Congratulations, Blazer fans! Tonight you got a chance to see nouveau Trail Blazers basketball as it was meant to be played. Better yet, you got to see it played against the Los Angeles Lakers in front of a Rose Garden seeded with semi-noisy (and no-doubt smug) Lakers fans who got to walk home in silence at the end of the game. Could you wish for a better opening night? I think not.
Of all the factors that played into this game, three stood out above all others.
1. It doesn't show in the boxscore, but the Blazers took control of this game by rebounding...by far the most surprising development of the night. Portland stood toe to toe, nose to nose with the Lakers and refused to be dominated on the glass. If anything, Portland did the dominating. This set up everything else for the Blazers. It made their defense count. It keyed the break. It set a physical tone. L.A. made up for lost time as the game closed and the final stats look like a Lakers landslide on the boards: 45-30. That happened after the game was, if not decided, at least heavily in Portland's favor.
2. The Blazers exploited speed. The first admission here is that the Lakers looked s...l...o...w. It started with Kobe and filtered down through the entire lineup. Laterally, up and down the court, L.A. trudged in mud tonight. But the Blazers could have matched them, trading blow for blow. They didn't. Portland ran, shot quickly, opened up the game. 19 fast break points, quick and decisive passes for the first three quarters, the Blazers saw weakness and exploited it.
3. Again the boxscore may claim differently, but this game belonged to Damian Lillard. His only slip-ups came as the game closed and he needed to be calmed down by his more veteran teammates in the face of Laker and game-clock pressure. Up until then this guy was brilliant. The Lakers started the game trapping him on screens, trying to get him flustered and coughing up the ball. He responded by passing through or around them, setting up LaMarcus Aldridge for an amazing first half feasting on single coverage. When the Lakers tried to guard Lillard with a single point guard he responded by getting in the lane and dishing or finishing. His fantastic early shooting was icing on the cake. L.A. thought they'd abuse the youngster and stymie Portland's attack at its source. They got schooled instead. That this guy is a rookie in his first NBA game ever makes that performance even more astounding.
Beyond that, the Blazers rode two strategies to success. First off, they clogged the lane on Dwight Howard in the first half. They routinely send two and three men after him inside. Their mission was simple: get in front of him and foul whenever necessary. Again that tricky boxscore will tell you Howard scored 33 and hit 15-19 from the foul line, which seems like a brilliant game. The foul line was literally the only place he looked brilliant in the first half. Every time he got the ball on the move it was a disaster. He fumbled it, threw awful passes, or got hacked without converting the shot. The end result was L.A. relying on jumpers for most of their non-foul-line points. That's Portland's game.
Portland played that game with success. Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews each hit early threes, opening up the court against the slow-moving defense. Having to respect the perimeter, the Lakers couldn't recover well enough to stop dribble penetration for mid-range pull-ups and the occasional flush. Howard was their only defense and he picked up fouls in the process.
This would change in the second half as Howard dominated in single coverage and Portland's advantages started to melt away, but by that time the Blazers were up 12-16 points. L.A. had neither the stamina nor the bench power to overcome the difference. When they pulled close, the Blazers streaked away with a few shots.
Some will point to Steve Nash's ankle injury as a possible cause of the loss for the Lakers. Don't let that fool you. L.A. actually took better advantage of mismatches with Nash out. Howard's field goals came with Nash off the court. Kobe saw the ball far more as well. But both Howard's and Kobe's shot attempts took time, adding slow onto slow.
A foot injury and Portland's wing defense both hampered Kobe's driving attempts, meaning his shots were over the top and contested. He made plenty, but he worked hard for those lower-percentage looks. One wonders if this part of the experiment will be repeatable. Were I the Lakers I'd come into the next game against Portland with a fairly simple game plan: feed Howard early each quarter until Portland had four team fouls, then give the ball to Kobe and let him drive repeatedly for endless foul shots. That didn't happen tonight, though.
Considering their relative inexperience and the talent across the floor from them, this has to be considered a near-perfect night for the Blazers. Credit goes to the coaching staff for taking the right risks and to the players for committing to execution. This was one heck of a way to welcome the season.
Nicolas Batum was the high scorer for the Blazers with 26 on 9-16 shooting. 9 of his attempts were from the three-point arc, of which he made 3. More importantly he drew 7 foul shots, making 5. Those foul shots reflected his aggression on the night, appropriately noted by Portland's broadcasting crew and probably every fan in attendance at the Rose Garden. Not every shot from Batum was perfect but we saw little hesitation even on his (ahem) bolder attempts. He also translated that aggression to defense and rebounding, which is critical. He still scored in fits and starts, but having more consistency (or at least different fits and starts) on the other end made his night complete.
LaMarcus Aldridge started this game on fire. He had the jumper working early, keying off of the defensive pressure devoted to Lillard. At the beginning of the second half he came out on the left block, giving us some classic LaMarcus moments. He faded as the game closed but there's no telling if that was fatigue, the inability of Lillard to find him, or just not being needed to carry the offense with a double-digit lead. Time will tell. LaMarcus wasn't the most obvious guy out there tonight but he was critical.
Damian Lillard...what more can you say? 23 points on 7-17 shooting, 8-8 from the foul line, 11 assists with some back-breaking passing early, and not entirely bad defense (though to be fair the Lakers helped him some with that). We've already praised him above, so just take a moment to let it sink in. Wow.
Wesley Matthews did two critical things tonight. First of all he made the Lakers pay every time they forgot him, especially from distance. He shot 4-6 from the arc en route to 22 points, 7-11 shooting overall. Without him hitting those shots the Lakers sag more, hampering Lillard's drives, grabbing more rebounds, cutting off anything Batum did except streaky jumpers. This wasn't a "Wesley dominates the game" 20-point effort. It was Wesley taking the opportunities given him and making the most of them. Plus Matthews showed no mercy on Bryant or anybody else who came his way as he defended. He had 4 steals, but even more than that he stayed in front of (the admittedly slow-moving) Kobe and kept Portland strong at that end. Huge game for Matthews in many ways.
J.J. Hickson deserves plenty of credit for playing two different halves. In the first two quarters he did his job defensively, staying in front of Howard. Saying he stopped Howard would be wildly inaccurate. But he held his ground long enough that help could arrive. He also contributed fouls when necessary. In the second half Hickson suffered as much as anyone when left in single coverage. But the critical contribution here was rebounding. He wormed his way in for boards on both ends, keeping the Lakers at bay even when they got hot. He finished the game with a team-high 10 rebounds, plus an opportunistic 13 points. At no point did you get the feeling that J.J. was playing outside himself even in situations that were beyond him. Well done.
Meyers Leonard led all bench players with 23 minutes. His stat line of 4 points and 3 rebounds doesn't really matter. Here's what you need to know. He got schooled by Howard repeatedly but at no point did he hang his head, nor did teammates hang their heads around him. Instead he stood in there, took hard "pick on the rookie" fouls, and kept on playing. As a result he filled those 23 minutes without hurting the Blazers any more than they were going to get hurt at that position anyway. It was a heady game, all in all.
Sasha Pavlovic proved the importance of a veteran off the bench, splashing 3 of 4 shots in 18 minutes and cooling a second-half Lakers run. Did I mention this was a night when everything went right for the Blazers?
Nolan Smith played a little point, a little two-guard, and though he still looked like the game was moving fast for him he only attempted 2 shots, making 1, and didn't obliterate Portland's offense with those banzai attacks he's become famous for. Again, any time Portland's bench players buy time for the starters they have succeeded. Nolan succeeded tonight.
One of the questions trailing the evening will be how much of this is "real" and dependable? The first impulse, and probably the best, is to say, "Who cares? Just enjoy it!" Enjoyment should remain the strongest impression from the evening.
As far as the rest, this style of play is going to be a Blazer hallmark throughout the season. In that way the Blazers are actually ahead of the Lakers, who will have to alter some things fairly soon if they want to excel. It's unlikely the results will be as dependable as the attempt. How many times will injuries hamper the opponent, will an experienced team like the Lakers commit 24 turnovers, or will the Blazers shoot 51% from the field? The 50% rate for the opponent will be more likely. Also, how many times can Portland play 9 guys and how much energy will the starters be able to give as the season progresses? Those are questions for another time. As we've said, there will be nights like this when those shots fall and the opponent is caught flat-footed. This is less a night for "Hmmm..." and more a night for "Woot!"
Let the wooting commence.
Blazers tickets for upcoming games available via Blazer's Edge sponsor TiqIQ.
Update: Jersey Contest form for the Oklahoma City game is HERE.