The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Los Angeles Clippers, 101-100, at the Rose Garden on Saturday night, improving to 22-21 on the season.
Finishing .500 seemed an impossibility at the start of this Blazers season and it's still likely to be difficult. But any record besides 41-41 -- above or below -- won't do karmic justice to the swings and breaks that just keep cancelling each other out this year. I opened a mid-November write-up noting that young teams give and young teams take but these Blazers are giving and taking so quickly it's getting difficult to keep up.
The game flow here was, what else, back-and-forth. Portland held solid command of the game through at least two and a half quarters, riding Damian Lillard for the entire first quarter again. That substitution switch helped Portland to a first quarter lead and the second unit, as they did against the Indiana Pacers, pushed the lead out with quality minutes in the second quarter. The Blazers gave it all back when Lillard went to the bench for a quick spell towards the end of the third quarter, and it took an unpredictable and fortuitous set of circumstances for Portland to turn this into a one-possession game and, eventually, a last-second victory.
In the final 42 seconds, Nicolas Batum alternated back and forth between hero and goat three times before emerging triumphant, with a sigh of relief, a triple-double and a game ball to show for his efforts. Right across the locker room was J.J. Hickson, who redeemed two missed free throws late in a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers last week by knocking down a crucial pair to help deliver the winning margin.
In a November game between the two teams at the Rose Garden, Jamal Crawford had 11 fourth quarter points to push L.A. to a win, creating a jubilant post-game locker room scene in which the Clippers cracked jokes and took turns nominating each other for All-Star status and various postseason awards. In this one, Crawford had 11 fourth quarter points but couldn't seal the win in the closing seconds, leaving coach Vinny Del Negro to silently offer shoulder taps to his players one-by-one. Blake Griffin sat in a trance at his locker before ripping giant ice packs off of his knees and tossing them away in evident frustration.
Losing to the Clippers in November put the Blazers a game below .500; winning here put them a game above .500. The Blazers could barely enjoy this win because they will play an unusual home-and-home, back-to-back, facing these same Clippers at the Staples Center on Sunday.
"They might be a little frustrated by that [ending] and want to come back and kill us tomorrow," Lillard said.
Really, this season should have just been 41 sets of home-and-home games, each split down the middle. I'm fresh out of coin-flipping references or gambling analogies. Please don't point out that the pinwheel is pretty much a yin yang or my head might explode.
"Win by one, lose by one, you have to look at it through the same lens," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said.
Every lens, set of contacts or just plain eyesight saw Batum yo-yoing the outcome of this game during the final minute. The good (snaring a lazy Matt Barnes pass for a key steal with the Blazers up by one), the bad (rifling a pass to no one on the ensuing possession, expecting Lillard to be there), the great (tying up Crawford on the next defensive possession to force a jump ball), the not-so-great (losing the jump ball), and then, finally, the end (securing his tenth rebound just before the clock expired after Crawford missed the potential game-winning mid-range jumper).
"He does everything well," Lillard, who finished with 20 points and two assists, said of Batum. "People don't realize how good of a play-maker he is, defender, scorer, shooter. He does everything well. Him having a triple double, I'm not really surprised by it because he always has his hands in everything."
Batum finished with 20 points, 12 assists, 10 rebounds, one steal, one block and five turnovers. He kept the game ball and told reporters that he would display it in his office, along with game balls from April 4, 2012 (when he hit nine three-points against the Denver Nuggets) and Mar. 25, 2011 (when he memorably tipped in a lob pass to defeat the San Antonio Spurs. After going four-plus seasons without registering a triple-double, he notched his second in five days.
The first of his career, against the Washington Wizards on Monday, earned him pre-game kudos from Clippers big man Ronny Turiaf, his teammate on the French National Team.
"He told me congrats on the triple double," Batum recounted. "I told him, 'I'll get one for you tonight.' ... I can't promise I'll do a triple double every week but I'm going to try to do some to help the team win the game."
After the Wizards game, Batum said that his triple-double "didn't count" because it had come in a loss to lowly competition. On Saturday, he said this one carried a "better taste" because of the victory.
"I think he'll count this one," Stotts joked. "He was terrific, other than throwing away about four lobs."
There's the give and take lurking again, even in a deadpan throwaway line. The attempted alley-oops end in Hickson highlights or calamity, dunks or turnovers, no other options and usually in quick succession.
Hickson, who finished with 15 points and seven rebounds, wasn't fretting any missed connections, not after surviving a Clippers' rebounding onslaught to knock down a pair of free throws with 45 seconds that capped a 10-0 run in 1:36 and delivered the winning margin.
"I forgot what game that was, I missed two free throws, we were down three points and we could have been in a position to foul again and play the free throw game," Hickson said of the Cavaliers game. "I missed them. I got kind of down on myself, I said, next time I get the opportunity to make two free throws, I've got to knock them down and I did so tonight."
Hickson told Blazersedge that he was thinking about the misses as he approached the stripe.
"I was actually," he said. "If you watch, I kind of had a pep in my step walking to the line. I got the ball, took my time, and knocked down two free throws."
Batum exclaimed: "Clutch! Clutch!"
Any other outcome wouldn't have done justice to the rest of the edge-of-the-cliff run, which included a step-back Lillard three-pointer that could have proven fatal if it missed, a Hickson dunk to cap a scrambled play, and a Wesley Matthews three-point play that might not have happened had an apparent foul been called before he drove to the hoop.
"I knew we needed a bucket," Lillard said of his three. "It was kind of a broken possession. I was dribbling the ball, I figured he probably didn't think I would raise up and shoot the ball while I was dribbling backwards. I was just fortunate that the shot fell."
Fortunate that Lillard's shot fell, fortunate that LaMarcus Aldridge was able to feed Hickson, fortunate that Matthews got the call that he got and not any other, and fortunate that Hickson was able to stare down the 40-odd percent chance that he would make both free throws. On the other end, the Blazers were also fortunate that Crawford's final shot rimmed off.
"I'll take that shot ten times out of ten and I'll make it nine times out of ten," Crawford, who finished six-for-15 from the field, said. "That's the one I missed."
We'll leave that probability estimate alone and rewind to just before the 10-0 run, because Portland's story on defense was more than just dodging that bullet. The Clippers' final points came when Crawford beat a double team trap at the top of the key, feeding Blake Griffin at the top of the key, who in turn found Lamar Odom in the weakside corner for a driving, uncontested dunk at the 2:38 mark. The sequence recalled Lillard's handling of a trapping Spurs defense earlier this season, only without the need for a masterful touch, given how quickly and obviously the defense broke down here. Both Aldridge and Batum simply watched as Odom cruised in for the easy bucket, one that felt like a back-breaker at the time.
The Blazers didn't allow another basket, though, tightening up against Crawford on the ball while also accounting for the rest of the Clippers everywhere else.
"We adjusted after the last timeout," Stotts said. "That was effective. We wanted to get the ball out of his hands, which we did, but our rotations and zoning up on the back line was a little sketchy. We still have to be able to get the ball out of Jamal's hands at times, but we have to be better at rotating."
Hickson added: "One thing coach wanted us to do to get out of the trap a little faster because we got burned a couple of times on the back end. We had to do a better job of getting back, I think we did that in the last two minutes of the game and it worked out for us."
Here again was one more way this game could have swung, one other possible fulcrum to add to a list that included Batum's frenetic energy, Hickson's free throws, Lillard's three, Crawford's miss, and all the rest of it.
"We've learned how to win close games," Lillard said, the confidence fully restored, at least for now, with this month's six-game losing streak fully in the rearview mirror. "We know when it comes down to it, we need to be able to make shots, and I think we really lock down on defense when it really matters."
Random Game Notes
- This crowd was announced as a sellout and it was definitely full and loud. A fair number of Clippers supporters in the house, including some loud ones seated in the luxury box behind me.
- Griffin, who finished with 24 points, eight rebounds and 10 assists, had a soaring left-handed dunk that brought oohs and aahs from the crowd and respect from the Blazers after the game. Candace Buckner of The Columbian reported on Twitter that LaMarcus Aldridge said: "To see that from behind was like surreal."
- Here's the Griffin dunk video via YouTube user NBAVideos247.
- Blazers guard Will Barton threw down a pretty lob dunk in transition. Blazers.com has video here.
- Crawford was booed during introductions again just as he was in November.
- Crawford on the Clippers conceding the 10-0 run to close: "It feels like a blur right now. That can't happen. There's no excuse for that whatsoever."
- The Blazers clearly caught a huge break with Chris Paul out due to a knee injury. Eric Bledsoe stepped in as starting point guard, finishing with 11 points and five assists, but the Clippers' offense lacked its usual flow in both its first and second units and the Clippers obviously missed Paul, one of the game's premier closers, in the fourth.
- Lillard on Paul's absence: "He's the general out there for them. He keeps guys in order. He puts guys in spots where they're at their best. Him, he scores the ball, he throws perfect lobs to those guys, he elevates everybody else's game."
- A female fan held up an "I'm cuter than Khloe" sign, in reference to Lamar Odom and his Kardashian wife. Thanks to @RyanMacArthur for noting that.
- Odom did a nice job of neutralizing Aldridge, who scored just three points in the second half to finish with 12 points and six rebounds. Aldridge looked like he didn't know exactly how he wanted to attack Odom, who is one of the few people with the length, agility and strength to guard Aldridge that tightly on the perimeter without paying for it.
- SBNation has a GIF of Jamal Crawford mummifying Wesley Matthews with a series of dribbling moves.
- Another near back-breaker before the Odom dunk was Matthews' offensive foul that left him staring into the crowd for an extended period of time to contain his frustration.
- Hickson's current basketball motto: "Go out, play hard and eat glass."
- Batum on losing the jump ball to the shorter Crawford: "I don't know if he tapped the ball on the way up. He jumped early. I was kind of surprised. He missed the shot so I'm OK."
- Both Batum and Lillard were quick to compliment Crawford's late-game play, taking the opinion that he wasn't trying to do anything special in Portland after spending last season here. "He plays like that every night," Batum said. "I don't think he has a different kind of motivation to play here." Lillard added: "Every game I've seen him play he does the same thing. I think he probably gets more satisfaction in doing it because he played here last year, but he does it all the time."
- Lillard on playing the Clippers again on Sunday night: "It's always hard to beat the same team two times in a row, especially a top team like them. All they have to do is think back to last night when the game comes tomorrow, and they can remember a lot of the plays we ran, everything that we do is fresh in their mind. It's always tougher."
- Liked Meyers Leonard's minutes: six points and four rebounds in 16 minutes. Lillard ducked behind him for a hide-and-seek three-pointer.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
It was good to win a close one again. It's been awhile. To end the game on a 10-0 run, with two and a half minutes to go, it was kind of a testament to what we've done most of the season. We don't quit, we bounce back, we're resilient, made big plays. In a game, they dominated us on the boards in the second half. That being said, the second chance points were about even. We've got to do a better job rebounding. Looking forward to tomorrow night. I'm sure they'll make some adjustments and we have some adjustments to make too.
Nicolas Batum said he wouldn't count his first triple double against the Wizards
I think he'll count this one. He was terrific, other than throwing away about four lobs.
Nicolas Batum handling the ball more late
I liked his match-up handling in pick and rolls. A lot of times three men aren't as used to defending pick and rolls as point guards or ones and twos. I thought that was something that we could take advantage of, just to change things up as well.
Did Eric Bledsoe's defense have something to do with switching to Nic as a ball-handler on offense?
He's a good defender but it was really about changing up our looks rather than having it always be Damian in pick and rolls. Nic has improved his pick and roll offense and I thought it's something that we've developed. It wasn't about Eric Bledsoe and more about Nic.
You preached little things after recent loss. What little things to discuss after this one?
We have to do a better job on Jamal Crawford's pick and rolls. We adjusted after the last timeout. That was effective. We wanted to get the ball out of his hands, which we did, but our rotations and zoning up on the back line was a little sketchy. We still have to be able to get the ball out of Jamal's hands at times, but we have to be better at rotating.
How does message change after a win compared to a loss?
I've stood here before, win by one, lose by one, you have to look at it through the same lens and be critical of yourselves. We'll watch the game on the plane tonight. One point here, one point there, doesn't change what we look at either way.
What bogged things down offensively in the fourth quarter?
I'll give them credit, they are a good defensive team. Lamar Odom did a nice job, Bledsoe did a nice job. I don't remember specific plays but we didn't have much going on. I think the biggest thing was we weren't getting stops. I think you need to augment your halfcourt offense with some transition so you're not putting pressure on your halfcourt offense. For us to hold them scoreless for whatever it was, that was the biggest difference.
First half bench
First half was like last game, Will and Ronnie and Jared were very solid, Meyers was solid. [The Clippers] made a run in the second half. I thought in the first half they played terrific basketball. They made smart plays, they made good defensive plays, they shared the ball, they finished their plays.
Thoughts during Jamal Crawford's final shot
Please don't go in.
What gives you belief late in games?
We kind of have a history of it. It's been reinforced. We have a belief, I have a belief in them, the team has a belief in themselves, and that goes a long way.
Back to backs against same opponent
It's a challenge. The tendency is for the team to let down. I think winning the first game is very important. Winning at home is really important. That's what I told the team. It's a challenge, we have a challenge tomorrow night. It's at their place and they lost so they're going to be hungrier. Regardless of how it sets up it's a challenge. I don't know what adjustments [will be made], I think it's more about your mental frame of mind. If this were the playoffs and you had a couple of days with a shootaround and practice [it would be about adjustments]. Neither team is really going to change a lot of what they do. It's more about the mental edge one team has versus the others.
We've got Utah [in back-to-backs] next week. I never criticize [NBA schedule-maker] Matt Winick. It's best to stay on his good side.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter