The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Sacramento Kings, 109-91, at the Rose Garden on Wednesday night.
Tendency analysis is such a valued art in the NBA because in basketball, as in life, humans prefer to do the things they are good at rather than the things that cause them to struggle. Understanding an opponent's strengths and weaknesses -- down to play preferences, scenario preferences, direction preferences, shot location preferences, shot type preferences, etc. -- is the foundational element of every scouting report. Make the opposition do what they aren't comfortable doing and good things happen.
My guess is that when the Blazers' scouting department sits down to divvy up the scouting report writing assignments for the other 29 teams around the league, the Kings are annually one of the first teams picked by whoever is savvy enough to want a workload that's just a little bit lighter. The report, recycled year after year, probably reads something like this...
The Kings are, at virtually every stage of the operation, a disaster.
(Lengthy list of reasons why they are a disaster, redacted here out of politeness.)
The one thing that they can do, better than many teams, is make you pay for inattentive perimeter defense. There is no shortage of players on Sacramento's roster who can "get buckets." Wing defenders: pay attention and don't get torched off the dribble.
Everyone else in all other aspects of the game: perform average or better and we will win.
One can only imagine, then, how frustrating it must be for a coach to watch his team fail to execute a one-step game plan against an inferior opponent and lose in spectacular and predictable fashion. That was Blazers coach Terry Stotts following Sunday's double-digit loss to the Kings, which saw four Kings perimeter players hit double figures, two others go for eight and seven, respectively, while Sacramento as a team shot a whopping 55.6 percent without a single low-post scoring threat.
"The way we played a few days ago was a mess," Nicolas Batum said after Wednesday's game.
As far as I can tell, Stotts' reaction to Sunday's loss was simply to repeat the same basic gameplan, perhaps underlining perimeter defense a few extra times, and trust that his charges could respond in adequate fashion. Once Kings center DeMarcus Cousins was left home for the trip, leaving Sacramento without him for the second straight game, the equation became as straightforward as it gets: make their wings work and/or settle and walk out of the Rose Garden with the win that should have been there during the last two meetings.
"With Cousins being out this game, with the way we played and the way Sacramento played down there, the emphasis on their perimeter attacks was even more important," Stotts said. "The way they attacked us in Sacramento, their perimeter guys getting into the paint. If Cousins plays, now they get some more post-ups, there are big bodies in the paint. Their offense changes. When Cousins wasn't going to play we were able to emphasize the things we didn't do very well in Sacramento."
That emphasis included video tape review that didn't require much digging. See that guy jogging to the basket and pirouetting before he finishes an uncontested lay-up? Try not to let that happen.
"We can see it for ourselves on film," Blazers guard Damian Lillard said, noting that Stotts wasn't particularly angry after Sunday's loss. "Guys just driving to the paint, getting looks at the rim, that's the guards' fault. In pick and rolls, if the hedge isn't how it's supposed to be, it's evident, we can see it for ourselves. [Stotts] will just mention that's the problem and it's up to us to fix it."
Fixes only come that easy against weak opponents, when the errors shouldn't have been that way in the first place, or some combination of both. Still, Portland's progress in wing defense intensity was evident: only two Kings perimeter players hit double figures, Sacramento shot only 40.7 percent from the field and Portland was +14 on points in the paint on Wednesday compared to -10 on Sunday. Less uncontested drives; less easy buckets; less points conceded.
Will Barton added: "That's what we [hunkered] down on in the walkthrough and practice. That we need to guard better, especially against Sacramento. They've got a lot of great one-on-one iso players. If they get a rhythm, it's hard to stop them. They'll start making tough shots and before you know it, they're getting to the rim easily. We just wanted to do our job and contain their guards."
The Kings guards were well contained and Sacramento leaked points on the other end. Portland pounded inside -- getting 28 points and 12 rebounds from LaMarcus Aldridge and 17 points and 14 rebounds from J.J. Hickson -- establishing the low-post offense early in Cousins' absence.
"Any time I get an easy bucket, a lay-up because I'm an attacker, I feel like I have a rhythm going and it helps me do other things," he said. "It felt real good to just get out there and play. I never worry about one category out there, I just want to play, produce and help make winning plays."
The scoring category wound up being the only one in which he left a major imprint on the game, as he tallied one rebound, one assist, one turnover and no other stats. Here, in what Stotts' called Barton's "best game of the season," we got a clear look at the rationale in starting Victor Claver, and not Barton, in place of the injured Wesley Matthews. Claver shot zero-for-four and didn't score, registering only two assists, but he filled 21 minutes well enough to not spoil Portland's early play in either the first or third quarters. Claver's presence as a starter allowed Barton to serve as a primary wing attacker when he's on the court and keeps a proper equilibrium between shoot-centric players and drive-centric players in the two units. The 25 minutes of playing time, and the double-digit scoring production, should become more regular occurrences after the All-Star break.
Equilibrium was a good word for the night, as the Blazers steadily pushed out to a 26-point lead, soundly winning each of the first three quarters without ever shifting much past fourth gear. Portland's reserves gave back a chunk of the lead during the fourth quarter but the door was slammed simply enough with one final push from the starters. This just wasn't a very competitive or close outing; the Kings walked in ready to lose, and did.
An up and down season for Portland was a given since before training camp, but these last two games against the same opponent -- one blowout loss forgetting the game plan, one blowout win following the game plan just fine -- brings back the Jekyll and Hyde talk once again. A survey of various Blazers on the subject brought a few admissions.
"We don't know what happened the last two times we played against them," Batum said. "We have to show them we're a better team and show people we're a better team than them... The crowd changes everything. We've got home cooking, family in town, it changes for us. If we could bring 20,000 fans on the road it would be great."
Lillard added: "The last game that we just lost, they took us to the rim and got what they wanted on offense. We made a point to do better defensively. We talked about it all day. They did what they wanted to us when they had the ball. It came down to us having more pride and caring more defensively. We just made it harder for them. Everybody brought it."
Finally, Barton: "I feel like when we're focused we're just as good as anyone, we can beat anyone. When we're locked down, stopping people and playing together as a team. I feel like we can beat anyone on any given night."
To summarize: 1) Playing at home is admittedly a crutch; 2) Bringing quality focus from game to game is desired but not taken for granted; 3) Reviewing slip-ups and learning how to generate internal motivation remains in the developmental phase; 4) Sometimes, they don't know exactly why they don't do the things they should do. All in all, that's about what you would expect.
"I think we're the same team," Lillard said, when asked if perhaps the Blazers have a split personality. "We just haven't been able to win as many games on the road. Just like we're good at home, other teams are really good at home too. It's just a challenge. Of course it would be a difference between us at home and on the road."
After an extended run of home games throughout December, seven of the next 11 come on the road. Besides the Toronto Raptors, every other opponent during the stretch will present a more complicated riddle than these one-dimensional Kings.
Random Game Notes
- The crowd was announced as a sellout. It was very late-arriving (late-arriving by Portland standards: getting there just before tip, not during the game) but a much larger than expected turnout for the day after Christmas against the Kings.
- ESPN's game highlights have Will Barton's acrobatic lay-up and an emphatic Meyers Leonard dunk, among others.
- Damian Lillard had two high-rising dunks in quick succession. Here they are via YouTube userTheBlazersVideos. The second one -- a two-hand flush -- was eye-popping.
- Pretty good nerdy sign: "Rip City For The Checkmate."
- Another sign: "Chuck Norris is scared of Damian Lillard."
- One fan held up a sign identifying herself as hailing from Farnham, England. Her sign was supporting, duh, Joel Freeland.
- The Blazers showed off a new video that included Damian Lillard's down-the-lane dunk to the tune of Van Halen's Right Now before the game. That definitely got people hyped up. Nice choice all-around on that one.
- Former Ducks guard Aaron Brooks continues to get pre-game cheers.
- After Mike Rice joined the BlazerDancers for a recent jig, Wednesday was the Rose Garden ushers' turn to take the court and dance. They went all out and got a very nice round of applause.
- Travis Outlaw inbounding to Nicolas Batum and then immediately giving the forced foul because Batum beat him baseline was a very Outlaw-esque sequence.
- Big night for J.J. Hickson. Sure, you're probably thinking about the double-double he registered, his ninth straight, the first time that's been done by a Blazers player since Kermit Washington in 1980. I was actually referring to the fact that he finished +22 for the game. Entering the game, he was a -48 for the season (third worst on the Blazers), so he made up some serious ground in this one.
- Kings coach Keith Smart on Hickson: "He does one thing very, very well and he's been doing it to every team. Obviously, he rebounds the basketball... He's going to get his points just off of hard work and that's what he did and that's what he's done... He's a good young man, a really good young man."
- "... A really good young man that we woke up one day and decided to cut last year." (Smart didn't say that part.)
- Terry Stotts pulled his starters from the game together with less than two minutes remaining and they received a nice, collective ovation.
- Thomas Robinson threw down a sick windmill in the closing seconds to cut the final margin to just 18 points.
- There was yet another jumbotron proposal. This one had a twist, as the proposer was a member of the military. Ashlay said "yes."
- That prompted me to issue the following challenge on Twitter. The first person who successfully turns down a marriage proposal on the Rose Garden jumbotron will get a 4,000 word feature written about them on this very site. The only stipulations are that the proposer (and the game operations people) can't know he/she will say "no" in advance and the couple must have been in a relationship for at least one month. I am rooting so hard for someone to take on this challenge. You could be famous!
- Joe Freeman of The Oregonian reports on Twitter that it's possible Wesley Matthews could miss "at least two games" with his left hip flexor strain, but that his timetable is officially "unknown."
- Damian Lillard finished with 17 points, 11 assists and two rebounds. He said that it would have been cool to reach a triple-double and also said that he was gunning for it at the end. "Once I realized I almost had it I was trying to chase rebounds. They started to make shots. We just wanted to win the game. I'm sure I'll have plenty more opportunities."
- Blazers coach Terry Stotts said afterwards that he is OK with leaving a player in the game to pursue something like a triple-double under certain circumstances, although he wouldn't elaborate. He said he had done it before.
- Lillard on facing the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday: "It will be a tough one because they're rolling and it's on their floor. They're kind of figuring it out [with Steve Nash]."
- Lakers center Dwight Howard was ejected for a flagrant foul 2 on Wednesday night for a hit to the face of Denver Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried. After reviewing the rules, I don't think he will receive an additional suspension for the play, but it's hard to gauge these scenarios. Video of the play and an explanation of the flagrant foul rules is right here.
- Will Barton on mentally preparing for inconsistent amounts of playing time. "Working hard. Staying in the gym, doing extra. Keeping your mind right, telling yourself you're a pro and you're just as good as anybody else and it's just not your turn yet. Cheer for your teammates, listen to your coaches, pray and hope for the best."
- Barton on remaining confident this season (and an observation on life): "I've never been a guy who lacked confidence. I've always felt I'm one of the best players if I'm on the court. I think that's real big for anybody who is trying to succeed in anything you do, you have to be confident. If you don't feel like you're confident you're probably not doing too good at your job. That's any profession."
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
I thought it was a solid win for us. We tightened up our defense in the second and third quarters. We made our runs I thought because of our defense. We got energy into the game, we had a few dunks because of our defense. I was proud the way we came out in the third quarter, didn't really give them any life or hope. It was a good win.
We didn't change any schemes, I just thought we executed our defense better. We made it a priority to keep the ball in front of us, keep the ball out of the paint, our pick and roll defense was a little bit better. They made shots in the first quarter but second and third quarter, I think they shot low-30s that whole time. I thought our guys sustained our defensive focus for longer periods of time.
With Wes out, that's a lot of minutes open at the two spot. Will had his opportunities in Sacramento as well but he obviously played well tonight. This was the best game he's had of the season. He played within himself. Didn't try to do too much. Played the game the right way and it was good having him out there, I thought he made good contributions.
31 assists as a team
I love it. I thought 19 at halftime on 23 baskets, or something like that, we're a team that needs to pass the ball and get each other shots. We're not a one-on-one team. We're better when we're creating for each other, whether it's screening, driving or passing. We will have some one on one opportunities, obviously L.A. on the block, but we're better when we help each other out.
Well we had a stretch there and in general I was pleased the way it finished. That bad stretch, they went to a zone, we had some miscues on offense and defense. I would have liked to have kept the starters on the bench but they came back in and did their job. Sometimes that happens.
High shooting percentage
I wouldn't even say we shot exceptionally well. We didn't necessarily shoot the three well. Our passing -- a lot of it was dunks. For us to get 50 points in the paint, and shoot 25-for-36 in the paint, that had a lot to do with our shooting. You take away our shots in the paint and we didn't shoot particularly well. A lot of those dunks were created off of our defense, our activity and ball movement.
Bigs dominating in the paint
I thought they were both very aggressive going after rebounds. I thought LaMarcus offensively was changing it up between jump shots and getting in the paint. They both have five offensive rebounds, they were going after it. That's nothing new for J.J., he's been doing it. I think they both were very aggressive. They're relatively undersized team especially with Cousins out so the opportunity was there for them both.
Would you leave a player in to chase a triple-double?
Depends on the circumstances, yeah. Depends on how close and the minutes, but yeah, I've done that before. I know Damian was supposedly close. If there had been more time possibly, but I think it has to be the right circumstances and I don't want to send the wrong message. I do like for players to accomplish goals.
What are right circumstances?
When they come up I'll let you know.
With Cousins being out this game, with the way we played and the way Sacramento played down there, the emphasis on their perimeter attacks was even more important. The way they attacked us in Sacramento, their perimeter guys getting into the paint. If Cousins plays, now they get some more post-ups, there are big bodies in the paint. Their offense changes. When Cousins wasn't going to play we were able to emphasize the things we didn't do very well in Sacramento.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter