For the second time in a week, the Portland Trail Blazers defeated a top six team in the NBA, downing the Chicago Bulls 109-103 at the Rose Garden on Monday night. For the second time in a week, Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge set a career-high, tallying 42 points to break his week-old mark of 40 points, set against the San Antonio Spurs last Monday.
Second times are so much different. When you don't know you are capable of doing something and then you do it, you react one way. When you do virtually the same exact thing, but you have done it before, you react totally differently. Call it confidence or experience or personal growth, whatever you want to call it, that was the striking thing tonight: It wasn't shock bubbles in the Rose Garden like last week. It was just how things are getting done.
For Aldridge, who had another textbook efficiency night -- shooting 15-23 from the field, getting to the line a season-high 14 times and adding eight rebounds, two blocks and an assist on top of his 42 points, 13 (!) of which came in the fourth quarter -- the aftermath wasn't delighted, drunk surprise like last week. It was strictly business, no basking. It was inching closer to routine, or as routine as 42 and 8 on the league's most efficient defense can get.
There was no glowing about a coach's recognition; It was back to the credit-deferring cliches. "Dre, he's a great decision-maker," Aldridge explained. "He was making his shot, giving me passes for easy shots for me to finish. Dre made all of that happen tonight."
The mention of Aldridge's and Miller's foul shooting leads to a bit of a sidebar, but it's worth noting.
Back on Dec. 7, Portland went 32-33 from the foul line against the Phoenix Suns, marking, as I noted at the time, one of the greatest free throw shooting performances for the team over the last 20 years. Again tonight, Portland found a way to be randomly historic, hitting 37-40 as a team from the charity stripe. Surveying Basketball-Reference's game finder, we find only one other time Portland has made at least 37 free throws and missed three or less dating back to 1986-1987: a 1990 game against the Charlotte Hornets, when they also finished 37-40. So while the last two months or so have seen a half-decade's full of brickfests from the field, they've also produced two relatively historic nights from the free throw line.
I guess it's just completely-all-or-literally-nothing with this team.
When it's on with this group, though, it's on. Monday was highlighted by some seriously fun small ball, as Blazers coach Nate McMillan finally used Nicolas Batum (12 points, five rebounds, three assists, one steal) at the four position. It's something he has talked about for more than a year, but his hand was forced given Dante Cunningham's absence due to an eye injury. In the new role, Batum was excellent on both ends, working hard to establish position on the boards, muscling with much bigger defenders throughout the stretches and using his speed to run off of screens and exploit the mismatch on the offensive end. All of this after he opened the game guarding Chicago's All-Star point guard, Derrick Rose.
"Tonight I guarded everybody," Batum told me. "D Rose, Deng, Korver, Thomas, Boozer, I guarded everybody. [Without Cunningham] I knew I was going to play a lot inside. A guy like Thomas, sometimes Boozer, Gibson, you've got to play smart. I'm pretty quick, I'm faster than them, so I've got to stay in front of them, deny them the ball, I think I did a pretty good job tonight because they're strong inside, trust me."
Asked if he takes pride away from a versatile defensive performance like other players might from a 30-point scoring night, Batum said excitedly, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I can guard almost anybody, that's a good strength for me."
The defensive effort, as a whole, was a big strength for Portland tonight, given that only six guys saw meaningful playing time. The Bulls are talented, physical and smart; that just six players carried Portland through all of that is both surprising and impressive.
But this felt a bit like one of those "jump on them at home" games, where one squad is clearly the aggressor and starts a pattern of getting whistles early that becomes extremely difficult to overcome late. Throw on top multiple lobs to Aldridge and him committing zero turnovers in 43 minutes, and "extremely difficult" becomes "next to impossible."
The only question left to debate after tonight: Which Aldridge performance was better, San Antonio or Chicago? After the first time, there was no such question. Like I said, second times are so much different.
Random Game Notes
- The latest on Blazers guard Brandon Roy's return to the court.
- In a quote that was delivered to a group of reporters that has already caused a bit of a stir, Joe Freeman of The Oregonian has Nicolas Batum on Derrick Rose's defense: "We know that Derrick Rose is a good offensive player. But you have to play defense, too. He can't guard Dre. You gotta play defense. He can't play defense... so that's why we put Dre inside and try to attack him."
- For what it's worth. here's what Batum told me about Rose's offensive game: "I'm impressed by his jump shot. His first two years, if you guard D. Rose you just stand back and let him shoot it. Now he proves it a lot with his jump shots, makes it so difficult to guard him. Because now if you step back he makes everything, and going to the rim, he's too fast."
- A great stat from Blazers stat guy Aaron Grossman: "Aldridge is the first Trail Blazer to score 40 points in consecutive home games since Clyde Drexler did so April 21 and 23, 1989."
- Euphoric game-closing scene for Aldridge at the free throw line. Here's video.
- Things crossed over into alternate universe when the PA announcer shouted "LaMarcus All-Star!!!!" given what happened with the, um, actually All-Star selections. Great play can be celebrated and honored without what came off as backwards-looking campaigning. Let the fans with signs (there were plenty of them!) handle that message. Or, you know, let his teammates, like Marcus Camby, who tweeted, "Congrats to my lil bro @aldridge_12 on his career high 2nite, LaMarcus Allstaridge auhhhhh!" Awesome to see that nickname spreading.
- Seeing this Derrick Rose spin move was one of the more breathtaking plays I can remember in person. Immediately upon that video hitting Twitter, the calls for a "carry" came flying in. That was the kind of move that gives you empathy for the referees: way too fast, way too amazing and way too much like what you see in video games to distinguish what's actually happening and how it might apply to a rule book.
- If we're going on impression left by Rose Garden performances only: Rose is an excellent player but not a top-tier MVP candidate. Yes, I can write that straight-faced after he put up 36 points and six assists.
- With that said, the Blazers did throw the kitchen sink and more at him. Batum, Matthews, and Miller plus multiple zones. It's got to be nice to have a few of his former assistant coaches to help prepare that game plan.
- A guy walks into a bar and ... an all-male a cappella group covered Rihanna at halftime. Specialty earplugs should have been sold in the fan shop with half of the proceeds going to charity.
- Speaking of halftime, on Super Bowl Sunday we all witnessed Will.I.Am turn the corner into Will.I.Was. Brutal.
- Sean Marks highlight of the night: The one hand fist raise from the bench after a second-half Aldridge dunk. Like his hand was a cigarette lighter paying silent tribute.
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
It was a gut check for our group tonight. Again, being short-handed with Dante not being able to go, we had to step in and play some different roles and I thought our guys... Chicago is a good team, very physical team defensively, I thought we did a good job of establishing deep post position with LaMarcus, playing out of the post with LaMarcus. Miller. We had to change up our defense on Rose to try to give him some different looks, mix in a zone. Big win for us tonight. Good win for us.
Andre has been playing like this since coming here. It seems like as he gets deeper into the season, he gets conditioning, he starts to just play good basketball. We wanted to post Rose and make him work, so the game plan was to go through LaMarcus, go through Miller and make Rose work defensively. I thought he did a good job.
Hey, get to the free throw line 40 times, we always want to win the free throw line. That shows that a team is aggressive. LA attacking, all of our guys, Wesley, Rudy, transition was really good. That small lineup, after watching Golden State and without Dante tonight I felt like we could get something out of Nicolas at that four and that really worked out for us.
Six man rotation
Nine. Babbitt played three minutes. Marks played a great four minutes. Hey, that was good. I thought we needed to try to keep a rhythm. Those guys came in and gave us short minutes but important minutes.
He was great. Going up against Boozer tonight, we started him on him defensively, I thought he was patient in the post. Making good decisions. We did some good things against Cleveland and I thought that carried over into tonight's game with our spacing and our ball movement.
Brandon Roy's return?
Brandon and Camby have decided when they are coming back, so as far as talking with Jay and the doctors we have these couple of days where we are going to practice. I'll see if these guys show up for practice and we'll go from there. As far as them playing this weekend, that hasn't been decided by us.
Message to players
I thought they did a great job, once again, of adjusting. Being without Dante in that rotation, Nicolas having to play some four, some power forward tonight, Babbitt and Sean and Patty stepping in and giving minutes. Miller and LaMarcus, Wesley, all of these guys playing heavy minutes and having to really reach down deep to play against a very good team. That's what it's all about. We've got to step up in situations like this and I think they did.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter