Fans who saw the Trail Blazers defeat the Los Angeles Clippers 101-100 on Saturday night got a real treat. Not that this was a perfectly-executed game...it wasn't. Nor was this a meaningful or decisive victory. It wasn't Portland's best win of the year either. But this was the kind of fast-paced, emotional roller-coaster ride that you can't help but love. The WWE could not have scripted it better.
Each team unloaded on the other in the first period. The Blazers scored off of quick cuts and alley-oops. They caught the Clippers looking instead of intercepting passes. If Portland could have finished at the rim they'd have gone up by a billion. Instead L.A.'s length and jumping ability caused the Blazers to flick when they should have finished strong. On the other end Willy Green took advantage of flat-footed defense by Wesley Matthews and exploded for 7 quick points. Blake Griffin would soon follow suit as neither LaMarcus Aldridge (equally flat-footed) nor J.J. Hickson could stop him. L.A.'s turnovers provided the Blazers opportunity to run and get easy points, enough to give them a 25-22 edge after one. Portland had shown that they were willing and able to play with the Clippers...half the battle in a game like this. They'd have to prove it over and over again the whole night long.
The second period saw the Blazers race ahead courtesy of some made threes and a beautiful showing by Nicolas Batum. He soared in this quarter, lofting alley-oops, finding open jump shooters, and hitting his own as well. When Batum hit a three with 6:46 left in the period the Blazers were up 14. Now the Clippers had to prove they were willing and able to play. Unfortunately Portland's defense lapsed in the final six minutes of the half, allowing Griffin and company to cut the lead to 6 by the break.
Batum's amazing outing continued in the early minutes of the second half. He found his teammates for multiple scoring chances, hit a couple of threes, and the Blazers went up 13 again. As the quarter waned, though, Portland again gave back a large chunk of the lead. Batum started it, getting a little too confident about his passing ability. The bench chimed in with some bad defense. But most of all, the rebounding dried up. The Clippers' depth started showing as they abused a flagging Hickson and his replacement, Meyers Leonard, on the glass. This continued into the early fourth period. The Clippers also switched bigger defenders onto Damian Lillard, effectively taking him out of the game. Now Portland's scoring chances dried up along with the rebounding. Having scored 82 points in the first three quarters, the Blazers scored only 8 in the first 8 minutes of the fourth.
Since it was the fourth period, you know it was Jamal Crawford time. Crawford would score a dozen in the quarter, making hash out of the already-tattered Blazer defense. Crawford's jumper with 3:17 left put the Clippers up 7 and a Lamar Odom dunk on their next possession made the lead 9, 100-91. Lawler's Law went into effect and the Clippers, as the first team to score 100, owned the game.
The emotion in the arena pretty much confirmed that assessment, as the whole place deflated. Fortunately the Clippers deflated as well, perhaps figuring they had the game sewn up. They stood on principle, refusing to score another point. That's when the Blazers busted out with 2 minutes, 30 seconds of great basketball. It started with a Lillard three. Then Hickson got free for a dunk and Matthews for a break-away and-one layup. In 90 seconds the score went from 100-91 to 100-99. Portland's defense was tight, the rebounding impeccable, and the ball found the right people. Heck...when the Clippers missed their next shot Hickson got fouled on the loose ball. That led to free throws. Everybody was expecting a tie at best. But Hickson sank both as if to say, "Damn statistics and records! Let's just win this game on work and emotion."
Batum added even more emotion by stealing the ball on the ensuing play but he tossed it right back as he and Lillard botched a pass (that probably shouldn't have been made) after Batum deftly split L.A.'s screen defense and had the Clips by the throat. Portland dodged consecutive bullets in the form of Crawford misses on the jumper and when the last one fell short, the Blazers had somehow managed to win it.
You saw the best of the Blazers and the worst of the Blazers in this game. Portland gave up 56 points in the paint. They allowed the opponent just shy of 50% from the field. They lost 15 offensive boards to the Clippers. On the other hand the Blazers made 11-25 three-pointers and almost every timely play there was to be made. This is classic 2012-13 Blazers. Statistically you can't really explain why they should have won this game. You do know that they're actually a poor three-point shooting team by percentage, right? You also know Crawford was as open as he needed to be on those decisive shots that missed? But somehow the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts and when you look up at the scoreboard the only stat that ends up counting says, "W".
Faithful readers will recall that last week during that string of bad losses to worse teams I chastised the Blazers for only playing up to the sum of their parts...a sure recipe for defeat because they're not actually that talented. Go back to those tapes and then look at this one again and you'll see what I mean. More importantly, they appear to have discovered the difference. Ball movement, confidence, not giving up...those are odd things to base victories on, the kind of things you spout when your team isn't that great but you're hoping for a chance. Somehow, some way the Blazers make it more than a chance. They make it real. No matter what the record ends up being, it's games like this that make you love this team. It's also games like this that make you hope that the lessons will carry over when the team gets more talented, as the combination of good, unselfish, confident, and persistent can take you a long way.
Wow...Nicolas Batum. He had some serious star-level mojo going tonight. He got another triple-double with 20 points, 12 assists, and 10 rebounds. More importantly this one came during a win that the Blazers would not have gotten without him. He was the master of the big moment. His threes (4-9 on the evening), alley-oop passes (when he's on target he's really a gorgeous passer), nearly everything he did seemed to change the tide of the game. It was opposite of the Quiet Batum nights. He was the star who led this team to victory.
Missing almost entirely from the description up until now: LaMarcus Aldridge. This is for good reason. Aldridge had one of the worst nights he's had in years. The problem wasn't him doing things and making mistakes. He just wasn't doing anything. On any given play, offensive or defensive, draw a 1.5 stride perimeter around his center of gravity. That is exactly how far he moved...period. He got scored on, set weak screens, missed rebounds, and never tried any type of shot besides the in-place turn-around (well-guarded, as he didn't go anywhere). The best way to describe his offensive production would be to put an "st" in front of All-Star. It was pretty bad. If he's not injured you have to say that this was the kind of outing for which there was no excuse. 5-14 shooting, 6 rebounds, 3 assists. The bright side: he gave his teammates a chance to clean up after him with their energy.
And speaking of energy, give it up again for the heart of J.J. Hickson if nothing else. He had a hard time stopping, and eventually rebounding against, the Clipper bigs but he still seemed to make the timely play. The most crucial of those timely moments may have been the go-ahead free throws mentioned above...hardly his strong suit. But when he hit them everybody in the building--and I'd guess everybody on the floor with him--said, "Oh yeah. You know we're going to win this now." This was a night when 15 points and 7 rebounds didn't tell the whole story.
Wesley Matthews started out this game slowly, his defense lifeless and overwhelmed, his offense limited to bail out bombs against the clock that had no prayer of going in. But somewhere along the way he caught the bug for this game. Maybe Hickson and Batum were contagious. A couple of steals, a layup, a made three...all of a sudden by the fourth period he was fighting as hard as anyone. It's weird because this isn't the first time I've noticed Aldridge and Matthews come out flat at the same time. But credit to Wesley for shaking it off and ending up 5-10 for 18 points with 3 steals and a crucial late-game play to help seal the Portland win.
This game came in fits and starts for Damian Lillard. He had a nice start, went quiet in the second, started to pick it up and then got flustered by the defense. But no matter how far down the Clippers tried to push him, he always seemed to pop up with the big three-pointer when needed. Technically he started the final winning run for the Blazers. As much as anything resilience may be his greatest asset. Or, better put, if you want to keep him down you better keep him down for 48 minutes. Let him slip by even a little and next thing you know he hit 6-13 and scored 20 on you in a game where you thought he wasn't doing that well.
Will Barton and Jared Jeffries were the men off the bench tonight. Jeffries got a chance to dunk and did the "in your face" swing on the rim which was all kinds of irony and parody all at once. He also got 2 steals and was one of the few Portland bench players who didn't let the game get away from him. Barton, of course, does nothing quietly. My man needs a marquee flashing on every rebound, let alone shot. He's the NBA rookie equivalent of Jazz Hands. But he did not back down a bit from the Clippers tonight, firing when he was open (2-4), grabbing 3 boards, poking away a steal, and hilariously trying to badger Old Man Grant Hill into a turnover at one point. Hill was playing point-forward and Barton just poked left and right at him up top, jumping to the ball side like he was a puppy dog after a chew toy. Hill calmly spun and drove, showing him up, but that was still something to see from Barton. "Give it another 22 years and you'll get this good," says Hill.
Meyers Leonard had 6 points and 4 rebounds in 16 minutes which is a good outing statistically. Defense...rebounds he let get away...well hey, at least the Blazers have a back-up center now that he's back, right?
Ronnie Price hit a three but had a rough outing on both ends.
Here's a side note, since the Blazers play the Clippers again tomorrow. I don't listen to broadcasters much anymore. Honestly, I turn the sound down on at least 2/3 of the games as it lets me concentrate better. But on a lark I decided to give the golden-voiced Ralph Lawler a listen tonight. It's always nice hearing Ralph, despite the crazy stuff he sometimes says. But what really got me was the commentary of his partner Mike Smith. Smith was a notch above most in-game analysts. Whether he knew the stats or was being handed them, he knew how to use them in context and with meaning. His analysis revealed that he's actually seen the Blazers play before tonight, on tape at least. He knew the opponent, their tendencies, accurate stuff about most Portland players. Some guys that know their stuff tend to over-think but he struck a good balance, sorting out the info we needed and describing it in understandable terms. Other knowledgeable commentators come across as flat but his emotion was in there too. It was a rare, thoroughly enjoyable experience hearing Smith describe the game. This was just one night for me, so who knows about consistency, but if you get a chance, go ahead and give the guy a listen. He sounds like a person you'd want to talk basketball with.
Another side note: No need to do another preview or post for the Clips a day after Game 1 of 2. If you want more about them, check out yesterday's preview.
Clips Nation will wonder what happened tonight.