Portland Trail Blazers Down the Denver Nuggets as Bench Plays Stotts Ball

Christian Petersen - Getty Images

The Blazers do everything they can to lose the game in the first quarter then surprise the Nuggets with energy off the bench.

The short-handed Blazers downed the short-handed Nuggets tonight in a game that looked lost in the first quarter then came swinging back Portland's way in the final three.

You can find a game recap by clicking here.

Hands down, the most surprising aspect of this game was the deep bench players. Starters on both sides played either limited or no minutes tonight. Among Portland's regulars, only Nicolas Batum reached 25 minutes. This left the deep bench players to sink or swim. Judging on talent alone, you'd predict a bunch of sinking. However the third-unit players made like the mediocre math kids who studied hard before the test and beat out the true arithmetic wizards.

Terry Stotts' schemes feel right for this team on both ends of the floor. Motion and permission to shoot suit mindset and skills on offense. Daring the other team to match long shots, jumping screens, and shuttling penetration to the side where the dribbler can be trapped...these are great defensive principles for mobile units. The catch is, these things only work if all five guys on the floor commit. Even one player not doing his job stalls the offense or leaves holes in the defense. The Blazers do not have the individual chops on either end to make up for that.

Portland's starting lineup had at least one unsure member and maybe another one or two habitually out of place. With two minutes left in the first quarter the Blazers were down big and Denver held a 12-0 edge in points in the paint. The most talented lineup also played the worst.

Then the C- students checked in. To be fair, Denver also pulled their own best players as well. Andre Miller, Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari...these guys ranged between 21 and 24 minutes. But Portland's mediocre mob buckled down and ran the game plan to perfection. The result was open threes, run-outs, two people helping on the ball most every time Denver threatened inside of 20 feet. We saw what the Terry Stotts plan was supposed to look like, and it was good.

When the starters did come back in throughout the game, they picked up the bench's energy and commitment. Lo and behold, everything went swimmingly and the Blazers cruised to a win. They didn't stop Denver in the paint, nor was their own offense mistake-free. Rather, working as a team, they slowed the Nuggets enough that three-pointers, fast breaks, and alley-oops off of halfcourt motion could make the difference.

The main questions here, besides "Wasn't that nice?", are two:

1. When will the starting lineup get with the program?

2. Will it matter against real NBA players?

Individual Notes

With Damian Lillard out for this game, attention turned to Nolan Smith, the starting point guard and potential minute-winner. The Portland broadcast crew put heavy emphasis on the door being open for Smith to prove something in this game. That lasted all of two minutes. Smith was demonstrably jumpy and nervous during his first half stint. He could have powered a mid-sized city with the static electricity his shuffling feet and arms must have been generating. He looked awful. He came back admirably in the second half, finishing the game with 8 assists and 5 rebounds to accompany 9 points on 3-11 shooting. But the game was well in hand by then and the competition less than fierce. How you rate Smith's performance will depend on your perspective coming into the game. Advocates will find redeeming qualities, critics plenty to pick on. That in itself indicates that this guy isn't yet ready to take over the reins of a team and run an offense. He needs more time, more accuracy, and more poise. More defense wouldn't hurt either.

Subbing in for the struggling Smith, Coby Karl went Gangnam Style on this game. No, he didn't bogart his way into the high rent district, nor did he traverse the court like he was riding a fake horse. Instead he was fun to watch and made a serious bid for Flavor of the Moment at point guard with 11 points on 3-4 shooting, 5 assists (including a beautiful alley-oop), 2 rebounds, and 2 steals. Can Coby Karl do it again? Can Coby Karl play point guard against stacked regular season lineups? How long do you think Gangnam Style will last? Best reaction: applaud and enjoy it every second it lasts. Coby earned another view and a few "like" buttons, that's for sure.

Wesley Matthews had one of his Hot Wesley nights, draining multiple threes and leading the team in scoring with 19.

LaMarcus Aldridge connected on a couple jumpers and looked more relaxed in the offense when shooting deep. He looked as uncomfortable as a horse in a hockey game when he initiated offense with his back to the basket though. (Yeah, I don't know either but I imagine that's pretty uncomfortable.) He ended up 7-12 on the evening with 14 points. Worthy of note: his defensive energy was pretty high tonight.

Nicolas Batum had good moments and empty moments. It wasn't his best game but he wasn't a disaster. Watching him play alongside (and against) marginal players makes you appreciate that Batum's basic game is reliable even when his numbers really aren't.

J.J. Hickson, starting once again at center, had a couple of nice jumpers and 4 rebounds in 19 minutes but interior defense isn't his thing.

Meyers Leonard made like he was in the dunk tank tonight, courtesy of some nifty guard passing. He also had a couple of blocks. When he connects on a play he looks beautiful. There's still so much unformed play going on, though: 3 turnovers, shaky rebounding, missed assignments. At least he only had 2 fouls tonight. Leonard is the quintessential player you root hard for but don't depend on right now. Baby steps.

By contrast Joel Freeland played solidly on defense, rebounded incredibly (8 in 20 minutes), and looked like he was hitting the right spots on almost every play. He just couldn't hit a shot (1-6 on the evening) and committed 4 turnovers trying to make not-very-likely stuff happen on offense.

Will Barton made his debut in front of the home crowd an active one. By "active" we mean 4 rebounds, plenty of running, and locking in on shot attempts that he just wasn't going to let go of. He ended up 1-5 for 3 points, but the kid has determination. He looks like he belongs on a basketball court too.

Looking less so is Adam Morrison. He hit a bail-out three-pointer but that was his only marked contribution on the night. Ammo started out the pre-season looking like the only guy at the far end of the bench who knew how to play. Those days seem long ago now.

By contrast, hello Victor Claver! The sizzling Spaniard showed off his handles caliente tonight, getting out of jams and finding shots of his own volition. He shot 3-7 from distance, 4-8 overall, accumulating 13 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists in 13 minutes. Every time he's on the floor I notice how much he moves on defense. He could have a decent defensive body as well. This guy is still a ways from playing, but... hmmmmm... maybe someday?

Luke Babbitt hit 2-2 beyond the arc tonight. Good sign.

Jarred Jeffries and Sasha Pavlovic were OK.

Of note:

  • 31 of Portland's 84 shots came from beyond the arc tonight. Fortunately the Blazers made 42% of those.
  • The Nuggets doubled up the Blazers in free throw attempts, 31-15.
  • Rebounds stayed even, a critical point for the Blazers.
  • Portland's fast break attack was also in full swing, another essential piece of the platform.
  • The Blazers held Denver to 38% shooting. That's an impressive number no matter who was wearing those other uniforms.

--Dave (blazersub@gmail.com)

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