The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Phoenix Suns, 96-93, at the Rose Garden on Saturday night, improving their record to 13-12.
Life looks different from the plus side of a five-game winning streak. A coach puffs his chest out a little bit further and zings with a little more sauce. A crowd rushes to its feet with the game on the balance, no easing here. A star player takes the "Hey, why not?" plunge, making a declaration that would have sounded crazy a month ago and could very well sound crazy a month from now.
"I think we're capable of being a playoff team," Blazers guard Damian Lillard said after scoring 25 points, nine of them in the fourth quarter, and dishing seven assists.
You can tell life looks different from the plus side of a five-game winning streak because no one batted an eye when he said it or chuckled about it afterwards. The immediate reaction on social media was more "thumbs up" than nose-thumbing. The more cautious folks out there might have stopped short of co-signing the predictive power of Lillard's statement, but they were more likely to encourage, rather than guffaw at, the sentiment.
It's not difficult to look at the rest of Portland's schedule and find opportunities for five-game losing streaks, but it's also worth a full-beat moment here to appreciate the last two weeks. The Blazers won through various injuries and ailments, with timely help from inconsistent contributors and against a soft schedule, as mentioned on Thursday, but they have also won by simply taking care of business.
I wrote recently that we ask elite teams to avoid playing down to the level of their competition, so when they actually tear off a huge stretch against weaker opposition, a la the Oklahoma City Thunder's monster 11-game winning streak, they deserve more credit and less nitpicking than they often receive. "Handle their biz, scramble like Randall with his," is how Shawn Carter would put the Thunder's recent run. The same basic principle applies for teams within one standard deviation of average, although we rightfully loosen up those expectations and settle for a bit less: play hard, dictate the action and close out winnable games against similar or worse competition at home. (And cross your fingers and/or close your eyes on the road.)
"In retrospect I'm really glad we were able to take advantage of the six game home stand," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "Especially starting with losing badly to Sacramento and having some injuries through the home stand and still finding a way. ... To find ways to win at home is important. Part of it is doing what you're supposed to do. It's a five-game winning streak but there are certain expectations of winning at home and playing well at home."
The Blazers practically found five different ways to win in the last five games. During this stretch, the same Blazers team that gave up 117 points and 112 points in consecutive wins just three weeks ago held its five opponents to an average of 88.8 points per game. They did it with four different starting lineups. They did it with good shooting nights and bad. They did it while winning the rebounding battle soundly and losing the rebounding battle soundly. They did it while getting killed in the paint and getting loose with the ball. They did it without hitting a single three and by hitting 14 threes. The same team that spent nearly an entire road trip shaken last month looked, for a fortnight, pretty unshakeable.
The two constants have been Lillard and J.J. Hickson, and both were standouts again on Saturday.
Hickson did most of his damage early, scoring 13 points and grabbing eight rebounds in the first quarter on his way to 19 points and 15 rebounds on the night. Considering just the first frame, Hickson actually outscored and outrebounded all of his teammates combined; his presence forced Suns coach Alvin Gentry's hand. This was no country for old Luis Scola. After playing nine minutes in the first quarter, the 32-year-old Argentinian saw just 10 more minutes the rest of the way. There was no place to hide him and no match-up that would work, at least not with Hickson flying around at full speed, lapping him on loose balls.
"I'm finally being consistent," Hickson said of notching his seventh straight double-double, the first time that's been done by a member of the Blazers since Arvydas Sabonis in 1997. "That's something I've struggled with my whole career."
Gentry turned to Jermaine O'Neal, who seemed to enjoy pounding with Hickson, and Markieff Morris, who licked his lips like Michael Beasley preparing for a sesh when he was isolated one-on-one against Luke Babbitt. O'Neal and Morris combined for 24 points and eight rebounds, enough to push Phoenix to a double-digit lead and make this a four quarter game, but not enough to make Gentry feel any real control over the proceedings.
"You knew they were going to come back," Gentry admitted.
Lurking in the shadows during the first half was Lillard, who was shooting just one-for-four at halftime and has as many turnovers (3) as assists. With Wesley Matthews lost to a re-aggravated hip flexor in the first quarter, Gentry was free to turn up his defensive pressure against Lillard, knowing that his team's backside defense would only be leaving open a reserve when hard-doubling the point.
As he did against the Spurs, Lillard -- who had four second-half assists -- essentially passed his way out the pressure. That hill climbed, he was then able to re-assert himself down the stretch ball, scoring Portland's final seven points of the game, including a three-pointer and a last-minute step-back two.
"I made more plays for other guys, we made shots and they had to loosen up on me," Lillard said. "I was able to find some gaps and get some shots to fall."
"We had a timeout left," Gentry said. "We had an opportunity to go down one and I thought we could get a quick two with a timeout left. Then we peeled off and started looking for a three and just never got the timeout called."
Rather than attack the hoop or feed the ball ahead to Shannon Brown for a quick basket and a timeout, Dragic, a 36.2 percent three-point shooter this season, stopped outside the three-point arc and passed up a clean look. There was time left on the clock, sure, but there was also a shot there for the taking, but he never even seriously considered it. Instead, he moved the ball to Jared Dudley, who in turned move it to Markieff Morris, who moved it back to Dudley, who moved it back Dragic. No one was able to generate a clean look at the hoop and a Dragic desperation three to tie at the buzzer didn't stand much of a chance. At no point did the frazzled Suns take a moment to think things through and call a timeout. It would have been unusual to stop the open play and allow the defense to reset at the dead ball, but given the scramble it might have actually still been preferable.
And here is where we return to expectations governing Portland's recent streak. This was a totally winnable game in the final minute; only minor catastrophes on both ends would have resulted in overtime. After a debatable no-call on one end, there was no meltdown on the other end. Instead, Nicolas Batum did a nice job of baiting Dragic into picking up his dribble before retreating to close off the passing lane to Brown. Then, LaMarcus Aldridge ran hard at Dudley, forcing a catch-and-shoot guy outside his comfort zone, and then disrupted Morris. Next, Sasha Pavlovic came flying from near the baseline to close out on Dudley a second time, getting him hung up in his dribble again. Finally, Lillard contested Dragic's last-second shot, getting a hand up without fouling.
"I thought it was great recognition by everyone on the court to not give up the three" Stotts said. "L.A. was flying out, everybody, Sasha, everybody was determined not to give up a clean look at a three. I thought that was really good alertness on everybody's part who was on the court."
Batum added: "We knew they needed a three so we defended the three-point line. That's it. That's what I tried to do. Switch on everything, they tried to get a shot. If they went to the basket to get a two, we were fine."
The road team lost its head while the home team kept its head, and a winnable game at home was closed out in a professional manner.
- This game was announced just short of a sellout: 19,746. Crowd was very loud in the fourth quarter especially during Damian Lillard's push.
- Before the game, Ronnie Price was exchanging all sorts of handshakes and high fives with his former Suns teammates and coaches.
- Speaking of Price, how about that block from behind? Where in the world did that come from? Less fantastic, but equally pretty, was a simple baseline drive to beat the defense after they left him to double Lillard. A little pump fake and straight to the rim. A frustrating play for a defense to give up and one that can have a little back-breaking effect.
- Jared Jeffries took the microphone at center court (before a DNP-CD) to address the crowd: "On behalf of the Trail Blazers and myself, we want to thank you guys for giving us the greatest homecourt advantage in the NBA. We also want to wish you a blessed, happy and healthy holiday season."
- The best sign, by far, was a giant piece of paper rolled up to look like a tube of sunscreen.
- Another good one: "Fa La La LaMarcus."
- Hickson couldn't miss early in this game. When he tossed in a left-handed mid-range hook shot from the baseline, the Blazers bench, led by Jeffries, went nuts, dancing and pointing at the jumbotron for a replay.
- Speaking of the jumbotron there was a proposal and KARA SAID YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
- I've never seen Nicolas Batum that loose with the basketball. Ever. Just terrible, terrible turnovers. He tied a career-high with seven turnovers. "I try to be a point guard now so I make some mistakes," he joked afterwards. Batum did finish with 13 points, nine rebounds and eight assists to go with the turnovers. "Five-by-five, quadruple double, I try to make history."
- J.J. Hickson took away a LaMarcus Aldridge basket with a little over a minute remaining by way of offensive goaltending. The jumbotron happened to be on Aldridge as he walked up the court, and he clearly mouthed, "That was going in!"
- At halftime, they showed another one of those "Top 10 plays of the week" video reels. Lillard's game-winner against the Hornets finished No. 2 to Joe Johnson's overtime game-winner for the Brooklyn Nets against the Detroit Pistons. I've said it before and I'll say it again: the Blazers really need to strategically re-edit these clips as they come in from the league.
- Matthews was not in the locker room post-game. Stotts did not provide any specific update during his comments. Blazers PR notified reporters after the game that Matthews would not be traveling with the team to Sacramento to face the Kings on Sunday. Matthews' status is unknown past that. The team also said that he left the game with the same left hip flexor strain (implying that this is not a new injury).
- Speaking of availability for the upcoming home-and-home with the Kings, DeMarcus Cousins is suspended indefinitely right now after a verbal confrontation with coach Keith Smart.
- Will Barton and Elliot Williams are the world's two biggest Kobe Bryant fans. They were bouncing up and down, bundles of nervous energy, as the final minutes of a tight game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Golden State Warriors played out on the locker room televisions. This was not the first animated conversation about Bryant's greatness between the two this season. (Hey, I'm only the messenger.)
- I couldn't watch Michael Beasley play without thinking of the time he decided to sue his former AAU coach without telling his own PR firm, only to have the PR firm drop him and refer me to "Shooter" for all of my future inquiries. The good old days of the 2011 Lockout.
- Speaking of Beasley, his box score line was incredible. He shot 1-for-4, including one airball and a shot that only hit the backboard, committed one foul, and registered no other stats. Somehow, he managed to finish a +15 in 10 minutes. Boy, what a great glue guy.
- One final graph from Lillard on the season to date: "That's what we want. Coming into this season, a lot of people said we were rebuilding but we just worked hard and we wanted to come out and compete, give us a chance to win games. We've been sticking with it this whole early part of the season and we've been able to win some games."
- Happy Holidays and thanks for reading.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
Found a way to win the game. I thought our rebounding in the second half, before the quarter particularly was very good. We held them to 40 percent shooting in the second half. I thought that gave us some momentum. We were able to play in flow. Obviously Damian made some big shots down the stretch. I thought defensively is where our defense gave our offense some momentum. I love the way the game started off, we kind of lost our flow late in the first quarter, early in the second quarter and neve really gathered it back in the first half, but were able to do it in the second half.
Ronnie came in and was effective, he scored the ball, pushed the ball, defensively he battled. Sasha, we've got a lot of confidence in what Sasha can do on both ends of the floor, he hit a big three. Luke. Victor came in and started the second half, it seems like when he has started that that stretch has been a positive stretch. Am I missing anybody? It's just another solid win.
J.J. Hickson had a great line again. He almost had a double-double in the first quarter. He's been terrific in doing what we need him to do. It was good to have LaMarcus back. He got off to a good start and was really effective down the stretch as well.
Part of it what I said: the way the game started, it looked easy and it wasn't. We assumed it was going to be easy and we had to get back, we had to come out the way we started the game and realize it wasn't as easy as it looked. We came out with an attitude because they had beaten us twice and we hadn't played well. I think we lost sight of that. At halftime we have to get back to doing that.
Last defensive stand
I thought it was great recognition by everyone on the court to not give up the three. L.A. was flying out, everybody, Sasha, everybody was determined not to give up a clean look at a three. I thought that was really good alertness on everybody's part who was on the court.
It wasn't a complete game. The second half I was pleased with for the most part. We had some breakdowns more so the first half, we adjusted our coverages a little bit. I thought J.J. did a terrific job on O'Neal in particular on the block in the second half. Part of defending is rebounding and we rebounded very well.
Turnovers were a problem, no question. They were a problem in Phoenix. You look and they had 20 more shots than we did. That's unusual but a lot of it was because we had turnovers. I don't know if they led directly [to points] because they only had nine fast break points. I don't know if our turnovers led directly to their scoring but it just took away our momentum on the offensive end.
Why care so much about the preseason loss to the Suns?
Their starters dominated our starters in that game. In preseason games, [usually] everybody's playing. For the most part our starters played against their starters and they dominated that part. That was concerning for me at that time. That's why there was some carryover, at least from my part.
It's cliche but in retrospect I'm really glad we were able to take advantage of the six game homestand, especially starting with losing badly to Sacramento and having some injuries through the homestand and still finding a way. I think in every game, there was somebody out. Like tonight, I think Wes was basically out. To find ways to win at home is important. Part of it is doing what you're supposed to do. It's a five-game winning streak but there are certain expectations of winning at home and playing well at home.
I don't have a status on him. I took him out but he went back to the locker room and just didn't feel like he could contribute. Felt like he was hurting the team being out there. I think you should talk to him. I don't know what his status is. I don't know if he's going to Sacramento or not. I don't know anything right now. On that subject.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter