If you just look at the schedule of wins and losses, tonight's victory by the Portland Trail Blazers over the Indiana Pacers was a total mystery. Wasn't this the team that just lost to Cleveland and Washington at home, dropping 6 straight? Weren't they playing the best defensive team in basketball, a team on a 7 of 9 winning run?
If you understand how the Blazers lost their last half-dozen games the mystery was not so big. Portland's losing recipe was simple. Stand around in the halfcourt. Go one-on-one. Rely on talent over teamwork, individual heroics over execution. Don't communicate or help on defense. Let transition buckets slide. Throw in a few turnovers, the season-long crippling lack of scoring in the paint, opponents getting the upper hand in 50-50 situations, and pathetic bench scoring and winning becomes a near impossibility. Sure the final scores looked close, but anybody who watched the Blazers get down by 20 night after night and then put 14 minutes of actual work into a 48 minute game knew the real score.
Not so tonight. The Blazers came out in the very first quarter setting nice screens, moving without the ball, and hitting each other with passes for easy buckets at the rim. Indiana's bigs were bigger that Portland's. Had the Blazers gone against that wall one-on-one forced shots and opponent rebounds would have been the story. Move those bigs laterally, however, and all of a sudden larger looks slower. Plus you can't rebound a made shot.
Portland also forced turnovers from the Pacers...not a ton, 13 for the game. But instead of letting the pickpocket attack the defense alone for a tortured layup attempt in traffic, multiple Blazers ran out when the ball changed hands unexpectedly. All of a sudden those turnovers started generating precious easy shots.
Not being fools, the Pacers decided to clog up the inside and prevent those nifty paint passes. Pressure then shifted to Portland's perimeter players. On a normal night that would mean plenty of three-pointers lofted. The Blazers attempted but 11 threes tonight, making only 2. Instead of going crazy for the long-range jumpers, the Blazers made the extra pass, watched for the Pacers to close, and blew right past them when they got into no-man's land. Pull up jumpers and halfcourt layups abounded. By the end of the game the Blazers had amassed 50 points in the paint.
Even Portland's bench was appropriately aggressive tonight, picking up on the tone set by the starters. They didn't take a ton of shots, nor did they score a ton of points. Between them they hit 8 of 14 attempts (57%) for 19 points. They also added 15 rebounds and only 3 turnovers.
Indiana's only chance of keeping up was returning the favor inside on their end. They started the game going through Roy Hibbert and found success. But as the game progressed, energy flagged, and Portland started doubling down and trying to swat the ball away from the Pacers bigs, Indiana just gave up. They got into a perimeter shooting contest with Portland on a night when the Blazers weren't shooting on the perimeter. The Pacers don't score much under the best of circumstances. This route was an unmitigated disaster for them. Portland's bigger defenders picked up occasional fouls on their counterparts, but outside of those rare opportunities Indy's scoring just dried up. They shot 37.5% from the field, scored only 34 in the paint, totaled 80.
Portland's final percentage from the floor? 56.4%. Against Indiana.
Watching the Blazers lately can be compared to going on safari among roaming rhinoceroses. You sit in your blind and wait...and wait...and wait. You think more should be happening, but they're just standing there doing their rhinoceros stuff hour after hour. Then just when you give up on anything exciting happening and think you've made a mistake coming out here... Look, honey! Grab the camera and come quick! They're doing it! They're doing it!
Observers got lucky. The Blazers did it tonight and it was a sight to behold.
Both LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson played steady all night with the exception of the opening minutes on defense. Aldridge kept the Pacers honest with his face-up looks. Hickson made them look foolish with his dives to the bucket and later his posterizing step-back jumpers. 12-17 for 27 points for Aldridge, 7-10 for 14 points for Hickson. J.J. also led all rebounders by a mile with 13 total. 12 of those were defensive on a night when holding Indiana to one shot paid huge dividends.
Both Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews had quiet shooting nights as Batum went 4-10 (2-5 from distance) and Matthews 4-11 (0-3 from distance). That amounted to 10 points each. But underline the assists totals of 8 for Batum and 5 for Matthews. Assists can sometimes get overrated, but these counted. Whenever the Pacers assumed another outside shot was coming Batum and Matthews would find somebody cutting and bam...2 more paint points instead.
The king of paint scoring among the guards, though, was Damian Lillard. He just torched Indiana's defenders, visibly drooling a couple times when D.J. Augustin came up against him. Lillard converted 9 of 16 shots for 20 points and matched Batum with a game-high 8 assists, including some beauts off of the drive and dish. Lillard committed 0 turnovers and had a couple of nice individual defensive stands as well. It was one of his best all-around games this year.
Will Barton got the bench scoring rolling in the first half, probing inside and out. In typical fashion, this caused him to lose his mind in the second half and Coach Stotts pulled him again. It's the story of his season. Most nights begin with applause and end with a yank. In this case, though, not before he scored 8 points on 3-7 shooting with 4 rebounds. Good night.
Meyers Leonard had an up-and-down defensive night. (If you don't believe me check out his defensive stand on the final play of the first quarter versus the corresponding stand on the final play of the second.) But he played mostly to the good, grabbed 5 rebounds, and produced 8 points in 18 minutes. Since the entire bench has been producing 8 points in 55 combined minutes most games, that qualifies as an astonishingly good outing. It's nice to have this guy back.
Jared Jeffries played an understated but important 10 minutes, bringing as much enthusiasm as we've seen in a month or so. He made the right defensive plays, grabbed 4 rebounds, made a shot, and went to the line for a couple of foul shots. These reserves need to see someone making 8-10 minutes of playing time count. It'd be nice if Jeffries could lead them in that direction.
Ronnie Price did OK in 8 minutes with a couple of assists and a rebound.
So...at least the Blazers face the 2 game weekend series against the mighty Clippers with a win under their belts. It wouldn't have been much fun facing one of the best teams in the league while nursing a 7-game losing streak. Hopefully this outing will restore the team's confidence. At the very least it'll give them some video evidence of the right way to play.
The guys at Indy Cornrows will not be happy but will likely consider this an aberration. They'll also be campaigning for Damian Lillard as rookie of the year.