The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Golden State Warriors, 118-110, at the Rose Garden on Wednesday night, improving their record on the season to 28-31. The Blazers are 4.5 games out of the No. 8 seed with seven games left to play.
This one was summed up with a no-no-no-no-yes third quarter sequence. Blazers forward J.J. Hickson was sprawled on the ground. He lost control of the ball, which found its way to 7-foot center Joel Przybilla out near halfcourt. The shot clock was running down and Przybilla quickly realized he was a 7-foot center out near halfcourt, so he handed it off to Raymond Felton. The point guard resisted the urge to commit a sloppy turnover and instead threw a perfect alley-oop pass to forward Nicolas Batum, who had been left wide open at the rim on the weak side.
Not really how you draw it up. But not boring and not ineffective, either.
The Rose Garden crowd was jazzed up, blissfully ignoring the tank-off surrounding circumstances, choosing to enjoy the shootout on its own merits. A good approach. "It's fun when we come out on the winning end," interim coach Kaleb Canales said. "I felt we've been free. I felt we've been playing with flow and playing with pace offensively."
There was plenty of offense in this one, an open game that featured some upper-shelf shot-making and defense that was lazier-than-nonchalant all night. The Warriors are now 4-13 since shipping out Monta Ellis at the trade deadline, struggling without the shut down Stephen Curry and the shelved Andrew Bogut. Caring about defense is apparently the last possible thing on their minds at this point and the two teams combined for 228 points, 178 shots, 39 three-point attempts and 11 players in double figures.
Portland managed to win the shootout despite playing without All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge. J.J. Hickson stepped in to fill the starting role with 23 points and 13 rebounds against a Tyrion Lannister-esque Golden State frontline. "He put up a great stat line but beyond that he just had some game-winning plays tonight," Canales said.
Speaking of great stat lines, there was Jamal Crawford's: 34 points, 1 rebound, 1 assist and 4 turnovers on 10-for-18 shooting and 13-13 from the line. Only Crawford. In a pressure-less, defender-less and Aldridge-less environment, he put together a season-high scoring night. His 10 buckets also tied for a season-high, the most he's hit in three weeks. Crawford said afterwards that it was the best he's felt since a March 18 game at Oklahoma City, when he scored 23 points on 10-22 shooting, and a February 10 game at New Orleans, when he scored 31 points on 10-for-16 shooting.
"Not trying to sound cocky, but I think I have one of the best handles in the NBA," he said. "I have to use it more to get to the line and open things up. If I can do that, it gets us in the bonus, it gets guys easier baskets."
Crawford's post-All-Star break numbers have been down, 11.7 points on 35.4 percent shooting, compared to 14.2 points on 39.3 percent before the break. His extraordinary free throw shooting has helped to keep him afloat when his jumper has deserted him.
"He got to the free throw line tonight 13 times," Canales said. "I think last game he got to the line nine times. Feel that it builds rhythm for him. He got a lot of good looks tonight and knocked them down to his credit."
In drawing the 13 free throw attempts, Crawford showed off one of his singular shooting skills: absorbing contact, or feigning that he has absorbed contact, in every possible way and every possible angle. During his post-game sessions, Crawford provided a little tutorial of his dark art. It's a skill, he said, that involves timing, unpredictability, trickery and an understanding of momentum.
"I honestly think I shoot it when they least expect it," he said. "They're like, 'Oh wow, he's really about to shoot that.' By that time, I'm already following through. You have to know that their body control can be used against them. Their momentum, they're leaning forward a little bit, so you're like, 'If I shoot it now, he has to react to it and more than likely he will probably foul me.'"
Crawford readily admitted that his wild, deep attempts, ones that occasionally involve baiting, can backfire. "If you shoot it and they don't call it, it can look a little crazy," he said. "Like, 'Wow, that's a tough one.' But sometimes they foul you."
So it all boils down to a calculated risk?
"Yeah it is, and I take them," he said, grinning. It was a nice exchange and it was good to see him grinning. It's been awhile.
Crawford's big night was supplemented by 18 points from Wesley Matthews, 14 points and 5 rebounds from Nicolas Batum and 16 points and 10 assists from Felton. They all shot well from the field, efficient enough to withstand a 10-0 Golden State run to open the fourth quarter. Portland simply kept chiseling away at an invisible defense, adding a 33-point final quarter to bookend an impressive 62-point first half.
"That's embarrassing," Warriors guard Nate Robinson said of Golden State giving up 118 points. "But when you let a guy like Jamal get it going, he gets it going for everybody else and it's going to be a long night, like it was."
"I wish we could have done this two months ago," Matthews said. "But we can't take back what's in the past."
Everything came so easy -- even down the stretch -- that this one had all the makings of a "tie it up with a ribbon" feel-good win. That is, until Batum opened up a little bit about his sore left quad, which led him to sit out Monday night's loss to the Houston Rockets.
Batum said he was advised by Portland's training staff that sitting out Wednesday night "would be best." Instead of taking that advice, he elected to play despite some soreness. His decision was influenced by the absence of Aldridge and by his stubborn distaste for sitting out of games. "I can't be on the side," he said. "I hate that... If I can run, I'm going to play."
Batum admitted that playing with the injury carries a risk factor. "I know I have to rest but I can't," he said. "Yes [there is a risk] because it can get worse."
Any risk probably feels like too much risk from the outsider's perspective, but there's also his upcoming free agency to consider. Batum's had a whirlwind season, one filled with changing roles, a major in-season trade of Gerald Wallace and a distracting contract extension negotiation that didn't produce a deal. His numbers are slightly up after the All-Star break and he was averaging 15.0 points and 7.2 rebounds in April entering Wednesday night's game.
"I think I'm playing better since the trade," he said.
Asked to grade his season before and after the move he exhaled deeply, stretching the word "ooof" over multiple syllables before diving in.
"Before the break, I had a good month of February, B," he said. "And now, A-. I think I've been more consistent. I'm not very good yet but I'm better than previous years. Instead of one good game, one bad game, now I get like three, four or five good games."
February was indeed Batum's best month by the numbers. He averaged 17.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. He said that he reviews his statistics in 10-game increments with Blazers coach Dean Cooper. "I don't really pay attention every game," he said. [In the reviews], I'm careful with my shooting percentage and rebounds. That's what I watch."
Batum also said that he shares the fan sentiment that he should shoot more and take on more responsibility offensively. It's difficult to accomplish those goals if he were to shut it down over a nagging injury.
'I've got seven games left," he rationalized. "I don't think we're going to practice in the next 10-15 days so I'm going to play those games for sure."
Random Game Notes
- This game was announced as a sellout.
- Raymond Felton hit the Chalupa shot and told Matt Calkins of The Columbian: "There you go fans, I made up for it." Felton previously ruined a Chalupa giveaway by bricking two late-game free throws.
- Poor Felton can't win for losing. As soon as he delivered the goods, the girlfriend of one of his teammates got in on the Twitter Raymond-bashing: "HOW IRONIC THAT IT'S FELTON THAT EARNS EVERYONE AT THE ROSE GARDEN A FREE CHALUPA? LOL." Caps lock keeps it 100. What a year.
- There's a new-ish Twitter account -- @PunningMan -- that takes Felton wordplay cracks to the max.
- Credit due to Felton for tallying 10 assists in a game in which all of his teammates combined to dish 7. The stretch run hasn't exactly brought out the best play-making from Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Jamal Crawford and Luke Babbitt. That quartet is producing assist rates akin to interest rates in a recession. Babbitt has zero assists in his last 70+ minutes of game action. That number wasn't achieved by accident. You can't happen into an assist when you instantly pull the trigger on every possession. He's officially become Portland's No. 1 gunner, not an easy title to hold.
- Speaking of Babbitt, he was the subject of a jumbotron video question-and-answer feature in which he was asked to pick between Rihanna and Beyonce. A tough decision, surely, but Rihanna is the correct answer these days. So what was Babbitt's answer? A shocking "neither." What? After the game, he explained his unconventional stance: "I'm not a fan of their music... When they are rolling off questions like that, I was thinking of music. I don't listen to that genre of music. I listen to Christian, worship songs."
- Rookie guard Nolan Smith struggled again, shooting 1-for-4 in 14 minutes for 2 points and 1 assist. Canales told me afterwards that he recently met with Smith to discuss what he wants to see from him during the balance of the season. See below for that.
- Joel Przybilla posted a season-high 14 boards in a season-high 27 minutes. Somehow he was not credited with a block shot. Felt like he had at least a couple but, then again, there were like 17 blown dunks in this game, so who really knows. Plus, no one cares. Also, it definitely doesn't matter.
- Here's Crawford's rundown of his free throw routine as told to Peter Socotch of 750 AM The Game: "When I'm blowing on my hands, I'm trying to keep them warm and get more grip on the ball. I try to do the exact same thing every time. I tell kids at my camp, I tell my son, you do the exact same thing every time so it's second nature, it's breathing. I try to focus on that... You can't over-think. The times I've missed, I think about how I'm playing in front of 20,000 people or that Paul Allen is sitting right there and I'll miss it... I just try not to think and do the same thing every time."
- Adam Richman from something called Man vs. Food was at the game and received a nice ovation, one that transformed into a huge ovation when he showed off a pinwheel logo on the back of his hand.
- That Hasheem Thabeet jump hook 12 feet over the rim was t-shirt cannon arm status. The good news is that Chris Palmer of ESPN.com declared: "I'm convinced he'll find his niche yet... [There is] still hope for him. Only 25."
- In case you missed it, I wrote a longer piece on Portland Mayoral candidate Jefferson Smith on Wednesday morning.
Kaleb Canales' Post-Game Comments
Resolve was tested once again tonight. And I was very excited about the way we responded.
It's fun when we come out on the winning end. Defensively for us we gave up two 30-point quarters but our game-winning habits came into play today. Offensively we executed down the stretch. A lot of guys in that locker room made a lot of big-time shots.
Jamal Crawford shooting
I think we've been consistent with Jamal -- he got to the free throw line tonight 13 times. I think last game he got to the line nine times. Feel that it builds rhythm for him. He got a lot of good looks tonight and knocked them down to his credit.
J.J. Hickson in place of LaMarcus Aldridge
We're excited to have J.J. His activity level at both ends is something we're excited about. He plays with an activity and speed on defense. He runs the floor really well. He put up a great stat line but beyond that he just had some game-winning plays tonight.
Did you win this one with offense rather than defense?
I'm a defensive coach so I'm always going to talk about defense but you've got to give credit to those guys in the locker room. Golden State battled back. It really felt like they made more than eight 3-pointers. They made a great run, they responded, like I mentioned, a lot of guys made a lot of big-time plays offensively tonight.
Was LaMarcus Aldridge here tonight?
I have not seen him.
Playing without LaMarcus Aldridge
One thing about LaMarcus is that he's very unselfish. We're trying to put him in positions to succeed. He makes reads and he makes basketball plays. That's something that we've emphasized to our whole team. When we share the ball and pass the ball we become a good shot offense and allows guys to get into rhythm.
You have to give the kid credit. He came in last game and hit some shots. This league is all about adjustments, we made ours. Robinson came in and had a good game. It's all a game about adjustments, in-game and halftime, and I thought we responded well tonight.
Freer, looser vibe
In terms of our guys, I felt we've been free. I felt we've been playing with flow and playing with pace offensively. Again, when we have five guys committed to the d end and five guys committed to the rebounding it helps all aspects of our game, especially offensively.
We've talked. Big thing with Nolan is that he comes off the bench with a defensive mindset. I thought today he got a steal that led to a lay-up in the first half. He just has to be solid on the ball, make sure we're in our defensive rotations and run the team. This is his first year, there is an adjustment period. It's not going to be smooth sailing all the time. He's working his tail off and we're excited to put him out there.
The point guard position is one of the hardest if not the hardest to learn in our league. We have a lot of top-flight guys that are offensive-minded at that position. It's definitely an adjustment period for him but something I truly believe he will learn and get and grow and keep improving.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter