advantage.
Importance of depth
Look we're going to play. Depth is going to be important for everybody. We've got guys that can play, they were ready to play tonight and we're going to have to substitute some guys. I thought Craig Smith came in and gave us a nice lift, it felt like we needed some beef in there. He came in and gave us a nice lift. He also can give us an offensive presence in the post. We made a sub, we liked the combination of Craig and Kurt and I thought that that group gave us some solid minutes.
Big lineup in fourth
I thought guys looked a little fatigued. I thought Raymond got a little tired, turned the ball over a couple of times. Crawford had a bounce. His shot wasn't falling but he had a bounce. We wanted to keep that tempo fast. I thought his defense was solid and we can run pretty much the same sets with Crawford or Raymond in the game. Nicolas was at the two with Wesley, who hurt his back, so that allowed Nicolas to play the two with Gerald, Camby and LaMarcus. That's a long, athletic team that should be able to defend as well as run.
Would you go to that lineup even if Wesley was healthy?
We've got that option. We'll see.
Better down the stretch than against the 76ers
Each night our goal is to improve on areas that we've had a weakness in or we didn't play well. I thought tonight we kind of had to slug it out the first half. The second half, we established ourselves defensively. I thought we kind of wore them down. Offensively that led to us getting out and running.
Nicolas into the game later in the first quarter. Function of Gerald playing well or match-ups or?
Gerald was playing well.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter