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Portland's rookie point guard shish-kabobs his idol and leads the Trail Blazers to a gutsy second-half performance and a win against the San Antonio Spurs.
For a quarter-by-quarter recap of tonight's game, click here. We'll summarize the proceedings briefly:
Oh my gosh, Damian Lillard is GOOD!
There you go.
OK, there might have been a little bit more to it than that. San Antonio played an uncharacteristically sloppy game. They scattered a half-dozen turnovers throughout the first quarter, allowing the Blazers to run out and establish a narrow lead. When the Spurs stopped coughing up the ball the Blazers' run went limp. Portland missed plenty of jumpers in the halfcourt, San Antonio scored inside, and the Spurs looked like they were going to take control. Then Luke Babbitt and Damian Lillard canned a bunch of jumpers and the Blazers rescued their lead again, up 4 at the break.
The Spurs came out hell-bent on shooting three-pointers and long jumpers. Portland isn't the best team in the league. Portland isn't even the best shooting team in the league. But you do NOT want to get into a jump-shooting contest with the Blazers. Scoring no inside buckets and giving up long rebounds, San Antonio couldn't mount any kind of charge. LaMarcus Aldridge held them down early in the third period. Then Damian Lillard swung his welder's mask across his face, clicked the igniter, and said, "You may not want to look directly at this 'cuz you'll go blind." BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM WHOOOOOOSH!!!! Lillard beasted and feasted against every Spurs guard thrown against him, hitting threes, attacking the lane, drawing fouls. San Antonio rolled to disbelieve and failed miserably. Portland led by 7 after three.
The fourth quarter saw a major Blazer cold streak but everybody did their little part to keep the Spurs at bay. J.J. Hickson rebounded, Nicolas Batum blocked from behind, Babbitt and Sasha Pavlovic hit a couple shots. It was a real group effort. When Batum hit a quick-strike three off of a curl with 1:07 left the Rose Garden erupted and the game was sealed. Blazers win.
The major themes of the night, outside of Lillard, were good defense and good rebounding even when shots weren't falling. This hasn't always been the case for the Blazers this year. Portland didn't miss too many assignments tonight. This held true for starters and bench. As a result the Spurs shot a mortal percentage which the Blazers were able to match instead of the usual immortal shooting performance from Portland opponents. When the defense stays solid those little things--rebounding, forced turnovers, the timely shot--have a chance to tell. This was certainly one of the most impressive performances of the season for the Blazers...perhaps the most impressive all-around.
Damian Lillard's 29 points may not be as impressive as how he got them. He made San Antonio's defenders look like Washington Generals. Step-backs, okey-dokes, ramming it down the lane, cold-blooded threes...he did it all. Welcome to National TV young fella! The TNT guys made a big deal about how he had always watched Tony Parker. I believe it. He was like, "Yeah, Tony, I watched you do this and this and this and...awww, wait. You've never done this one." Gregg Popovich was on the sideline shaking his head like, "Really, guys? You're going to let him do you like that?" But no matter who Pops put in, Lillard kept pouring cold ones. 29 points on 11-22 shooting, 5-5 free throws, plenty of lane looks, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, and 1 win led to.
(Note: Lillard also looked good on the defensive end tonight. Bonus!)
LaMarcus Aldridge scored 22 on amazing 10-16 shooting. He had it stuck on automatic in the first period, getting the Blazers off to a good start via the face-up jumper, spreading the floor accordingly. He carried the team in the first half while Lillard played tentatively due to foul trouble and/or nerves. His straight-up defense was pretty good and he remained mobile throughout the night on that end of the court. Good game.
Whether through injury or inclination, Nicolas Batum's personal offensive game has stalled. 4-11 shooting, mostly on outside attempts, isn't what you want when the opponent is missing a starter and key reserve at your position. However Batum had 8 assists, building on the confusion caused by Lillard's outbursts...a hidden assassin kind of deal. He cemented his reputation as the second coming of Michael Cooper with a couple of from-behind blocks and, like Aldridge, stayed active on defense.
(Note: That was a Lakers reference, but it was from the days when they were an above-.500 team.)
J.J. Hickson couldn't stop anybody inside tonight but he made up for it with a dozen rebounds and a dozen points, including some timely scoring in the fourth. Ultimately J.J.'s legacy this season will be etched in wins and losses. Those will determine whether people talk about what he is or what he isn't. But seriously, the Blazers don't hold on in the fourth period without this guy rebounding the ball with serious ThunderCat mojo.
Sasha Pavlovic took 33 of those leftover minutes, shooting only 2-7 (both makes from distance, one of them crucial) but poking away 4 steals. He was competent.
Luke Babbitt was more than competent tonight in his 20 minutes. This guy's green light is so big he doesn't see teammates anymore, just color-changing horses and wizards behind curtains. He has no hesitation on his release. He hit 5-10 tonight for 12 points, which you knew he could do. The crucial thing is that he's not playing Steve Urkel, "Did I do that???" defense anymore. He's actually motoring around his area and getting his arms up. He's no Tayshaun Prince but he's made himself effective enough to justify playing him for his shooting ability.
Meyers Leonard played 17 minutes and grabbed 8 rebounds, a phenomenal rate. He'd have had more but he tapped out several offensive rebounds in Camby-esque fashion early...effectiveness of that move TBD. His defense was hit and miss. His offense was miss, MISS AN OPEN DUNK, then hit a shot to redeem himself. It was a bit of a random game for Leonard but he did alright.
Nolan Smith forgot himself and fired 5 shots in 8 minutes, missing 4 of those 5. A couple of them were decent looks but he was playing too fast again. He had 2 assists but also 2 turnovers and 2 personal fouls.
Will Barton made a heady backdoor cut for 2.
New Orleans comes in on Sunday, giving the Blazers a chance for their 2nd three-game winning streak of the season.
Pounding The Rock will be pounding their foreheads into tables over Lillard.