Tonight's game was a classic tale of two halves, showcasing all that's right and wrong with Blazers basketball, circa Fall, 2012. You can read a quarter-by-quarter recap from Timmay here.
Two developments in this game take precedence, hands down:
1. The Blazers played poorly in the first half in general and particularly awful in the second quarter in ways we'll detail in a minute. Whatever happened during halftime reset their focus and execution. Both style and effort took a dramatic turn for the better from the third period on.
2. Even so, Houston counter-punched and gave the Blazers everything they could handle. Portland attempted to mini-fold down the stretch but then relented and recovered, keeping their poise and winning the game.
What went so wrong in that first half? It'd be easier to chronicle what went right. Errrrr... Errrrr....
The problems started on the offensive end, where the Blazers in general (and LaMarcus Aldridge in particular) fell in love with face-up jumpers for their own sake. You'll always see shots over the top in this offense but after a certain point the Blazers weren't even trying to get inside anymore. Nor were they passing much. Nor was the ball moving successfully when they tried. Typical possessions would include five dribbles and a deep shot, or five dribbles and one pass and a deep shot, or five dribbles then an improbable attempt at an interior pass which was intercepted and run back for a layup. The only shots that came even slightly clean were three-pointers, most of which miss under the best of circumstances and many more of which missed under these. It got so bad that cameras caught coach Terry Stotts frowning seriously on the bench, looking just like your dad about to ground you, and giving his guys the no-nonsense directive, "Go inside." They did for about two plays, got snuffed, and then resumed their outside follies. No matter how many timeouts Stotts called (and he interrupted the game several times in its middle quarters) the situation didn't change appreciably.
Nor was the story much better on defense. Portland's defense is predicated on motion and everybody working together. Several individuals got burned at the point of attack, leaving their teammates no chance to move or help them out. Even when rotations looked possible they came slowly. Possessions started looking comedic, with Blazers stumbling, staring blankly, or just falling apart.
Oh, and Houston manhandled the Blazers on the boards too.
Two and a half things kept Portland in the game, within 8 at the half instead of down 15+. Aldridge found his inside game a little as the half closed, spurring a scoring run.. The Rockets continued their season-long propensity to turn over the ball, saving Portland the disgrace of getting scored on. Houston also missed quite a few interior bunny shots.
The game finally turned in the third period. Whatever Coach Stotts said to the Blazers at halftime did the trick. Finally we saw real ball movement, active defense from Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews, Portland closing the paint and forcing Houston outside. The fourth period saw Aldridge start to dominate with his back to the basket. This scared the Rockets enough to double team which would eventually open up the three-pointers that carried the Blazers to and through overtime. Houston's turnovers didn't slow, nor did their outside shooting rate. With the Blazers playing well instead of giving away the game, those flaws turned fatal.
In a way this was just the kind of game the Blazers needed to establish their ability to win when they don't play their best. It should also be helpful in the film room, as the coaching staff can queue up the first half tape and underline "BAD" while contrasting it with the second half "GOOD".
LaMarcus Aldridge was THE central figure in tonight's drama, attempting 29 shots and hitting 13 for 27 points plus 11 rebounds, 6 assists, and a couple of blocks. If you replay the beginning of this game you're going to see him shooting again and again around the top of the key with neither compunction or thought. You're also going to see him missing most of those shots. The deeper face-up is not a bad shot for him per se, nor should he cease shooting just because he misses a couple. But when his offense comes only from those high elbow looks, that's a problem. His face-up jumper from the angle is better, for one thing. Also he draws no double teams, creates no pressure from those looks. No matter how in love with the new offense the Blazers get, they cannot afford to have him get in that rut. Hands down the biggest change in this game offensively came when Aldridge went down to the block and put his back to the basket. He scored better himself. Just as importantly he set up his teammates. It shouldn't take 20 minutes of game time to figure this out. Not all teams will be as forgiving as the Rockets were tonight.
Nicolas Batum's game also reflected the duality that straddled halftime tonight. In the first half he was unsteady and unaware at best, awful at worst. His shot selection, defense, posture...everything about his game was uninspired. After the half he started sinking shots and sweeping away Houston layups with his famous blocks from behind. His energy went through the roof and he became a one-man terror. So...praise and applause for 17 points, 4-6 three-point shooting, 6 steals, 9 rebounds, and 2 blocks. If Batum played both halves every night like he played the second half tonight people wouldn't just be talking about James Harden as the breakout star of the new season.
Wesley Matthews followed a similar arc. His defense was surprisingly limp in the first half and his shooting was suspect. He tightened the bolts in the second half and the ship stopped leaking. He and his teammates did some heroic work on Harden coming down the stretch. Matthews also hit the critical three with 1:00 remaining in the fourth to make sure this game got to overtime, catching and shooting when Aldridge was double-teamed. He finished 7-18 for the night, 2-7 from distance, for 16 points plus 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals.
This was the first game in which Damian Lillard could be categorized as awkward. He looked positively stumped as the offense fell apart around him early, settling for poor shots or the abdication pass. As soon as the offense started loosening up, though, so did he. On a "bad" night (or at least worse than previous) he ended up 8-15 with 20 points and 9 assists plus 6 rebounds. This is another example of how freakish this guy is. You look out there and think, "He's a little lost." Then at the end of the game he's put up numbers just as good as when he was playing great. How often have we talked about consistency as a hallmark of really good players? We're only three games in, but it wouldn't surprise me if this were a part of Lillard's DNA. Oh, and the kid scored 8 of Portland's 14 points in overtime thanks to assists from his teammates, but he fed them back for all 6 of the other points.
J.J. Hickson may be the most inspirational player of the first week of the season. He had 9 points and 12 rebounds tonight but that line doesn't tell you what an effort he's making. He's over-matched every night, dwarfed by some opponents. He's still in there banging and rebounding and trying to put a body on someone. The next time you see this guy out and about, buy him a Coke and say thanks.
Interlude here...we've just covered the 5 starters. They played 207 of a possible 265 minutes in this game. They also scored 90 of Portland's 95 points, grabbed 43 of 53 rebounds, and dished 26 of the team's 28 assists. That tells you how this team is going right now.
Meyers Leonard played 17 minutes off the bench and got schooled heavily by the Houston bigs. He redeemed himself with a couple nice second-half plays but man, he has a PhD in "Oops!" for the night. This is to be expected.
Will Barton took backup shooting guard minutes and even ran the point a little, finishing with 15 minutes total. Best guess is that this is a spaghetti-against-wall move rather than a permanent promotion/demotion for Barton or anyone else. He did grab 2 rebounds and had a steal and a block against Houston's permissive offense. He only shot 2-7 though.
Ronnie Price returned tonight for 6 minutes and Jared Jeffries played 8. Neither one looked like they merited much more...a slight disappointment on a night when this team needed someone to calm them down and organize.
Nolan Smith got 5 minutes and was OK.
Victor Claver played 4 minutes. He could have doused himself in gasoline and waved around some Fourth of July sparklers and still not gotten burned as badly as he did on defense. Not ready.
Luke Babbitt got 3 minutes and also looked not ready.
All in all, you have to categorize this as a great win for the Blazers. 2-1 to start the season ain't bad. How are the Lakers doing again? I forget.
Boxscore for this game.
You can read about Houston's opening night loss at The Dream Shake.
Blazer tickets for all upcoming game, including Monday's contest against Dallas, are available from Blazer's Edge sponsor TiqIQ.