In a Nutshell
Facing a short-handed and quite bad New Orleans Hornets team the Portland Trail Blazers play three quarters of uninspired basketball, emerging from their slump only in the third period. That was enough to leave the game near even. The Blazers hit an array of three-point shots to provide a difference they shouldn't have needed.
The Blazers worked towards a fast tempo in the early going, a smart idea against the trudging, ground-bound Hornets. There's a right way and a wrong way to push it, though. The right way is hawking defense leading to missed shots and rebounds which turn into run-outs and crisp aggression on the drive or drive and dish. The Blazers chose the wrong way: simply firing up jumpers early in the shot clock. Several clangs later the Hornets had a 6-0 lead, a margin which they'd preserve through much of the period. The Blazers were two steps slow on defense, rotation-free, and disinterested in rebounding as well. LaMarcus Aldridge's superior offensive talent and a couple of Luke Babbitt three-pointers
brought them back to within put them up a point, as New Orleans Portland led 28-27 after one.
The poor rebounding and interior defense continued in the second period. The Blazers allowed the Hornets to shoot 48% in the first half. That number was brought below 50% only because of some dramatic misses at the end of the second period. It's hard to get the Hornets to shoot 50% but the Blazers managed. Babbitt bailed them out again with the long ball, this time with the help of Wesley Matthews who hit a couple himself. Portland still trailed 54-51 at the half. The only thing more odd than letting New Orleans shoot 48% is letting new Orleans score 54 in a half. That's normally three quarters' worth of production for them.
Thankfully the Blazers came alive in the third period, spearheaded by the heretofore-silent Nicolas Batum. Batum shot, drove, and defended his way to a masterful period, scoring 11 and helping hold the Hornets to 16. Portland managed 25 off of open shots and defense-inspired fast-breaks. The game looked in hand as the Blazers led 76-70 after three.
Oops. Not so quick. The Blazers suddenly returned to their earlier defensive ways in the fourth. Only J.J. Hickson had any defensive life at all. Babbitt scored a couple buckets early in a last burst of heroism but the Hornets had the game tied again at the 4:50 mark. By coincidence, this was about the time you noticed that it had been forever since LaMarcus Aldridge touched the ball. The Blazers remedied that posthaste and Aldridge either scored or assisted on every bucket made from there on out, making a nice drive and a couple of mid-range shots of his own and passing to Batum and Raymond Felton for made threes. Meanwhile the Blazers ratcheted up the defense enough to force three turnovers and New Orleans couldn't generate enough possessions to keep up. Portland wins 99-93.
There's something to be said for not expending more energy than you need to in order to win the game. But that usually applies to great teams saving up for a long playoff run. In this case there's something to be said for not playing the kind of game that's going to leave you down 20 and beyond range of a comeback against any team who's decent. The Blazers got saved tonight by the individual heroics of a few players while everyone else took the night off. That's not going to cut it most nights.
That said, a huge "BRAVO!" to those players who bailed out their team. To wit...
LaMarcus Aldridge gave his usual steady effort punctuated by moments of brilliance and unstoppable offense. The tide turned in this game precisely when his teammates remembered that no matter how good they're rolling, he's the guy to take them home. Presumably Coach Canales had something to do with that memory jog as well. Well done. Aldridge went 11-18 on the evening for 25 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 assists with only 2 turnovers. He gave the Blazers everything they needed.
J.J. Hickson looked like he was auditioning for a job instead of biding time before the off-season. The dude brought energy on both ends, manning up against Carl Landry and assorted comers, rebounding, and providing points in the paint on the other end. He ended up 6-10 for 12 points with 6 rebounds and 2 steals.
Raymond Felton had an impressive return, playing as contained of a game as we've seen on offense en rout to 12 points on 5-10 shooting plus 10 assists and 3 steals with only 2 turnovers. And at least those turnovers were honest, trying to thread magic-dream passes through defenders for layups. From this point down the list the defense isn't much to write home about, but the offensive side of the ball was really good for Raymond tonight.
Luke Babbitt turned off the targeting computer in his head and trusted the Force tonight, firing 4-6 from three-point range. He was 4-4 until he got tired and rushed in the final period. But seriously, he was catching and shooting like the best of them tonight. That's three straight games too. Mama Babbitt is going to have to cover her ice-maker if she keeps hanging up box scores like this. Standing ovation. 5-8, 16 points, 3 rebounds, and better defense than usual.
Wesley Matthews went 7-15, 3-7 from distance, for 18 points but other than his 2 blocked shots his defense was not up to standards tonight. He needed those shots to avoid a bad game.
Nicolas Batum got bailed out by his third-quarter surge into a stat-line that looked almost decent: 5-11, 3-7 from distance, 14 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks in 30 minutes. Don't let that fool you. He was flat-out bad--absent, even--for most of this game. It's the kind of thing that drives you crazy from a guy on whom the team depends now and wants to make its star in the future. He can't just disappear like that anymore, not with a straight face and a clear conscience. He's not a rookie. He's not a sophomore. He's a guy about to sign a major contract with somebody and he'll be expected to earn it. Play time is over. Are we playing serious basketball or just having a fun little career? I said in a recent Mailbag that there's nothing worse than constantly having to remind your star to be a star. Nights like this aren't very reassuring in that vein.
Joel Przybilla had 4 rebounds and 3 personal fouls in 17 minutes. It's almost funny to see him getting tired and just start clocking fools. Well, it would be funny if the Blazers were a little deeper at center.
Jonny Flynn played 15 minutes of mistake-free ball, committing only 1 turnover and dishing 3 assists. I'll be interested to see if and when he gets his shooting confidence back. His first year in the league he'd take anything. That's been crushed out of him, which will probably help his point-guard game. He needs just a touch of it back now, though. His defense is still suspect, but that's true of all the backcourt right now.
I'm not sure how Jamal Crawford spends the whole game passing up shots in one of his "I'm not shooting it" moods and still manages to go 0-6 from the field and 0-5 from the arc. He had 2 points off of free throws and 2 assists plus a steal and a block in 22 minutes. It was bad...his second straight awful performance in a row.
Fun With Numbers
- N.O. shoots 46.5%, not exactly the 50% clip they maintained for most of the first half but still above their 44.8% average. Portland's defense is bad right now. Everybody scores.
- The Blazers dodged a night when the opponent shot 20-21 at the foul line. Portland went but 9-13. That was a dangerous inversion.
- Three things bailed out the Blazers. The first was three-point shooting. Portland went 12-28 from the arc, 43%. I haven't looked it up but I'm guessing that if you research games where the Blazers took that many threes there aren't a lot of W's peeking out of the pile. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but my instinct says that this was both unusual and payback for some of those games earlier in the year when Portland couldn't hit any from beyond the arc.
- Portland also managed 10 fast break points...not bad for a team trying to slow the tempo against them.
- Finally the Blazers won the points in the paint battle 44-32, perhaps the best stat against a New Orleans team that likes it inside (41 ppg on average).
- Only 9 turnovers didn't hurt either. 26 assists too. Nice!
Better come up with Plan B against the Clippers, because Chris Paul and Blake Griffin will stuff this kind of effort so hard SportsCenter will have to come up with an 11th play of the night.
That said, a win is a win and this was a win. Applause. Credit.
At The Hive will probably be pleased with this effort.