The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Denver Nuggets, 101-93, at the Rose Garden on Thursday night, improving to 12-12 on the season.
The holiday season had me reflecting on the idea of "surprises" and what struck me is how often that particular word comes up in press conferences and interviews. There is a fixation in the NBA -- surely in other sports and probably in politics too, although my worldview is pretty narrow -- in determining whether coaches, players and fellow media members find a particular event, play, player, game, streak or trend to be "surprising." Someone unfamiliar with the sport or the environment might listen in to a typical NBA post-game and think the collection of reporters were dads with Handicams on Christmas morning circling each child, one by one, assessing Santa's offerings not on merit but on something far more important: unpredictability.
Who cares how well a team plays, right? Was it surprising? Oh, it was. Stop the presses and the high-speed uploads. Now we're really getting somewhere.
Seeking out surprises as avidly as writers do is probably, first and foremost, a coping mechanism during one long season in a lifetime full of them. It's also a byproduct of a nitpicker's personality. Find a small kernel of something, anything, that is unique, share it with someone who hasn't prepared for it, and then sit back and gauge the Richter scale reading of how hard their mind was blown. If they're surprised, there's common ground from which to build. If not, rinse and repeat. Someone will be surprised, or at least feign it, and then it is mission accomplished.
That's the backlash, though: a cynical protectionism against admitting surprise. Coaches are prepare-aholics so surprise is a sign of weakness to them. Players don't like to admit they are surprised by a fellow player because they don't want to offend a colleague or step on his toes. Media members take pride in having "seen it all" and would rather hedge off of a result or stretch a previous opinion than to admit surprise. All are justified in their respective approaches.
Portland's win over Denver on Thursday was genuinely full of surprises. Dave dubbed it the "weirdest game in franchise history" for good reason. This isn't how you would hope basketball would be played and yet the magnetism as it unfolded, especially for die-hards, was unmistakable. Watching a Nuggets team so fully competent in one area -- interior scoring -- and so totally incompetent in a closely related area -- shooting from any distance that required actual aiming -- was jaw-dropping.
The Nuggets came to a city once regarded as having the most strip clubs per capita in the country and they promptly put up more Xs than anyone, anywhere, anytime has ever seen. Watching their shot chart unfold was... what's the right word... delicious? It was definitely better than watching the game.
Look at this thing. It's almost not fit for a family site.
The signs along Southeast Powell and Canyon Road are looking at that chart and feeling pangs of inadequacy. Even Jiggles looks at that thing and screams, "Uncle."
It's enough to make me want to interview myself in the third person in a mock radio spot.
"Ben, were you surprised that you attended a basketball game that featured an above-.500 team shoot 1-for-28 outside the paint and 0-for-22 from the three-point arc?"
"Yes. Yes. It goes against every fiber of my being to admit that and it could cost me all professional respectability. But yes. I knew coming in the Nuggets were having far more offensive issues than in prior seasons. I knew Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari were struggling so far this year. I knew, overall, they were a well below-average three-point shooting team. But I can't honestly say I expected a projected playoff team with a $62+ million payroll to launch 98 shots against a team with a below-average defense and playing without its best player and only make one of them from outside 10 feet while also setting an NBA record for most three-point attempts without a single make. To have all of that happen in a game that featured lots of small ball line-ups? Yes, I was surprised. It feels so good to admit that publicly."
(Fade out to music and commercial.)
"We played through a lot of misery, a lot of tough basketball," Nuggets coach George Karl admitted, after spending an extended period of time in the locker room with his team.
He continued: "If you're going to have that line out there I think you have to use it. I don't think you need to shoot an exorbitant amount. You don't have to shoot a high percentage. You just need to shoot around 33 percent, and we were far from that tonight."
Indeed, the Nuggets were exactly "around 33 percent" away from shooting "around 33 percent" from deep. Their 0-for-22 three-point shooting eclipsed the Blazers' own 0-for-21 record-setting night against the Toronto Raptors on Dec. 10.
Blazers coach Terry Stotts said that he was aware that his team's record had been broken and he even expressed some regret about it, as he was proud they had still been able to beat the Raptors despite the historical clunkiness. Guess what, though? Stotts was surprised -- maybe even stunned, possibly floored -- when informed that the Nuggets hadn't just put up blanks from deep. Told that Ty Lawson hit the only Nuggets jumper of the entire night with 38 seconds left in the game and asked whether he had ever seen that happen in a game before, Stotts blue screened.
"Only one outside shot? Really? I hadn't heard that one. No. Not that I know of. I didn't even know it happened. Serious? That's amazing."
Wait. Wait. Wait. Did he just say that he didn't even realize that it had happened? That he watched and coached in a game for the ages, that was consumed by so, so many Xs on the shot chart above, and he hadn't even noticed it?
"I knew they weren't hitting any threes, but they took 98 shots, I wasn't keep track of every one," Stotts replied. "I didn't know they didn't make any outside shots, other than threes."
The performance had been so surprising that it overrode all mental faculties; there was simply no mental comparison point, not even for a basketball lifer like Stotts, and so the 48 minutes of hoops plugged in one side and a blank piece of paper spit out the other side. Not compatible. Does not recognize. Invalid entry.
This marked a whole new level of surprise and it was, as you might expect, a joyous occasion for a surprise-hunter.
There was one other surprise worth mentioning while this is still confession mode. While none of the individual players have strayed that far from expectations -- Damian Lillard and J.J. Hickson have both exceeded while Joel Freeland and Victor Claver have done the opposite -- Portland's collective group has been far better than I imagined it would be in handling injury absences. The depth issue, the newness of the roster, and the youth of key players all seemed to spell trouble for this team when envisioning how it would respond to injury adversity. That the Blazers would put together their first four-game winning streak of the season during a stretch that saw Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and LaMarcus Aldridge, among others, dealing with injuries in one form or fashion has been exceedingly surprising.
"We've had some adversity, two of our best players sat out a few games," Lillard said. "Our best player [Aldridge] sat out today and we still were able to find ways to win games. Guys are starting to believe. We're starting to be more of a team now. We believe in each other more and more every game. Just the fact that we've been able to win shorthanded, we've got that confidence in ourselves that at full strength we'll be able to get a real win streak going."
Stotts said that his message has been simple.
Random Game Notes
- Attendance was announced as a sellout. Hard to buy that one but, whatever, it wasn't egregious. Flat crowd, which was understandable given the shooting display (33-for-92 by the Blazers; 38-for-98 by the Nuggets.)
- Poise decided to show a little bit of power during the fourth quarter. Damian Lillard down the middle of the key for a ferocious slam. Video...
- Lillard's post-dunk explanation: "I saw Wes driving, I cut and there was an open lane so I went up and dunked it. I'm capable of dunking the ball."
- @TeeMunny on Twitter sent in this GIF.
- Wesley Matthews finished with 20 points, four assists, three rebounds, one rebound and one steal in 38 minutes after missing time and being limited with a hip flexor strain recently. All things considered, he looked good. It was strange that the Nuggets didn't attack him more early as he started a little tentatively.
- After the game, Matthews said that perhaps he looked better than he actually felt: "I felt alright. I wasn't all the way me. Not 100 percent. I was able to be effective. I don't feel like I hurt the team. That's fine with me.I couldn't go by anybody, not the way I wanted to. When I did, I couldn't elevate to finish. It was frustrating, knowing that shots I normally make. Fatigue -- it was my first game, I've been off for how many days, it's been awhile.... I don't think there was anything to set me back, I hope."
- Matthews also said his left side was tightly wrapped during the game.
- Damian Lillard was presented with the November Rookie of the Month trophy prior to tip-off. Blaze the Trail Cat, Blazers GM Neil Olshey and a Kia executive were on hand to deliver the hardware. Lillard told me that he will give the trophy to his mother. "I'm just going to give it to my mom," he said. "Every time I get stuff like this I just give it to my mom, she will get on me about not acting like I care about it enough. I'll give it to her. She hangs stuff up in the house. She'll probably sit it up. There are a lot of shelves in our living room with pictures and everything. This will probably go up there."
- Lillard also called the award "old news" because he received it so deep into December. "It's more of an 'on to the next one' thing. It's a new month. The team is playing well so I'm just trying to keep doing whatever I can to help us win games."
- Lillard was three-for-14 and finished with 12 points and 10 assists. Not a huge fan of his shot selection or offensive assertiveness in this one. It wasn't a disaster because he did keep himself in the game from a team management standpoint.
- J.J. Hickson overcame a few stymied attempts early to finish with 18 points and 18 rebounds, numbers aided by LaMarcus Aldridge's absence. Stotts split the other big man minutes between Joel Freeland, Meyers Leonard and Luke Babbitt. Lillard had big praise for Hickson again: "J.J. he was a hog out there. Chasing rebounds, attacking the rim, he just plays strong. I think a lot of the second chance points he got us, him tipping out balls, grabbing rebounds and fighting. It gave us a better chance to win the game."
- During pre-game warm-ups, Timofey Mozgov was hit in the face with a basketball and had to sit down to collect himself. The Nuggets coaches checked in on him and were informed he had taken a blow to the nose. "You don't want to look like [Kosta] Koufos," one joked, worried about possible swelling. Koufos, of course, has a legendarily large schnozz.
- A popular sign shown on the Rose Garden jumbotron: "Just a reminder: we have a better record than the Lakers."
- You saw that Meyers Leonard dunk attempt that ended with him being fouled and the ball bypassing the rim completely, hurtling all the way to the sideline before it came back to Earth, right?
- Luke Babbitt had 14 points and eight rebounds on four-for-10 shooting including four-for-seven from deep. He received a standing ovation when he left the game with six fouls.
- That prompted a Matthews tweet: "Lol never hear somebody get a standing ovation for fouling out #Luuuuuuuuuuuuuuuke lol"
- It was truly amazing that the Nuggets could push this game into the final minutes given the depth of their struggles from everywhere besides point blank range. Scoring 74 points in the paint will keep you in a game, though.
- No clue what to make of Karl's minutes distribution in this one.
- Blazers broadcaster Mike Rice danced with the BlazerDancers during one of the timeouts. "So that just happened."
- That sound isn't the coming of the apocalypse, it's the thunder of bouncing man tits excited over free Chalupas. So many fans were so happy when the Nuggets fouled Portland past the 100-mark.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
We're pleased with the win. The main thing I told the team before the game, everybody has to do a little bit more, not one person do a lot more. I thought that showed. I thought everybody contributed and did a little bit more to make up for L.A. not being in the game. Good performances all around. J.J. continues to put up big numbers. I thought Nic was big when it mattered down the stretch. Luke hit some big shots. For anybody who talks about points in the paint, put this one in the books. That's about it.
Your most missed three-pointers in a game record is already broken
Yeah, I was actually proud of that record because we won the game. To go 0-for-21 to win the game, I was hoping we would keep that for awhile.
They struggled or your defense locked them up?
They had a lot of good looks. I thought we contested some of them. They had a lot of threes that they could have or should have made.
Wesley Matthews was back
He's a gutsy player. He provides energy and passion at the defensive end. When he makes his shots, that's another dimension to add some scoring. He makes us deeper, obviously. It's not as much pressure on the guys coming off the bench.
Strange game because they scored so many points in the paint
I know you guys when you're sitting there watching the game, and you can see what the point in the paints is. I really had no idea what it was until the end of the game. I just felt like offensively we played in a good rhythm. The shots that we got, we shot 36 threes, I thought most of them were pretty good. I've said this a lot already this season, we don't have a magic formula in the box score for wins. Points in the paint, it helps when we make threes but we beat Toronto or whoever without making threes. We don't have a statistical formula for winning but I think when we play together, do what's necessary, we play pretty well.
You thought you had a good offensive rhythm?
Honestly even though we shot poorly, we got a lot of shots. J.J. had three or four dunk opportunities which was good offense. 36 threes, most of them were in rhythm. This was a 100 possession game. You look at the shot attempts, 98 and 92. This is a high possession game. I thought there was a lot of energy on the court. It's a legit question. We didn't shoot the ball well but offensively I didn't think we were as bad as our shooting percentage.
Four-game winning streak
We can enjoy it until Saturday. We had a six-game homestand. We've got one more game on the homestand. I'm pleased after the Sacramento game we were able to bounce back and get some wins. Particularly we've won a lot of games with the starters being out. Whether it's L.A., Wes or Nic, we've had different people play key roles in all the wins.
Why isn't there a "go-to" box score number to see how you will do?
I think when you compete and you play hard you make things happen. I've always said about Gary Payton and Jason Kidd, they found ways to win games. A rebound, a shot, an assist, a steal, a deflection, a loose ball, whatever it was. Not necessarily to that degree, but stats don't matter most of the time. It's how we play. It's not how well we play, it's how we play. We're kind of getting into a rhythm.
Surprising you can win this game in such a weird way given points in paint and their shooting?
How many times have we had stat sheets, where if you thought you do this, would you win the game, and there have been plenty of them. Sometimes you've got to throw the stats out and watch how we're playing.
Feels good. Always feels good after a win. It's good to be having some momentum, especially with how the schedule is, we need to have momentum now. Home wins aren't a given but you want to make sure you hold your own at home.
One made jumper by Nuggets
Only one outside shot? Really? I hadn't heard that one. No. Not that I know of. I didn't even know it happened. Serious? That's amazing.
You seriously didn't realize they only made one jumper?
I knew they weren't hitting any threes, but they took 98 shots, I wasn't keep track of every one. I didn't know they didn't make any outside shots, other than threes.
His ability to make shots and create space on the court gives us a dimension. Denver went small, he was able to have an impact, certainly there are going to be a lot of these games where he's able to do that. With L.A. being out, that's 38 minutes at four that someone is going to be able to get, and Luke took advantage of it.
Message through these injuries
Just everybody has to do a little bit more, but don't put it on yourself to try and do too much. Do what you can. Make an extra play, make an extra effort play, be ready to make the play when it's your turn but don't try and overdo it. Trust the team and you'll be rewarded.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter