In a Nutshell
After riding their starting forwards for the first two games of the season the Blazers finally come up aces with all of their wings and point guards, pouring in jumper after jumper down the stretch while the Nuggets miss repeated replies. Portland finds a different template and still comes out with the win.
The first quarter of this game was an unmitigated disaster for the Denver Nuggets. Almost everything that could go wrong, did. They missed 6 layups in the period plus every three-pointer they shot. Those jumpers were so far off that Coach George Karl was offering his guards coke-bottle spectacles during timeouts. Fouls went against them. Starting center Timofey Mozgov picked up three instant whistles, 2.5 of those cheap. Point guard Ty Lawson earned two. Nene Hilario, to this point in the season doing a decent impression of an All-Star, went 2-7 from the field, missing shots he could hit blindfolded. The only thing going Denver's way was Portland's propensity to turn over the ball...again and again and again and again. That uncharacteristic custodianship didn't cost Portland much, though. The Blazers romped their way inside on multiple occasions, not even minding the deep jumpers they missed. Taking full advantage of Denver's Oh-So-Very-Bad-Night Portland led 30-17 coming out of the first quarter.
In the first two games of the season this is exactly where we've uttered the fateful line: "And then the bench came in." Not so tonight, because it didn't. Portland substituted, but no further down the rotation than Kurt Thomas. And Thomas played only 12 minutes all game. Jamal Crawford and Nicolas Batum were the only reserves granted minutes besides KT in a lineup that went eight deep and stopped. As a result we didn't see the grand collapse that marred Portland's previous outings.
As it turned out, though, the end result was the same. All it took was Marcus Camby finding the pines and all of a sudden Denver's small lineup--featuring liberal doses of Ty Lawson, Andre Miller, and Rudy Fernandez--found the lane again and again. They didn't need to hit jumpers because every shot in the paint came easy. Two things are supposed to happen when the opponent goes small. They're never supposed to see the rim. You're also supposed to find a size mismatch and exploit it, preferably inside. The Blazers couldn't do either...not a surprise if you've seen their games so far this year. Lawson and Miller led the charge, taking serious advantage of Raymond Felton in the process. Portland was saved by points from Crawford and some masterful, game-altering defense by Batum. Even a superhuman effort from the Frenchman was only enough to preserve a tie at the half as Portland's lead leaked all over the Rose Garden floor and the teams went to the break tied at 53.
The third quarter started in see-saw fashion but the pendulum started tilting towards Denver as they scored in the paint and on the foul line while the Blazers continued to work the perimeter. Then Wesley Matthews stepped to the fore. He uncorked 4 three-pointers in 3 minutes of the quarter, all on nifty set-up passes from his teammates. That seemed to relax all the Blazer shooters while making the Nuggets scramble even more. Felton also splashed a three and then the middle opened up for layups and dunks by Wallace and Aldridge. Denver fought back but momentum was headed Portland's way and the Rose Garden was rocking. The Blazers led 83-79 after three.
The fourth quarter was another see-saw affair with the Blazers again hamstrung by turnovers. They bailed themselves out with excellent interior defense, forcing the Nuggets into a perimeter battle. Crawford stepped up to make sure Portland won that contest. Nobody from Denver's side could answer with any consistency as their night-long shooting woes hogged the stage, taking an extra bow. Matthews received a curtail call as well, hitting a couple more shots. Felton mopped up the stage at the end with insurance drives. When the show was done Portland had managed a 13-4 run to close the game and walked away with a 111-102 victory against a hard-fighting opponent.
Seeing Portland win on a night when they made turnovers and the opponent didn't was impressive. One of the main planks of the victory formula went awry there. Aldridge not hitting anything robbed the Blazers of another security blanket. When Denver started feasting on the Camby-less lineup things could have gotten ugly. Instead everyone else stepped up their defense through the second half and the perimeter shooters finally decided to hit some shots.
Observant folks should notice how the Blazers used Matthews on offense tonight when he went off. No putting the ball in his hands and clearing out. Not even really screens off the dribble. Instead threaten with penetration, toss it out, and give the dude a huge green light. Matthews scored inside as well but his best buckets came off of cuts where he received the ball and laid it in without having to invent fancy moves. Smart, winning teams know how to use a player like that to open the floor and make life easier even if that player isn't wielding the ball like Dwyane Wade. The Spurs would do the same thing. The Lakers would do the same thing. Let the Blazers learn to to the same thing!
One part of Portland's winning formula that did come through was rebounding. Denver had but 3 offensive rebounds tonight. Obviously the Nuggets missed more shots but a 50-30 overall rebounding advantage is nothing to sneeze at. The Blazers didn't open the door for Denver...important in a close game.
Even with the win the Blazers had to overcome a serious interior scoring advantage. Denver outscored Portland in the paint 54-40 and ended up with 33 free throw attempts to Portland's 23. The bright sunshine is that the Blazers found a way to win and did it with great team play on both ends. Resolve and derring-do should not be discounted. The rain cloud is that this kind of strategy isn't repeatable. The Blazers will lose 2 out of every 3 games where those scoring numbers hold true.
That said, the point is that they didn't lose tonight!
Aldridge's 6-14, 13 point performance seems muted and it was a bit. Denver is athletic enough to cause him trouble whether defending one-on-one with Nene or sending extra men. However Aldridge's 6 assists (with only 2 turnovers) tell you that he wasn't retreating from this game even though he rushed and/or missed some shots because of pressure. He did the right thing with the ball, giving his teammates a chance to come through and help him out. They responded well. This night was fine for LMA.
Wallace's 5-7, 13 point performance also looks less impressive than earlier outings but he was all over the floor helping with that great defense we talked about. He neither forced nor missed shots, nor did his lesser number of attempts cause him to bail on the other aspects of his game. He was among the Blazers' only credible inside threats as well. Also a fine night.
Have we mentioned that Marcus Camby is important to this squad? No matter who else comes into the game, the opponent makes up ground when he's missing from the lineup. Camby notched 12 rebounds and 3 blocks in 26 minutes tonight.
Wesley Matthews had a team-high 25 points on 9-15 shooting, 5-8 from distance. It felt good to see him go off finally. Hopefully this will loosen him up from beyond the arc. Those shots certainly make life easier for the Blazers. His defense was good as always...great night.
The news for Raymond Felton trends upward but is slightly mixed. To the good he scored consistently, put in 23 on 10-16 shooting, dished 6 assists, and added 5 rebounds. Those are star-level numbers. He made Denver pay again and again. The mixed part comes on defense. When the Nuggets did find success inside it was largely off of him letting somebody (usually Lawson) loose. Lawson makes a lot of people look bad. Felton was definitely among them tonight. At least he got his back though.
Jamal Crawford did what he was supposed to do. He shot 6-16 and provided an offensive threat when LaMarcus wasn't in or wasn't free. He had 22 points and 5 rebounds, marred by 6 turnovers. It seems Crawford gets in a little bit of trouble when he tries to go beyond his comfort zone...that being scoring. The good news: he's in this lineup to score.
Nicolas Batum went 1-6 for 6 points with 6 rebounds and 4 turnovers in 21 minutes but forget those scoring numbers. When the Nuggets looked like they were running the metaphorical game-controlling ball back for a touchdown in the second quarter Batum chased them down and made the tackle at the 25-yard line, holding them to a field goal. He had 4 blocks on the evening, catching them from behind again and again, preventing easy scores. He was all over the defensive end every minute he was in the game. This was one heck of a night for him.
Kurt Thomas contributed to the Blazers' consistently good rebounding, grabbing 6 boards in the 12 minutes he played. He also hit all three of his field goal attempts for 7 points.
Fun Stats of the Night
Besides the ones mentioned above...
- Blazers 41-79 overall for 52% shooting, 8-20 from distance for 40%, 21-23 from the foul line. That was some sweet marksmanship all around.
- Blazers 25 turnovers, Nuggets 10. Holy inversion, Batman! The 16-3 steal differential had a little something to do with that...
- Blazers put 3 players over 20 points and none of them were named Aldridge or Wallace.
- Blazers 9 blocked shots. Blocks can be overrated but in this case those prevented easy points which would have greased the momentum wheel for Denver. The Nuggets never got more than 4 points ahead no matter how well they played in part because the Blazers just kept making save after save.
- Denver's guards scored well enough but their two main forwards--answers to Aldridge and Wallace--had nights just as muted as the Blazers' stalwarts. Nene shot 4-12 for 10 points, Danilo Gallinari 4-16 for 16.
- Credit Portland's team defense and Denver's crippling inability to hit open threes for Denver's 40% overall shooting percentage. The Blazers dove down and dared them to hit and they couldn't.
- The new Rudy Fernandez looked a lot like the old Rudy Fernandez: nice hustle at times but 2-8 shooting, 1-5 from the arc, 7 points, 2 rebounds, and a steal in 22 minutes. Andre Miller had 13 points and 8 assists on 4-13 shooting in 35 minutes. That was more or less Portland-esque as well, except he usually won doing that in Portland.
This was a very good win and a fun game to watch. The intensity wasn't quite there but it looked like a late-season battle for playoff seeding more than the third game of the season. Credit both teams for being entertaining and skilled. NBA basketball can be pretty good sometimes!
See how good they think it was at DenverStiffs.
Check out the Nuggets vs Trail Blazers boxscore if you wish.