If this is what 2013 looks like, it's going to be pretty good.
The Portland Trail Blazers played inspired, brilliant, and energetic basketball in New York tonight, hitting the Knicks in all their vulnerable places and even making them look old from time to time. The onslaught started in the first period when Portland rebounded the cover off of the ball as Knicks players swiveled in place, asking what happened. J.J. Hickson and LaMarcus Aldridge made the paint their territory, making Kurt Thomas and Tyson Chandler look like schoolboys. With the Knicks all of a sudden concerned about the interior, Portland's three-point shooters were left relatively unmolested. Portland's smalls hit some threes and poked away turnovers, opening the gap even wider. Carmelo Anthony was the only thing standing between the Knicks and a 35-10 deficit of doom. Anthony made like the Mage of Manhattan, using some kind of arcane wizardry to hit every shot he put up no matter who was guarding him. Portland's bench players gave some of the lead back late but the Blazers still carried a 30-23 lead out of the first quarter. The Blazers looked amazing, the Knicks uncharacteristically bad.
New York continued to abandon the defensive interior in the second as J.J. Hickson slaughtered them inside. They corrected their rebounding and turnover issues, though, so the Blazers had to be content with milking their lead instead of expanding it. Portland was aided by the return of Amar'e Stoudemire. He received a rousing ovation as he stepped onto the court for the first time this season. He then proceeded to miss every shot he put up for the next two quarters. His lane defense wasn't doing the already-hurting Knicks any favors either. But once again Anthony came to the rescue, this time aided by fellow wing J.R. Smith. Portland's reserve guards couldn't stop them. Portland's starters didn't get enough rest to keep up their defense. When Anthony hit a miracle three to end the first half, providing momentum for a threatened comeback, it seemed like the Blazers might be on borrowed time.
The Knicks finally got their heads on straight in the third period as they pounded the ball inside constantly, taking advantage of Portland's weak lane defense. Marcus Camby started the third alongside Chandler and the two of them started dominating on the boards, providing offensive rebounds that nearly broke the Blazers' backs. The Knicks didn't out-shoot the Blazers, they just got way more shots up because of their energy. Just as the Blazers handed over the better play card, though, they snatched the "pour-it-on superstar" card right out of New York's hands. Nicolas Batum started hitting a crazy assortment of threes. He scored 13 points in the stanza as follows: three, three, three, fouled on a three (2 free throws hit), stepped just inside the line while draining a 23-footer. That barrage was enough to keep the Blazers afloat despite New York's run.
You knew it was going to be on in the fourth, and it was. Lucille Ball tripping over Dick Van Dyke's boot into Carol Burnett's lap would not have been more on. War was declared.
The Knicks came strong early in the period, pounding the ball inside again. But every time they threatened to pour over the top LaMarcus Aldridge or Damian Lillard would hit a big shot and/or Aldridge, Batum, or Wesley Matthews would rebound or make a great defensive play. Anthony and Smith were brilliant. The entire Blazer lineup stuck to it. Both teams got fatigued mid-quarter and started bombing threes every possession, most of which missed. Then Anthony went CRAZY in the last four minutes and Smith pulled the Knicks within 4 with 1:25 left. New York went crazy as the Blazers called timeout.
Hero Play #1 belonged to Aldridge as he manhandled an offensive rebound with 1:15 remaining and put the Blazers ahead 6. Then Anthony hit another 3 and the margin was a single bucket.
Hero Play #2 belonged to Lillard as with 35 seconds left he hit a step-back three so cold-blooded he actually turned into a lizard on the court. The Knicks had to call a timeout after that one to let Lillard return to human form.
Goat Play # $$$%&*!!! belonged to Hickson who inexplicably fouled Anthony from behind on a clear layup with 29 seconds remaining and the Blazers up 6. Anthony's foul shot cut the lead to 3 once again. The Blazers actually blew the ensuing inbounds play, borking themselves into a jump ball which they lost but Anthony proved himself mortal--or at least decidedly non-lizard--by missing the tying three-point attempt. Matthews sank the icing free-throws and the Blazers walked out with a 105-100 victory despite Anthony's 45 points and the return of Amar'e.
Statistically this game was a masterpiece for Portland. They shot over 50% and held the Knicks to 43%, most crucially to 10-37 shooting (27%) from the three-point arc. New York pushes 40% from distance on a normal night. The Blazers out-rebounded the Knicks by 10 and ended up +12 in points in the paint. Portland kept the Knicks from exploiting their strengths. The Blazers ended up exploiting strengths they didn't know they had. It was a great, great effort and a fantastic win.
LaMarcus Aldridge had 19 points and 14 sick rebounds tonight. One of the main fears coming into this game was that Tyson Chandler and Marcus Camby would prove too much on the glass. Aldridge made sure that didn't happen. He never seemed like he was dominating the ball on offense but every time the Blazers needed a couple points or just steadying down, there he was. His effort was just brilliant. There's no other word for it.
J.J. Hickson got this game started out right with his ferocious rebounding and by tattooing New York's rims with a variety of dunks off of cuts when the Knicks were busy watching everybody else. The Knicks' halftime adjustments included taking it right at Hickson and he didn't fare well after that, but points for the surprise factor and for exploiting it so well. Seriously, in that first half you would have chosen Hickson over Chandler as your center 10 times out of 10. 18 points on 9-11 shooting, 9 rebounds.
Remember how Damian Lillard looked like he wanted to have a big game in Los Angeles last week and ended up half embarrassing himself? No such problem in the Big Apple. He played under control and smart from the start, took every advantage of the aging Jason Kidd (who, by the way, couldn't guard him and ended up with 0 points and 3 assists on the night), and by just staying within himself ended up having a monster game. Lesson to the kid: you don't have to try to be special, you probably already are. The cold-blooded monster ended up with 21 points on 9-19 shooting, 6 assists, 5 rebounds, and 2 steals.
The Stoudemire comeback will make all the headlines nationally but Wesley Matthews' return to Portland's lineup tonight paid bigger dividends. For one thing, Matthews can defend. He also brought the energy early along with Hickson to get the Blazers up big. Matthews' stamina faded as the game wore on, as one might expect, but he looked good. 3-6 shooting, 8 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists in 30 minutes.
Nicolas Batum had that amazing 13-point third period, then peppered 13 more points during the other three for a team-high 26. He shot 6-12 from the arc tonight. That shooting was clearly the difference for the Blazers. He was walking the high wire. Had he missed a couple more of those treacherously difficult shots the Blazers would have lost. Instead the Knicks just shook their heads and said, "What are we supposed to do about this?" while Batum mouthed, "Qui est Carmelo? Je ne le connais pas!" The only time when Batum showed serious flaws came when Lillard rested and the ball came mostly through him. At that point he looked lost and the offense stalled. But Batum had 6 assists on the night to go with his 26 and 4 rebounds.
Jared Jeffries deserves special mention off the bench for some solid defense and a solid 4 personal fouls in his 15 minutes. This was as alive as we've seen him in a month. Ronnie Price also deserves mention for hitting a difficult and sorely-needed three-pointer as the Knicks made their first run in the fourth and then following it up with a bombastic layup.
And that is that. Rejoice, O Blazer Fans. New York dropped the ball on New Year's Eve but your team didn't on New Year's Day. 1-0 on the road trip, 1-0 in 2013.
I hope Posting and Toasting is as excited about this game as we are.