Steve Dykes-US PRESSWIRE
Nicolas Batum and Damian Lillard lead the Blazers in a systematic dismantling of the Jazz.
You can read a quarter-by-quarter recap of this game with boxscore by clicking here.
In the preview for this contest we posited that this would be a Final Exam of sorts for the pre-season Blazers. Thursday's game in Utah, the last before the regular season starts, is likely to be loopy. This was the chance to see if the Blazers could put all the lessons together and play Terry Stotts basketball against a pretty good team.
On that basis you have to give Portland an A+ for the night. The experiment was scuttled just a bit when LaMarcus Aldridge got scratched for rest, but the Blazers--as has been their wont so far--played more within the system as their overall talent decreased. They forced the Jazz to play neo-Portland basketball. The floor opened up as the Blazers shot 80% in the first period. The deep jumpers--falling like a sweet Portland shower--spread Utah's defense. The Jazz had a huge theoretical advantage inside, especially with Aldridge absent. "Big" turned into "slow" pretty quickly once that offensive space opened up. All of a sudden Utah couldn't rotate against Portland drivers because they were busy shadowing jump shooters. When even the halfcourt penetration attack is working, Portland is in business. Business also picked up in transition as the Blazers gang-rebounded well enough to keep the break attack alive. Long story short, despite shooting 50% and mountain a garbage-time flurry the Jazz never threatened the gap. Portland got to play free and easy, showing off everything they are hoping to be.
We don't need to belabor that this won't happen every night. The heavy doses of zone the Blazers employed early won't work during the regular season. Neither will they be able to rebound in that kind of scheme. The shots won't fall this way every night. Getting outscored by 20 in the paint and committing 25 turnovers tells you that those shots have to fall in order to give the Blazers this kind of victory. But that's not important right now.
The enduring lesson here--for players, coaches, and fans--is that this system can work...maybe even that it will work as well as anything else would, for now. It's likely that the crush of November and December will have heads hanging around Blazer Nation by January. Saying that for every cold night there will be a hot one would be disingenuous. But there will be games like this. Some nights are just going to be running, jumping, dunking, swishing fun. That should be enough to keep players growing and fans engaged: the dual targets of this season. Every gritty, hustling effort that gets rewarded by a smashing victory reinforces the feedback loop that this young team needs.
This game wasn't really about individual revelations, but here are the ones of note.
Nicolas Batum looked brilliant on offense, mixing up drives with long jumpers. He had his confidence cranked to 11 tonight. Part of that was success working off of screens, which will be a key to his long-term production. Unless the field ahead is open and a relatively straight-line available he's still not great off the dribble. He misses shots if he has to put the ball on the floor first. But when he catches and shoots off of team motion or when a screen clears that field, he looks incredible.
Wesley Matthews had some nice drives tonight. Again the key is opening the floor via made shots or screens, then him being able to go relatively straight. He's obviously worked on his finish at the hoop. It looks much better than last season.
Damian Lillard joins the chorus of players opening up the floor with his jumper. His step-back shooting tonight was worthy of a white hat in any Western. Steve Smith made a living off of "step back and I'll trey it, step up and I'll lay it". Lillard managed the first part in spades and made some nifty passes otherwise. Every good game from him is reassuring because we haven't seen him go up and down like the veteran wings around him. The sooner he gets good consistently the happier the Blazers will be.
J.J. Hickson had a great night all-around, particularly on offense. He looked good inside on offense and looked decent defensively as well. The catch? J.J. Hickson was playing power forward tonight, guarding power forwards in his best defensive moments. This is his position.
Two bench players stood out tonight, Joel Freeland and Coby Karl. Freeland finally discovered the range on his shot, making his whole game look better. The caveats were a lack of rebounding plus 6 personal fouls, but you have to like his ability to find open space on offense and his ability to close it on defense. Karl's stint was brief but the Blazers prospered with his passing. You have to be careful with casual impressions because scouts see different things than fans do. But the Blazers could use another guy who could play a little point in reserve and Karl appears to have horse sense. It'll be interesting to see if he could sneak onto this roster as a third point.
Luke Babbitt hit a couple threes in 11 minutes but then missed three as he got excited. He probably didn't hurt or help himself tonight.
Victor Claver ran around as usual. He didn't show up in the stats much but watching him play is never boring...at least in pre-season.
Meyers Leonard had 8 points on 2-3 shooting. He didn't get really strong looks inside against Utah's bigs. He did earn 6 personal fouls. Gotta slow that roll with the refs.
Adam Morrison got a long look with 19 minutes played but he didn't do anything to change people's minds about him. If you sorta liked him before, you still will. Sorta liking a reserve small forward isn't enough to get him on this team though.
Nolan Smith, Will Barton, and Sasha Pavlovic got DNP's, likely for different reasons. Smith wasn't making use of his minutes, Barton is too far away from contributing to get any in Game 6, and Pavlovic has already shown what he can do.
SLCDunk will have the other side of this story.
I hope everybody will enjoy the afterglow of the victory and seeing what these guys can do when things roll right! We'll see what the Jazz do in the pre-season finale on Thursday. We'll have more on this game tonight and a wrap-up of the pre-season, including all the lessons learned, as the week concludes.