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The Blazers play superbly for three quarters then give it all back in a brain-dead fourth. Damian Lillard hits a game-winning three to bail them out and all is well in Blazer-land.
For a quarter-by-quarter instant replay of this game, check out Timmay's recap here.
For the first three periods watching the Hornets was like watching a concert with Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers. Sure, you guys are out there playing your best, but there's no Sting. Ryan Anderson was hotter than heck from the three-point arc. Greivis Vasquez had a couple nice drives. Anthony Davis played big inside. New Orleans actually had the inside-outside offensive game working that we feared in the game preview. But the Blazers ran circles around them anyway.
The first period featured New Orleans playing great on offense but Portland destroying them with forced turnovers. That refrain continued in the second quarter except the Blazers added a strain of strong offensive rebounding. Portland led 54-43 at the half.
The first ten minutes of the third period saw the Blazers put it all together. They played a masterful inside-out offense, attacking the rim repeatedly off of cuts, kicking out for jumpers when the Hornets sagged, and rebounding anything they missed. A couple turnovers and some missed threes prevented the quarter from being stellar but Portland had the game well in hand, leading by 15 with 2:00 remaining and still up a dozen at the horn.
Apparently the Blazers thought they had the game in hand as well, since they promptly forgot everything that brought them the lead and played carelessly through the fourth. The first sign was a disturbing trend of settling for threes without sufficient passing. Those bricks started an avalanche of tight releases. The Hornets, having nothing to lose, started blasting three-pointers...about the only thing they do well offensively. New Orleans also shut down the Blazers on the boards. With both teams one-and-done and the Hornets making scoreboard leaps three points at a time, the lead evaporated. Only a couple Luke Babbitt conversions and J.J. Hickson rebounds stood between Portland and demoralizing disaster. Even with timely contributions from the supporting cast, the Blazers still frittered away the entire lead.
The game was tied at 92 with 25 seconds left when LaMarcus Aldridge twisted an ankle and had to leave the floor. Greivis Vasquez missed a layup, setting up Portland's final shot. Damian Lillard inbounded the ball to Luke Babbitt, took a handoff right back, and then this happened.
Yup. Lillard finally got his first game-winner. The refs put 0.3 seconds back on the clock for a New Orleans tip that didn't matter. Portland wins 95-94.
In the end the ups and downs of this game didn't matter too much. The overriding impression was how the Blazers played beautifully unselfish offense against a poor New Orleans defense for most of the game. Normally bad defense becomes a license for every would-be scorer to justify his own moves and attempts. The Blazers moved the ball, spaced the floor, created shots for everybody. It was Stotts offense unfettered and it looked great.
The secondary lesson, of course, is how quickly things fell apart when the system broke down. As soon as guys started going into business for themselves New Orleans pocketed a dozen-point difference. Lillard's last shot was awesome but it shouldn't have been needed.
The upside, though, is that the Blazers did enough other things right--turnover-based defense, rebounding--to survive the mistakes. The 50-50 aspects of this game went Portland's way for most of the night. That was nice to see.
You have to love J.J. Hickson tonight. Seriously. Could he stop New Orleans' inside guys? No way. They knew it too. Robin Lopez and Anthony Davis had their way inside. So what did Hickson do about it? Only rebound every dang thing he saw (8 offensive and 8 defensive boards) and run the true centers around the court, scoring 24 points on 10-14 shooting. Let's run those numbers again in slow motion. Lopez and Davis combined: 23 points, 8 rebounds on 9-18 shooting. Hickson 24 points, 16 rebounds on 10-14 shooting. Joke's on you, actual big men.
LaMarcus Aldridge didn't match Ryan Anderson's blistering output of points, Anderson scoring 26 on 7-10 shooting from the arc. But Aldridge still stuffed in 20 on 8-17 shooting as one of the guys who realized that the Blazers needed to go inside against this relatively soft and porous defense. That realization alone earns him a more-than-passing grade for this game. It would have been so easy for him to take jumpers all night. The Blazers would have lost had he tried, as Anderson had him trumped in that department.
Nicolas Batum went freakazoid on the defensive end tonight with 5 blocked shots and 5 steals. At a certain point mid-game it looked like he wanted the Hornets to take the ball into him so he could swat it to kingdom come. Those forced turnovers were a key to the game too, as mentioned above. Batum spent most of the first three periods facilitating the offense. His vision was better than 20-20 tonight, as his 10 assists show. He was like a second point guard on the floor, not bringing the ball up but making the critical pass. Portland's offense stalled about the exact same time he started lofting (and missing) solo threes. Whether he was a cause or a symptom is up to debate, but it's safe to say that Batum was a central cog in everything that went on with Portland's offense tonight.
Of course one could argue that Batum was the first point guard on the floor much of the night, as Damian Lillard was one of the few Blazers in business for himself most of the evening. One's view of that depends on opinion. If you read the "PG" in front of his name you might cluck at his 4 assists and 4-10 shooting from the three-point arc, 5-14 overall. Understanding that the ball still moved and that Lillard's job description includes copious amounts of scoring yields a more charitable (and likely more correct) assessment. Plus he hit the game-winner. Confidence boost? Check.
Wesley Matthews started this game but only got in 4 minutes before having to call a halt to the experiment.
Luke Babbitt led the bench with 27 minutes tonight. He didn't defend well but the rim-or-threes nature of the Hornets' offense did him no favors. He had to cover plenty of space to make every play, not his strong suit. Neither did he clean up on the boards as has been his habit lately, for exactly the same reason. His offense, on the other hand, was efficient tending towards superb. Whatever confidence he once had in practice he's now bringing to games and it shows. He scored 10 points on 7 shots with no free throws to pad the number. He actually provided a threat that made opposing defenders move...Portland's dream for him all along.
Ronnie Price returned for 20 minutes, hitting a key shot in the fourth to stave off the Hornets run and dishing 3 assists. Nolan Smith's minutes all went to Price.
Sasha Pavlovic provided some nice second-half play in 16 total minutes. He's loosened up a little over the last couple of games. His play improves exponentially when he's aggressive and decisive.
Victor Claver did the usual running and poking routine for 12 minutes, hitting a three and looking like all of that energy should be doing more than it actually is. The guy never quits, though. When he figures out how to target his play his motor could become a legit asset to this team.
Will Barton shot 1-6 in 7 minutes. I love it when he shoots and/or creates but he's starting to enter Nolan Smith territory there. There's aggressive and then there's all in with a 9-5 unsuited.
Hoo boy...unless there's some kind of injury we don't know about Meyers Leonard got the short leash tonight. It wasn't surprising as his play reverted to early-early season with 2 personal fouls and a lack of fundamental play in 6 minutes. Best guess: the number of basic mistakes he gets before Stotts has seen enough is shrinking.
Don't look now, folks, but your doughty Trail Blazers are 11-12 on the season, one home win away from reaching .500 with roughly 1/3 of the season under their belts. Of course that home win will have to come against the Nuggets, but this is still a fairly big deal. Well done!
At The Hive will tell you whether it's better to have loved a game and lost it or to never have loved it at all.