The Portland Trail Blazers had to win and they did, dropping the Dallas Mavericks 97-92 in the Rose Garden on Thursday night. Portland stuck to form in one important way, and it was enough to cut Dallas's lead in their first round playoff series to 2-1.
Thursday morning I looked at a key driver for Portland's potential success against Western Conference: turnover differential. As a refresher...
The Blazers went 7-0 in their final seven home games against Western Conference playoff teams. In those games, Portland won by an average margin of five points, yet shot the same field goal percentage (46%) as their opponents, shot worse from the three-point line (35.8% to 38.5%) and averaged just two more trips to the free throw line. Was this a matter of Portland's vaunted offensive rebounding carrying the day? Nope. The Blazers were out-rebounded, on average, 41-38 and gave up more offensive rebounds than they corralled.
So if the Blazers were shooting worse, rebounding less and getting to the free throw line just two extra times per game, how did they manage to win all seven games by such a wide margin? Turnovers.
Portland's slow-down pace and focus on ball control gave Portland a +2.6 turnover differential on the season (Portland averaged 12.4 turnovers while its opponents averaged 15.0). During that closing 7-0 stretch, that already strong differential doubled to +5.2 (Portland averaged 9.4 turnovers while its opponents averaged 14.6).
Thursday's boxscore fit that mold to a T. Dallas shot better from the field (51.5% to 48.0%), made one more three-pointer, took two more free throws and secured exactly the same number of rebounds as Portland on both the offensive and defensive ends.
Yet Portland won by five. That was their exact margin of victory over those previous seven home games. How did they do it? The same way they've been doing it. By forcing Dallas into 16 turnovers and winning the turnover differential by seven.
It's not often I stumble upon a statistical nugget that Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus hasn't already unearthed. When it happens I have to let him know about it... and know about it... and know about it. As Dallas started sloppy early, I made a point of punching his right arm following every Mavericks turnover. As the game entered the second quarter, he became annoyed and a bit whiny, yelling things like "ow-wee" and "I've getting a boo boo on my arm arm", the types of things that sound totally normal in your head when you talk to your cats all day instead of real humans. As the turnovers continued throughout the second half, started to take a perverse pleasure in the new ritual, actually pointing to his arm and then begging to be punched after a late Jason Terry miscue.
Punch him I did for the 16th and final time, one last, enthusiastic thump as an exclamation point on a stressful night at the Rose Garden. Playoff tension is just so awesome.
Anyway, the turnovers, Blazers coach Nate McMillan said, were big. "They don't turn the ball over. I thought our pressure was good. It started with Wesley [Matthews] picking the ball up. Our pick and roll defense was much better tonight. Our bigs were up and being much more aggressive and at times we mixed in some traps and Dallas does a good job of taking care of the ball. Tonight we were able to force those turnovers and convert them into points."
No question there was a motivation imbalance to start the game. The Blazers had a feeling of "desperation," a word that Matthews used post-game before quickly correcting himself to say "urgency." The Mavericks, on the other hand, were loose and confident, but not in kill-mode. Dallas weathered the first Portland rush admirably and didn't really start to unravel until center Tyson Chandler found himself in foul trouble. Somewhere watching at home, Joel Przybilla started a drinking game -- take a shot every time Chandler commits a foul, chug when he scowls on his way back to the bench -- and is now really drunk and loving life. Chandler fouled out in just 15 minutes.
Portland's initial push came courtesy of Matthews, who practically refused to talk about his individual play after leading Portland with 25 points on 8-12 shooting. Thankfully, LaMarcus Aldridge was there to do it for him. "I think every game [this series] the team that's won it has had someone play really, really well," Aldridge said. "Tonight it was Wesley."
There's been so much to like about Aldridge's maturation this season but that quote is near the top. Aldridge, Matthews and everyone else with a pulse in the Rose Garden knows that the bulk of the headlines are going to Brandon Roy, who finished with 16 crucial points off the bench to help push Portland over the hump.
But it was Matthews' hot shooting that got Portland up early. 16 points in the first quarter. 22 points in the first half. Good shot selection (even including the heat checks, which you know are coming). Solid defense throughout the game on top of it. That Aldridge would single out Matthews with praise -- despite his own success on the night and the mountain of questions about Roy -- is a moment that will endure. Credit where credit is due. Recognition and rewards for those who have earned it.
Aldridge also pointed out that Matthews' outside shooting made his life easier. "They were clogging me early. His third [three] was me just giving it to him because I think in the first two games, they were just clogging, I couldn't get to the middle. Him making his shots just opened it up for everybody."
"Playing with confidence," Aldridge said of Roy's night. "I thought he had his swag back tonight. He was a little bit more loose, going through his legs more, I thought that was big for us tonight."
People care. And they want to see it at least three more times. Roy was careful to caution those present that he isn't guaranteeing a repeat of his Game 3 performance. But there's no doubt that he likes delivering.
Random Game Notes
- Here's a longer column for CBSSports.com on Brandon Roy's night.
- I had a feeling that tonight would be Rudy Fernandez's tonight. 0-2 for 0 points in 11 minutes. That feeling was pretty wrong.
- I had a feeling that tonight would be Jason Terry's night. 29 points and seven assists. That feeling was pretty right. The good news for Portland is that they were able to overcome the explosion with relative ease, as Jason Kidd, DeShawn Stevenson and J.J. Barea combined for just 14 points. The bad news is that Terry is capable of doing that again multiple times in the next four games.
- Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was in fine form. Before the game, he was getting up warm-up shots with some of his players. During the game, Cuban was yelling back and forth with the Rose Garden crowd. ESPNDallas.com reports that he was hit in the face by a "projectile."
- Chris Johnson got all sorts of post-game love from McMillan for his five minutes off the bench, including two great blocks. Be sure to check that out below.
- Such an Andre Miller night. Overlooked. (Not mentioned until the final bullet point.) 16 points and seven assists. Won the match-up with Kidd as he needed to do.
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
I thought we worked for it tonight. I thought we got the tempo we wanted. Defensively we were much more aggressive on the ball. On the pick-and-rolls. Transition was good tonight, I thought we got that tempo -- we got away from it a little bit in the second quarter -- but for the most part did a good job of keeping pressure on Dallas's defense tonight.
He talked about wanting to play and he wanted to play the last game. I thought tonight he came out, he was focused even though the comments didn't both him, he came out and he played. This is the guy we know is capable of producing and tonight he did that. I thought he did a good job of getting us into our offense. We had some match-ups where he created and produced points for us.
Closing the game
Well, Dallas is a good team. The game was looking like the last two games. We won the first quarter, lost the second and we said look, we want to win the third and the fourth. We finally was able to do that. The fourth quarter we did a better job of not allowing them to get into the penalty early. Chris Johnson basically came out and did a real nice job defensively with Camby being in foul trouble and giving us some good minutes, six or seven minutes in that fourth quarter.
Did you need that performance from Brandon?
Your key guys are going to always be a big part. You're going to need other guys to step up. We certainly need guys off the bench, Brandon, Nicolas, Rudy to be productive. But the play of Chris tonight. Barea was big for them the last game. Guys like that coming off the bench is going to be important that they play well. You know LaMarcus is going to do his thing and Miller but those guys coming off the bench will have opportunities and he was the difference tonight.
Forcing 16 turnovers
Big, because they don't turn the ball over. I thought our pressure was good. It started with Wesley picking the ball up. Our pick and roll defense was much better tonight. Our bigs were up and being much more aggressive and at times we mixed in some traps and Dallas does a good job of taking care of the ball. Tonight we were able to force those turnovers and convert them into points.
He shot the ball well last game. I thought he got a little tired our last game against Dallas. Picking up the ball but tonight for the most part he did a good job of making Kidd work and not allowing Kidd to really just walk them into their offense. We disrupted a little bit with his defense. When he locks in defensively and allows the game to come to him offensively he has been really good this year. He did a good job of spacing and making them pay when they tried to clog and double team the post.
Theatre of Brandon's moment
I said this to you guys the other day. And I'll repeat it. There's nobody in the state -- as I told Brandon -- not even Brandon Roy wants to see him out on that floor as much as I do. He's meant a lot to this organization and I certainly have not forgotten him or certainly do not disrespect ... This season, he's a guy that we are bringing along, the second half of the season and into the playoffs, trying to create this role. It's worked at times and tonight was one of those examples where we can get match-ups with Brandon. He can still produce. Tonight I thought he was solid.
Yeah. He has definitely earned the right to play some minutes. He played the last game that we played Dallas here and really gave us some good minutes so we had talked about getting him into a rotation and he did a good job on the pick and roll defense. Weakside, he came over and changed a few shots. His minutes were crucial minutes. Very important minutes that allowed us to keep Camby on the bench for a few minutes as well as give LaMarcus a breather.
Johnson was ready to play
As we tell our guys, we never know when your opportunity is going to come. All of our guys work and try to prepare themselves for the opportunity. He got his tonight and he was really good. It really helped us. We know that he was the defensive player of the year down in the D-League and tonight he played very well on the defensive end of the floor.
What dictated Brandon's playing time?
His play. As I've said before, the last game I just felt like that first unit, Miller, Wesley they had a roll. I thought Brandon had a roll or had a match-up in the first game where he played 26 or 27 minutes. He didn't score but I like the match-up that we had. The last game I liked the match-up of Wesley and Miller. Tonight it was Roy. So we got something out of that match-up and it was good. I had to sub it because he asked for a breather but we were going to ride him as long as we could.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter