The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Toronto Raptors, 92-74, at the Rose Garden on Monday night, improving to 9-12 with the win.
The horror stories bubble quickly around the NBA and the word has been out about the Raptors for a few weeks now. It's never the same until you see it up close though. This wasn't 2012 Charlotte Bobcats bad or 2011 Washington Wizards bad, but it was worse in a way, because the Raptors seem like genuinely nice and good people who are trying to win, or at least not actively trying to lose. The knucklehead quotient, even considering Amir Johnson's zany ejection, doesn't even come close to the Wizards. The Raptors aren't racing for the bottom like the Bobcats; in fact, everyone from GM Bryan Colangelo on down seems to be stressing the urgency of winning despite a 4-18 record, one road win on the season and zero great reasons for hope (and only a few above-average reasons).
The Raptors are a cluster bleep and the timing of their arrival in Portland couldn't have been more perfect for the Blazers. Portland entered Monday in desperate need of a "get right" game following a demoralizing loss to the Sacramento Kings on Saturday and a fearsome match-up with the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday. Nicolas Batum (back) and Wesley Matthews (hip flexor) were both unavailable, leaving coach Terry Stotts with a host of unappetizing replacements. He settled on Sasha Pavlovic and Victor Claver, and both delivered to various degrees, as did Nolan Smith and Luke Babbitt off the bench.
That's because this was a get right game. An extended deadline for a final exam. A stranger fixing your flat tire for free. Bank error in your favor, collect $200, An unexpected holiday bonus. A little returned karma for a seven-game road trip.
Wins don't come much easier than at home, against the Raptors, on their second night of a back-to-back, with their two key players (Andrea Bargnani and Kyle Lowry) going down to injuries after combining to score just three points on eight shots, while a third player gets ejected for trying to grab the basketball from a referee in between free throws before throwing his mouthpiece at the official on his way off of the court. Beating what was left -- Mickael Pietrus (knee problems), Jonas Valanciunas (not ready for primetime), DeMar DeRozan (not yet good enough to be a stand-in No. 1 scorer), Ed Davis (promising but not there yet), Jose Calderon (fully aware he's being shopped harder than Washington Square), Terrence Ross (can jump out of the gym, but what else right now?), John Lucas III (will be known for eternity as the man who was leaped over for an alley-oop during a game) and Aaron Gray (Stephen Hill with better hygiene) -- wasn't exactly a tall order.
Portland's own youth, injuries and recent struggles made this a sweet one for the Blazers, a win that saw happy barbs exchanged post-game and highlight reel material for just about everyone who got on the court. Babbitt, of all people, saw himself in the middle of both with an out-of-nowhere poster over Davis, the first dunk of his NBA career.
"Even though he shoots set shots, he's a very athletic player," Stotts said, providing some chuckles whether he meant to or not.
"I thought everybody enjoyed his dunk, I think that's the first dunk I've ever seen him have on somebody," LaMarcus Aldridge said loudly, looking over at Babbitt, hoping he was listening. "I was ecstatic for him and then we watched the replay. He kind of had some swagger after it. It was cool."
An emotionless Babbitt balked when asked about his supposed "swagger."
"I'm out there playing basketball, man," he said, stone-faced. "I don't know what you're talking about there."
Babbitt even said that he initially wasn't sure that he had completed the dunk: "I got hit in the head so I was kind of dazed. I didn't even know it went in to be honest with you."
This will be good teaching tape, positive and negative. The Lillard/Aldridge pair has rarely looked as in sync as on Monday, even if Lillard's own offense was at less than peak. The team defense produced much better numbers than you would have expected, given the absences of Batum and Matthews, even considering the competition.
The Spurs in all their might and glory, unlikely to risk another fine for resting players during Thursday's TNT game, will be steamrolling through town before they know it. For a night, though, the Blazers rest with comforting thoughts of clocking an inferior opponent, just like they should.
"Needed it a lot," Aldridge said multiple times.
"It was a win we needed," Lillard agreed. "It was really important for [the reserves]. I know for sure they probably have a lot more confidence having to be out there for a lot more minutes, us depending on them more than usual."
Random Game Notes
- The Rose Garden attendance was announced at 16,863, the smallest crowd in five years, Mike Tokito of The Oregonian noted. Tickets were going for as low as $0.90 on Stubhub on Monday. There were full rows empty and some entire sections were pretty sparsely filled.
- J.J. Hickson said that he prefers "neither" boxers nor briefs during a Jumbotron video interview. This may or may not be a good time to point out that Hickson enjoys retweeting a not-particularly-safe-for-work Twitter account called "HornyFacts".
- Stotts uses a great go-to euphemism in response to questions about how his weaker bench players will perform in place of injured starters: "They're NBA players." That statement has the benefit of being factually accurate without actually committing Stotts to anything about their quality, in the event they wind up falling flat on their face. It's like the polite coach's version of "It is what it is" with a slight confidence-inspiring twist. The more you think about it, the more a motivational poster aspect develops, as if repeating the words make them more profound and meaningful. If you just say Nolan Smith is an NBA player 100 times because he is currently on a roster and under contract, perhaps those signed paper facts will eventually translate through mental osmosis to on-court talent.
- I wasn't intentionally trying to pick on Smith, who had a season-high 11 points and actually tied his previous season-high of six points during a two minute stretch at the beginning of the second quarter. But I did have this thought randomly on Monday: What country will Smith be headed to next season if former Blazers guard Armon Johnson landed (according to reports) in Kazakhstan? That will be the real test of the Duke brand name right there.
- Stotts really laid the praise on thick for Pavlovic after this win. See his full comments below. Stotts was definitely doing his veteran a solid for showing up after his minutes have been yanked around this year. Still, it was a little much. Pavlovic was defending DeRozan, No. 18 among two guards by PER, not Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade or James Harden or someone with legit weapons and consistent top-level output. Not only was it DeRozan, but it was DeRozan trying to score without any true secondary options to help.
- Claver's finish in transition was nice. This game was so ugly that his 2-for-12 shooting night didn't even particularly stand out. Can't really crack on him too hard because that he was playing in the D-League less than 48 hours before Monday's tip.
- I was sure that Babbitt shot that insane off-balance fadeaway airball as soon as he checked into the game as a way to prove that he wasn't George McClellan.
- Babbitt when informed that his teammates had said they haven't seen him dunk before: "That's not true. They're lying."
- The Blazers had a Hanukkah halftime show complete with a life-size dancing Dreidel. Until Johnson's fit of rage, that was the highlight of the night.
- Thanks Mike Acker at Rip City Project with some audio help tonight.
- A big thanks to a friendly Lake Oswego Police Department officer. I owe you one.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
0-20 threes, most ever attempted without a make
Yes I know we broke a record. For that record to be broken in a win is even more impressive. Got that out of the way.
It was a good win for us. Obviously they're undermanned with Bargnani going out, Kleiza not playing, Lowry getting hurt. They weren't at full strength. Nonetheless, I thought Sasha Pavlovic played a terrific game defensively more than anything else. He played heavy minutes, I tell you, he did a terrific job defensively and offensively. Obviously LA did everything that we needed from him. I thought it was a really good team win. We got a lot of good efforts from a lot of good people.
Starting Victor Claver and Sasha Pavlovic
I wanted to have a young guy and a veteran. Victor's been on the short end with the inactive list. He's got about his business very professionally. He's worked hard. Went to the D-League, played the right way. I thought he deserved an opportunity. I liked him out there with the starters and the veterans. That would make it easy for him. Sasha was an easy pick because he's a quality basketball player. I've said that from day one. He knows how to play the game, he's a team guy, he defends, he has good length, he can shoot, he can drive. I like the match-up, him guarding DeRozan.
Everybody. Them being undermanned affected their ability to score. I thought Sasha made DeRozan work for his points. I thought that was a key for us. I thought our pick-and-roll defense, we were aggressive on Calderon, on all his pick-and-rolls. We did a good job scrambling and covering the paint. We had good activity.
Why not play Sasha Pavlovic more?
I was playing him early. Earlier in the season we played the young guys in the first half and he would play in the second half. He's been instrumental in some of our wins, earlier in the season when we were 6-6. The season ebbs and flows, other guys were getting opportunities to play. He's stayed ready. Part of it has been developing some of the younger players and there's only so many minutes. Like I said when everyone was maligning our bench, we had a lot of contributions from our bench guys, who ended up starting.
Luke Babbitt's dunk
It didn't surprise me. I thought it was a good move. I really thought when he was getting his feet right that's what he was going to do. I wasn't surprised. He's much more athletic, even though he shoots set shots, he's a very athletic player. I thought it was a nice strong play.
Hickson: 16 and 11
He came in and particularly his second half, he came in and first nine minutes of the second half, he went after everything. For him to sit, they went small for a long time, I didn't have a match-up for him. They went back with two bigs, he made an impact as soon as he came back in the game.
Hickson got a rebound saving the ball from going out of bounds
I explained that to Meyers. That's how you get another defensive rebound.
He had a tough night shooting the ball and kind of got caught on some of his drives to the basket. He just keeps playing. I don't think he's fazed by it. He drove in there five or six times, lots of long bodies. He's got to learn about that, mid-range game, keep his dribble alive. He has to keep dribbling out and get them scrambling.
Victor sees the game really well. I like the way he moves around. I thought his shots were good shots, he just didn't make them. I don't think that had any impact on how he played. As long as he's taking [good shots]. The one shot he hit was the toughest shot he had all night. He was ready to play. I think the two games in the D-League helped him. It got him in a game rhythm. He had a feel for being out on the court again.
Blazers held 54-26 points in the paint advantage
For us? Is that a misprint. You're right. I'm speechless on that.
It's an NBA game. I didn't think anything... different things happen in a game, records are meant to be broken. I think what the difference in the game, the feel to it, was when you had so many starters, Lowry, Bargnani, Kleiza, Wes and Nic not being in the game. I think that, more than anything else, kind of gave it a different feel.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter