The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Phoenix Suns, 109-71, at the Rose Garden on Friday night to improve to 12-8 on the season.
You would be right to feel an obvious sense of deja vu after this one because the same basic formula that secured fairly simple victories over the Sacramento Kings and Memphis Grizzlies produced a complete blowout third win of the week against the Suns.
What do I mean by same basic formula? Well, Portland was tied after one against Sacramento, tied after one against Memphis and down three after one to Phoenix. After those 12 minute grace periods that have been dotted with sloppy and/or low energy play, Portland has kicked things from first into sixth gear during the second and third quarters, relying on its defensive energy to hold opponents to uber-low point totals and exploiting its available offensive mismatches to ruthless effect.
The at-home numbers, added up, are fairly stunning. In this week's three home wins, Portland won second quarters by an average of 27 to 15 and won third quarters by an average of 28-14. Add up all six of those quarters and the damage was 155-87. In other words, in the deciding stages of games that began relatively even, Portland has nearly doubled its opponents this week. What's more, in three of those six quarters, they held opponents to 13 points or less, including an atrocious 9-point second quarter by the Suns on Friday night. That's insurmountable.
And it's exactly the kind of play that will lead a player of Grant Hill's stature to say afterwards, according to Sean Meagher of OregonLive.com: "We kind of folded. We stopped competing there as soon as they came out and hit us hard."
The only meaningful new development from this game was Blazers coach Nate McMillan's insertion of Nicolas Batum as the first substitute off the bench in place of Wesley Matthews, who missed his first three shots. The effect wasn't immediate, but as Jamal Crawford checked in and the quintet of Crawford/ Batum /Gerald Wallace/LaMarcus Aldridge and Marcus Camby got some time together, this game turned from a back-and-forth affair into a beat down.
It's a lineup that we saw late in games a few times early in the season, one that's extremely long defensively and one that puts four of Portland's strongest offensive weapons -- Aldridge, Wallace, Batum's 3-point shooting and Crawford's shot creation -- on the court at the same time.
"Just thinking about my rotation," McMillan said of the change. "You're trying to rotate 10 guys. I wanted to shorten that rotation, I want to see Nic and Gerald on the floor at the same time. That lineup has been pretty good for us at times. Whether Nic is at the 2 or the 3 and Gerald is at the 3 or the 4."
I mentioned in the Kings Media Row Report earlier this year that I don't mind the score-first Crawford in that ball-handling role late in games, and that's especially true if starting point guard Raymond Felton is on the fritz, as he often has been this year. The plan, in those situations when Crawford is needed at the one, is to simplify everything into a two-man game with Aldridge and make reads from there. I'm not sure that there's a more efficient way for this specific roster to play offensively over the course of a large number of possessions, at least in a halfcourt setting.
On Friday night, we saw the group at just about full tilt on both sides.
Offensively, it's not all that reasonable to expect these results on a regular basis, given the numbers posted. Crawford had 10 assists, the most he has had in a regular season game since February 2007. (Pause to chuckle. That's pretty hilarious.)
"Some games I'm going to score more, but tonight I thought it was one where I needed to get my teammates involved and dictate the flow that way," Crawford said. "We saw something with the pick and roll, we were able to get pretty much whatever we wanted that way."
Aldridge, who had 17 first half points on just 10 shots, was the major beneficiary. He finished with 23 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists on 10-for-16 shooting in 32 minutes.
"I knew he could pass," Aldridge said, when asked what came over the shoot-first Crawford.
"In his [charity] game I helped him get 40 points passing," Crawford made sure to interject, before Aldridge could go any further.
Defensively, the group totally dismantled a Suns team that made just four field goals in the entire second quarter. McMillan pointed to Batum's ball pressure on Suns guard Steve Nash as the key.
"It starts with the pressure on the ball," he said. I thought it started with Raymond picking up full court and then when Nic came in, as opposed to having Crawford up there, we went with Nic on the ball. I thought tonight he played Nash as well as he's played him in the last few years."
Nash finished with just 5 points and 7 assists on 2-for-7 shooting in 24 minutes, sitting for a huge stretch of the second half because the game was out of reach.
The group's play was good by itself, but particularly good in comparison to the opening stretch, which saw Felton shoot 1-for-3 and commit 3 turnovers in the first 7 minutes of the game. He really front-loads and back-loads the bone-headed decisions, and it's a minor miracle the Rose Garden hasn't turned on him yet with some of these lackadaisical and ill-advised perimeter passes.
For the record, Portland was down 15-12 when Felton checked out at roughly the five minute mark of the first quarter and was up 42-32 when he finally came back 4 minutes left in the second quarter. That 30-17 push changed the game. He promptly committed a senseless charge almost immediately upon re-entry. The only available response to that type of play, as discussed after he bottomed out against the New Orleans Hornets, is to cut his minutes and his ball-handling duties, and that's what happened Friday.
If it has worked in the fourth quarter before, why not try it in the first?
From there, it kept escalating quickly. Matthews hit four third quarter 3-pointers, Wallace harassed everyone in sight, Camby snared 20 rebounds and Brick got crazy and broke out the trident, and, before you know it, the deep reserves were in to mop up the blood.
Random Game Notes
- Jamal Crawford on Steve Nash: "He's like the Tom Brady of point guards. He's so smart, he's seen every defense. He picks it apart."
- Suns guard Sebastian Telfair wound up getting ejected with less than 10 seconds remaining in what wound up being a 38-point blowout. That's not easy. Mild-mannered Blazers guard Nolan Smith, who was whistled for a double technical with Telfair on one of the exchanges, explained that his ball pressure defense annoyed Telfair: "Times get chippy... Attitudes are flaring, of course when I get in and Elliot and us get in we're going to play hard. Get after you, get under you, and they didn't like that... It happens. He plays hard, some words were said, it happens... He had already been kind of mad the whole game. I think he did some things to Nic earlier and was kind of pushing everybody around. When I got in, he didn't still want to be pushed around."
- Markieff Morris is kind of short.
- Detroit Lions defensive lineman, former Grant High standout, terrible automobile operator and spastic leg patient Ndamukong Suh attended Friday night's game.
- Nice to see a Chris Johnson cameo. Big dunk (and a bizarre technical foul).
- Elliot Williams' stepback jumper was a thing of beauty. A little taste of the vertical on his dunk, too.
- The Blazers were unanimous in looking forward to two days without a game. An autograph session for season ticketholders cuts into the off day on Saturday though.
- Felton's pre-game song choice was "Nothin" by Young Jeezy, not to be confused with "Nothin" by His Three-Point Percentage.
- I had the pleasure of moderating a panel at the 2012 Sports and Entertainment Law Conference hosted by the University of Oregon's Law School. One of the panelists was a law professor at Pepperdine who proudly noted that former Blazers GM Rich Cho was a Pepperdine Law alum. I learned two things from the experience: 1) NCAA lawyers definitely don't think "amateur" athletes should be paid, not even one penny more than their scholarship, regardless of how many millions their coach makes or how many billions the television deals are worth and 2) there is not a shortage of lawyers-in-training who also happen to self-identify as aspiring Blazers GMs. So, Paul Allen, good news: continue with the firing spree without a second thought. The 2018ish basketball operations executive class looks to be one of the deepest in years. Thanks to Blaine and Matt for the invite and to the Blazersedge readers who said hello before immediately goading me into talking trash about LeBron James. Those dang lawyers. A crafty lot.
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
The full game from everyone that you were looking for
It was tonight. I thought from start to finish our effort was good. I thought the pressure defensively was good on the ball. There wasn't a drop off when we made substitutions. It seemed like we got stronger when the quarters went on. In the second quarter we hold them to nine points and in the third quarter we come out and jump on them again and hold them to 12. This is what we're looking for from our guys. Everybody played well both ends of the floor. The defense was, I thought we disrupted, we rebounded which led to some easy baskets and put us in rhythm.
Put in Batum and Crawford in the first quarter and go on run
Just thinking about my rotation. You're trying to rotate 10 guys. I wanted to shorten that rotation, I want to see Nic and Gerald on the floor at the same time. That lineup has been pretty good for us at times. Whether Nic is at the 2 or the 3 and Gerald is at the 3 or the 4. But getting those guys out there. Nic I thought really was solid on the ball tonight guarding Nash and making him work.
What changed defensively in the second and third quarters
It starts with the pressure on the ball. I thought it started with Raymond picking up full court and then when Nic came in as opposed to having Crawford up there we went with Nic on the ball. I thought tonight he played Nash as well as he's played him in the last few years. That's where it starts, on the ball, weakside was good. Camby, again, dominating the boards, which led to 22 turnovers which led to 24 points. If you can force teams into turnovers you should get some easy baskets.
Wesley Matthews got hot in the third quarter
I firmly believe that defense gets you moving. Guys tend to play in a better flow when they are playing defense. The unfortunate part about it, a lot of guys want to see that ball go in the basket before they start playing defense. Tonight he came out and worked. He took his shot when it was there and didn't hesitate. He was looking for it and shot it with confidence and it was good to see the ball go in the hole for him. He can shoot the ball and tonight he didn't hesitate.
Home versus road. How do you carry over?
Now we have to think about that. You look at this team tonight, look at Phoenix. Perfect example. They didn't play last night, they came in and were rested but they do have a back-to-back tomorrow night. They looked like we did when we went to Phoenix. What's going on? I think crowds at your home court motivates you and brings energy to the building. We have to find a way to create our own energy on the road.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter