The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves, 103-95, at the Rose Garden on Friday night, improving their record to 6-6.
The match-ups were conducive to a big night for the Blazers guards and in-game circumstances only underscored the need for impact play. This wound up being a weird game with a thought-provoking strategic wrinkle, and two deciding factors: the Blazers guards decisively won their match-ups, shooting and scoring with remarkable quarter-to-quarter consistency, and Portland kicked up its overall defensive effort in the second half, crediting the turnaround to an inspirational and informational session with coach Terry Stotts earlier in the day.
First, the scoring.
"Wes Matthews and [Damian] Lillard," Timberwolves All-Star forward Kevin Love said. "They just couldn't miss. Easy as that. They just couldn't miss."
The steadiness in Portland's backcourt production was pretty nuts.
Here's Matthews' points and shooting by quarter: seven points, eight points, six points, nine points; three-for-five, three-for-four, two-for-two, four-for-six.
Here's Lillard's points and shooting by quarter: nine points, eight points, seven points, four points; four-for-five, three-for-five, three-for-five, one-for two.
Together, that's seven-for-eight in quarters with between six and nine points scored apiece and eight-for-eight in quarters shooting 50 percent or better. All told, they combined for 58 points (Matthews had a season-high 30; Lillard a career-high 28) on 23-for-34 shooting (67.6 percent) and nine-for-14 from deep (64.3 percent).
Those are the numbers and the dependability effect they produced was obvious at each checkpoint. Minnesota pounded and pounded and pounded inside early, Portland's guard pair kept it from being a rout. Blazers All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge got in foul trouble and a sick Nicolas Batum couldn't find his touch, Portland's guard pair steadied the ship. Minnesota's offense sputtered, Portland's guard pair pushed open a lead. Minnesota's offense died, despite more foul trouble from Aldridge, and Portland's guard pair brought home a win. The key was the constancy as much as the volume.
"When people are making shots it's a lot easier," Lillard said. "It had a lot to do with how [Minnesota] played [the pick-and-rolls], there was a lot of space out there. I was able to make plays. As long as I kept it simple, guys were making shots, it was pretty easy... [We had] more ball movement, sometimes the ball has been sticking. Haven't been able to score as easy like that."
Matthews added: "I feel like I needed a game like this. I haven't had too many games where I really go like that, but it felt good."
It was a backcourt slaughterhouse as it needed to be. The Timberwolves, playing without three key perimeter players -- Ricky Rubio, Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger -- started Luke Ridnour and Malcolm Lee and got virtually nothing from reserves J.J. Barea and Alexey Shved.
Lillard finished with eight assists and zero turnovers. The Blazers notched 24 assists on 42 shots, and hit 53.8 percent from the field and 44 percent (11 for 25 from deep). They needed all of it, as they secured just six offensive rebounds for the game, lost the overall rebounding battle by 14, lost the free throws made battle by 20 and allowed 40 points in the paint.
"I've been saying this a long time, if you look at our stat sheets, we don't win a lot of categories a lot of times," Stotts conceded. "Sometimes it's going to be defined by a box score, winning a certain category. It's just playing with rhythm on the offensive end and a certain amount of intensity and grit on the defensive end."
It's clear by now that this team doesn't have the personnel to play consistently good defense. That much was clear entering Media Day but there are numbers to really support the statement now. Those numbers are eye-popping. Here are a few. Entering Friday, the Blazers ranked dead last -- No. 30 out of 30 -- in defensive efficiency. They ranked No. 30 out of 30 in opponent field goal percentage. They ranked No. 29 out of 30 in points allowed. They ranked No. 29 out of 30 in rebounds. They ranked No. 29 out of 30 in protecting the rim, conceding the second most baskets at the rim this year.
After singling out the defensive woes of Meyers Leonard following a Wednesday night loss to the Phoenix Suns, Stotts apparently realized that his problems went deeper than the one player in Portland's rotation who still isn't of legal drinking age. That led him to reveal the wince-worthy statistics in all their hideous glory to his team on Friday morning.
"He gave us a chance to see how the team is when every guy is on the court," Lillard said. "What percentage we're giving up with every guy on the court. A lot of guys weren't pleased with the numbers that we saw. I think we came in here tonight and we really focused on it. I know myself, Wes, everybody I saw on the court was putting forth everything they had on the defensive end. It was just a matter of us having more pride and wanting to adjust to some of the things that didn't go in our favor defensively."
Matthews, a player who has made his career on defense first, said seeing the specific statistics helped drive home the larger point: that Portland's effort and results on that end aren't acceptable.
"We got embarrassed, really," Matthews said. "We've been embarrassed. Teams shooting 50 percent on us. The thumping we took in Phoenix, to a team that -- they're alright. They've got some players, but we don't feel like we should ever lose like that. Coach brought it to our attention where we stand in the NBA as far as defensive field goal percentage, shots at the rim. It was ugly. We adjusted, we took it to heart, we played with pride, and that's what we've got to do on this road trip and the rest of the season."
The Blazers held the Timberwolves to 40 points in the second half and just five-for-21 shooting in the final period. Stotts liked the results, even if the Blazers did concede 57.1 percent shooting in the first quarter.
"You could say it was a good bounceback win for us, after our game in Phoenix," he said. "We really emphasized defense and the fact that they shot 35 percent after the first quarter, our guys really buckled down."
Speeches get made and results will vary. This was a game at home against a (now) sub-.500 team dealing with the injuries mentioned above and with a best player, Love, who admitted afterwards that he's "out of shape" after missing three weeks with a hand injury. This should be a win, called out by the coach or not.
But there were plenty of losing elements: the rebounding, the free throw struggles (eight-for-18 as a team), Batum struggling to get nine points, four rebounds and five assists, and, above all, Aldridge scoring just 13 points on six-for-13 shooting with nine of his 13 shots coming from outside the paint. Aldridge was the most disappointing. On a night in which he's supposed to be getting up for Love, proving his assertion that he's the best power forward in basketball, Aldridge was a relative non-factor through two and a half quarters, getting three quick fouls in succession during the second quarter and then two more in the middle of the third quarter.
His fourth foul came after a series of shoves between himself and Love, and it resulted in a double foul and a double technical. This was an amateurish reaction from Aldridge. He was in foul trouble; Love was not. Any reaction involving a fourth foul was going to have game-deciding potential. "I definitely have to be smarter," Aldridge admitted afterwards, as he tried to play down a rivalry with his fellow All-Star.
He definitely needs to be smarter. There's tension between the two All-Stars, it was evident before tip off, when they didn't acknowledge each other. It was evident early, as the Timberwolves fed Pekovic in the paint on possession after possessions, going straight to item one on the game plan over and over. It was evident in the third quarter scrum and it was evident one final time during the dismissive talk from both sides afterwards.
"I walked away and he kept doing whatever it was that he was doing," Love said. "I think he was just trying to hype his team up and I was just trying to play."
"[The double technicals] was what they felt was needed, so that's fine," Aldridge said. "I don't think talking about it is going to do anything about it... I don't think [there's a rivalry with Love] but everybody else might think so."
A funny thing happened during all of that back-and-forth, a thing that just happened to save Aldridge and help the Blazers win this game. Stotts broke from the standard coaching manual twice in handling Aldridge's foul trouble. First, he let Aldridge play through the fourth foul during the third quarter, a decision that wound up backfiring a bit when Aldridge picked up his fifth foul with 6:50 remaining. Second, he brought back Aldridge way earlier than usual, inserting him into the game with five fouls at the 10:11 mark of the fourth quarter.
The debate on foul management is great, if overlooked. Standard protocol calls for minutes being apportioned in such a way that the player will be available for the game's final minutes. The standard approach would have seen Aldridge removed immediately with his fourth foul and sat until at least the closing minutes of the third quarter. The standard approach would usually see Aldridge reinserted with, say, six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter once he did have five fouls. That standard approach doesn't necessarily maximize Aldridge's time on the floor, though, and it doesn't necessarily put him on the court when the game is actually decided.
Stotts wound up breaking from the standard approach for a few reasons. First, Aldridge is Aldridge, Portland's most talented big man, even on a very subpar night like this. They need him, in the desperate sense of the word. Second, the altercation with Love clearly lit a fuse and it was the first real emotion Aldridge had shown all game. Sitting him then would have sacrificed that fire. Third, Portland's younger and less experienced players aren't totally accustomed to playing without Aldridge, who has logged huge minutes this season. There could very well be secondary effects in losing Aldridge for such a long period of time. Finally, momentum had swung Portland's way after the Blazers fought back from an earlier 13-point deficit. Sitting Aldridge potentially compromises that if his replacement starts leaking points on defense or can't create scoring if called upon.
That's a long list of good reasons that many coaches would simply ignore. Stotts didn't. He gambled that Aldridge could play through the fouls. He initially lost, with Aldridge picking up a fifth foul less than three minutes after his fourth foul.
"I wanted to stay in," Aldridge said. "I was actually happy. I got a tough call, tried to stay ready, played decent in the fourth."
"That's a tough call," Stotts said of his thought process in leaving Aldridge in with four. "I was yelling for Jared [Jeffries] right [before] he got his fifth foul. I felt like he deserved a chance to play a few more minutes. I rode it about a minute too long."
Stotts' next bet paid off though. Aldridge checked in to the fourth quarter with the Blazers holding a six-point lead. He went on to play more than seven minutes of the fourth quarter before fouling out while defending a Ridnour drive. On one defensive possession, he comically held his arms behind his back so as not to get a sixth foul, allowing a basket in the process. Offensively, he had four points on two-for-three shooting; more importantly, Love and Pekovic combined for just eight fourth quarter points. The Blazers had avoided asking too much of their reserves.
When he did foul out, with 2:54 remaining in the final period, Portland held a seven-point lead and total momentum. The Timberwolves, essentially defeated because they had struggled so mightily to score, didn't hit a field goal and managed just four free throws after he left. Aldridge had played roughly half of the available minutes after committing his fourth foul and was on the court when the game was truly decided.
Stotts confirmed afterwards that he reinserted Aldridge into the game expecting him to foul out.
"He had been sitting there for awhile, wanted to get him some minutes," Stotts said of the timing on the substitution. "The likelihood, he was probably going to get his sixth. I thought he gave us good minutes while he was in there with five fouls. We went to him on the block, he didn't shy away from the challenge defensively. I thought the minutes he gave us with five fouls were pretty good."
As he answered post-game questions, Stotts, the same numbers-savvy guy who had broken out the stats earlier in the day, went to the touchy-feely stuff when explaining his decisions to ride Aldridge in the tough spots.
"I thought it was good for the morale of the team," he said. "Show some fight and keep him in there. I thought it worked out well."
The player most likely to be impacted by "morale," you would assume, is a rookie point guard in a tight game. The intended "morale" created by the trust in Aldridge seemed to get through to Lillard.
"I don't really see it as a strategy," Lillard told Blazersedge. "When you've got somebody like L.A., he needs to be on the floor. It was a tight game. He just needed to be on the floor. He knew how many fouls that he had, he's smart enough to know what he can and can't get away with. We needed him on the floor. [Stotts] trusted L.A. to be able to stay out there with those fouls, that says a lot about him and we need him on the floor."
Matthews also said he felt a pick-up following the altercation and decision to ride Aldridge, noting that the team's defense responded as a unit, understanding the situation that faced their forward.
"He's an All-Star," Matthews told Blazersedge. "He's played this game a long time, he knows what he's doing. We needed him out there... We know we still have to protect him at the same time. We had to buckle down that much harder, can't have him getting a cheap foul trying to bail us out. It worked out for us."
It did work out. Had it not, Stotts would have been wide open to second-guessing. He fully understood that. When it works, coaches rarely get the credit, as they are sometime still criticized for taking the tangible risk and because it's the player who actually does the playing while not fouling. Here, both coach and player deserve credit. Aldridge salvaged a poor effort with his late play and presence. Stotts kept what had been a steady, building team performance going as smoothly as possible, navigating some dicey decisions.
These Blazers have a lot of trouble with traditional. Here nontraditional strengths met unconventional strategy, producing what was surely a satisfying win.
Random Game Notes
- Not a bad crowd at all considering the rainy weather and the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday. It was announced as a sellout and was pretty close.
- The game was pitched as "rivalry night," with a lot of Civil War tie-ins. Cheerleaders from both Oregon and Oregon State were on hand to compete during timeout activities. Oregon State great Gary Payton was in the building wearing a Beavers sweatshirt.
- Of course, the Blazers were so locked in on this match-up with a key divisional rival that they had no time for all the sideshow stuff. Oh wait, J.J. Hickson's Twitter account, take it away: "Where are the Oregon cheerleaders at tonight.. OMG!!!! The Oregon cheerleader that did the human bowling ball to knock down the pins during a timeout.... OMG! Please tweet me .. Lol"
- Wesley Matthews on the team getting called out by Stotts: "We're all professionals and we've played basketball for a long time but it still takes calling out. That's what coach did. Everybody responded the right way... We're .500 right now, it could be a lot worse. We could be a lot better. We haven't really been stung [by the bad defense] because we could always say, 'We were in that game. We were in that game.'"
- Damian Lillard on the Blazers' upcoming seven-game road trip: "I've never been on the road for two weeks, or however long it's going to be. I'm sure it's going to be tough at times but I'm looking forward to it."
- Some real emotion from Lillard following a second half turnover by J.J. Barea. Big fist pump. It's nice to see some of that fire that he hides so well.
- Lillard's forced attempt at a two-for-one that ended with a shot that only hit the backboard was pretty brutal. It all worked out when Batum hit a three-pointer with two seconds remaining in the third.
- Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio, rehabilitating from knee surgery, was working out on the court before the game, going through some conditioning work and shooting some jumpers off of the dribble. He looked to be moving fairly gingerly although he's said to not be too far off from his return.
- Can I get a ruling on whether or not it's appropriate to take photos/video during the National Anthem? Seems like that should be against the world's rules.
- Here's a great photo by Bruce Ely of The Oregonian showing the Blazers mock restraining Lillard from shooting at the end of the game with the outcome already decided. He learned his etiquette lesson from the Bulls game.
- Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman probably needed to bring Love back into the game earlier. The Blazers opened the fourth quarter on a 7-0 run and the Blazers went on a 14-6 run while Love sat the first six minutes of the fourth.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
You could say it was a good bounceback win for us, after our game in Phoenix. We really emphasized defense and the fact that they shot 35 percent after the first quarter, our guys really buckled down, had a lot of good efforts off the bench. A lot of guys took their responsibilities and did a lot of good things. Scoring-wise, Damian and Wes had it going. I was really proud of our defense. That was an area we needed to improve on and tonight we did.
What did you specifically like about the defense?
I thought the activity level, our alertness, our physical nature in the paint, not giving up as many easy baskets. I thought I saw an intensity in the guys' faces about important it was.
Leaving Aldridge in with four fouls
Well, that's a tough call. I was going to take -- I was yelling for Jared right [before] he got his fifth foul. I felt like he deserved a chance to play a few more minutes. I rode it about a minute too long. He played well for that three or four minute stretch. He played well, was aggressive offensively, I think it was instrumental in keeping our... I thought it was good for the morale of the team. Show some fight and keep him in there. I thought it worked out well. I was just 30 seconds late.
Aldridge was too involved in rivalry?
I don't know if it was personal or not. Obviously they were going at it in the heat of the battle, things happen. I don't know if it's necessarily personal or it happened to be one of those games where he's guarding him. There's a lot of stuff going on underneath the basket. Things happen.
Decision to bring him back with five fouls so early
I thought he played well. I brought him in for Damian. Damian was carrying us. I had to get him a blow. He had been sitting there for awhile, wanted to get him some minutes. The likelihood, he was probably going to get his sixth. I thought he gave us good minutes while he was in there with five fouls. We went to him on the block, he didn't shy away from the challenge defensively. I thought the minutes he gave us with five fouls were pretty good.
Hammered on boards and at free throw line but still win
I've been saying this a long time, if you look at our stat sheets, we don't win a lot of categories a lot of times. We beat Chicago and they outscored us by 20 in the paint. Tonight they shoot almost 20 more free throws. There's not a definitive way to win a game. I think it's important for us -- how we play is important. Sometimes it's not going to be defined by a box score, winning a certain category. It's just playing with rhythm on the offensive end and a certain amount of intensity and grit on the defensive end.
Aldridge more aggressive after skirmish
After the altercation, he picked up his fourth foul, we went right to the block. I wanted to take advantage of him while he was on the court.
Backcourt kept Blazers afloat
I thought the bench minutes that Ronnie and Jared and Sasha gave us in the second half were invaluable. The backcourt, Damian's scoring, his pick-and-roll decisions, scoring, kept us afloat but I thought he and Ronnie played well together defensively as well. Their guards, Ridnour, scored in the first half, I don't know what he had in the second half. I thought the defense our guards played out front was really important.
J.J. Hickson's energy
J.J. -- his energy, his going after rebounds defensively, Pekovic is a big dude. He was with him. I thought Meyers played well for the minutes he was in there. He battled. We do it by committee. Tonight [Hickson] was really valuable.
Seen the intensity from these guys before
I've seen it in spots. The first ten games, we wouldn't have been in position to win games if we didn't show it in spots. I thought particularly, we put them to the line too much in the second quarter, but I thought the second half, we sustained it for a long period of time. We've done it in spots, our third quarters have been very good defensively this season, but we sustained it for a long period with different lineups.
Looking for more points from backcourt because of Minnesota's injuries
No. I thought our pick-and-roll offense, I thought we generated a lot of points out of pick-and-rolls. Wes was involved. Damian was involved. Pick-and-rolls are a big part of what we want to do. Particularly when L.A. is out. L.A. is terrific on ball screens, he creates problems because guys don't want to leave him. He pops open and it's a good shot. I felt like our ball screens, any pick-and-rolls gave us good opportunities.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter