There was plenty NOT to like tonight. Whatever the opposite of inspired is, that's how the Blazers came out in this one. They celebrated their fantastic 3-1 road trip by checking into the Lazy "D" Ranch just as soon as they got home. They allowed the Magic to shoot over 50% in the first half, granting them 57 points at the break. Keep in mind the Magic average fewer than 95 points per game. Though Portland's technical errors subsided after halftime they never got Orlando's field goal percentage much below 50, as the Magic finished at 49.5% for the game. The best Blazers defenders, Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews, were the chief culprits in this debacle. Damian Lillard and J.J. Hickson played better defensively than Portland's wings did in the first half. Batum, especially, was mind-boggling-level bad on the defensive end.
Portland's offense was also suspect early. They turned the ball over, missing what should have been easy connections. It looked like they hadn't played together before. Worse, when passes did connect there was invariably a two second delay holding the ball before anything happened. That's not the Blazer way (at least not this year). The normally reliable Hickson was a step off on his cuts. Batum's offense was non-existent. Matthews got in a few shots but Damian Lillard took too many jumpers. The bench chipped in a little but it wasn't enough to equal the points Portland's defense was allowing. If it weren't for LaMarcus Aldridge the Blazers would have gone down 20 before the first half was over. Aldridge was steady in the post, hitting shot after shot and keeping the Blazers in the game.
The Blazers have always made good halftime adjustments this season and tonight was no exception. Everything to like about this game came in the final two quarters and overtime. Hickson started cutting and catching in the third period, dunking multiple times. This also alleviated the problem of too many contested outside shots for the smaller Portland players. Instead of shooting they hit Hickson for the flush. The attention Hickson drew in the lane allowed Lillard and Matthews more open looks, which they converted. Portland erased the 9-point halftime deficit by the end of the third and it was nip and tuck through the fourth. Aldridge again carried the Blazers and Nicolas Batum came alive with a couple threes in the final 3 minutes. With Orlando down 3 and 8 seconds to go, though, Lillard got stuck behind a pick and left Jameer Nelson open beyond the arc. Nelson converted the three-pointer and the game went to overtime.
The Magic had played their starters almost all of the fourth period and it showed in extra time. Their shots fell short. Portland kept scoring to keep the pressure on. The Blazers also rebounded well. Eventually the burden of converting one-and-dones to keep up wore on the Magic and the gap widened, never to close. All five Blazer starters scored in overtime, hitting the Magic wherever they weren't. And that was that.
For those looking for the Blazers to make a statement with this game, it had to be something of a disappointment. Outside of a six-minute stretch in the third period and the five minutes of overtime the only resounding statement made was, "BLAH." This wasn't taking the bull by the horns. This was barely dodging out of the way of the bull and watching it smack a wall and knock itself out, then claiming the victory.
On the other hand the Blazers won, which is all that matters. You're going to get games like this. The difference between pretty good and really good is whether you win them anyway. The Blazers did. They relied on their Aldridge bread and butter plays to keep them afloat and then goosed just enough out of everybody else to come away with the victory. Most nights they probably lose a game like this, but this wasn't most nights...it was just tonight. And tonight goes down as the "W" the Blazers needed.
That's enough to keep us from going nuclear over the effort...a result which surely (and appropriately) would have come after a loss. In fact that's more than enough to turn groans into applause. It also engenders hope that after this blasé effort, the Blazers might come up with true inspiration against Miami on Thursday. After all, this game was one you dread, facing a relatively unimportant opponent after a road trip, right before a day off, also right before facing the premier opponent in the league on National TV. Circumstances were stacked against a great performance tonight. Thank goodness the Blazers managed to overcome them.
LaMarcus Aldridge was the man, the savior, whatever you want to call him tonight. It wasn't a noisy night for him, just bloody efficient and timely. Every time his teammates threatened to get out of hand, Aldridge simply posted up, received the ball, and converted. Towards the end of the game some of the guys who hadn't had good offensive nights were calling for the ball, seemingly wanting to make up for it. Aldridge waved them off and posted up more. He was the only Blazer who had an unmitigated, unblemished great night. 12-22 shooting, 10 rebounds, 5 assists, 27 points.
The closest guy on Aldridge's heels was the second-half version of J.J. Hickson. He was stymied in the first half, battling against bigger players who seemed to have a personal interest in shoving him around. Solution? Start at the top of the key, sound the klaxon, then dive to the rim. Whoop! Six alley-oops later and Hickson's night looked just fine. The Blazers scored 60 points in the paint tonight, an astounding number for them. Hickson was responsible for about a third of those. His rebounding also keyed Portland's second half performance. 9-14 shooting (and how efficient has this guy become lately anyway?), 20 points, 15 rebounds, and the bonus award for being the first guy to turn around his game and remind the Blazers that they were better than they were playing tonight.
Wesley Matthews deserves praise for being brutally efficient on the offensive end. Unless I'm mistaken at one point he had 20 points on, like, 8 shots. He finished the game with 24 on 7-11 shooting, 4-7 from distance (starting out a perfect 4-4 until he got excited about it), and 6-8 from the foul line. He also had 4 assists. Now, let's talk about his defense. I lauded Matthews and Batum highly in the latter stages of the recently-completed road trip because they carried Portland to victories, especially on the defensive end. I do not know WHAT the heck happened tonight, but every critic of either guy's defense will find plenty of ammo in this performance. When Matthews wasn't out of position he was reaching and fouling. Arron Afflalo and J.J. Redick destroyed him. Things got a little better in the second half but I couldn't tell you whether that was because Matthews knuckled down or the Orlando shooting guards just got tired.
Everything I just said about Matthews goes triple for Batum. He also took his turn on Afflalo and ended up embarrassed. I have no idea who we were watching in the first three quarters of this game but it looked like somebody else had taken over Batum's body. His offensive production was horrible and his defense was a nightmare. The one redeeming quality to his game tonight besides the late-game three-pointers hit was 10 assists. That and the late heroics leading to the eventual victory are enough to whitewash things, so we'll let it go at that. Personally, though, I cringe when I read things like, "I was really motivated to prove my worth in Minnesota" and then see that great game followed up with a night like this. Still, he DID come up with those late threes.
Damian Lillard looked a little lost early in the game just like everybody else. The best way to put it is, he was pulling hard trying to straighten out the team but when it didn't happen and his own shot wasn't falling, he didn't have any more answers. The second-half solution was to set up teammates for a while and then blister the nets with a renewed offense, this time more under control and farther inside the three-point arc. That worked. All of a sudden he became the weapon that the Magic couldn't deal with and Portland's offense opened up.
Ronnie Price had a GREAT tour in the first half, driving and making Orlando's defense look downright porous. Unfortunately he took it a little far as the game progressed and he ended up with a relatively mundane 3-7 shooting night with 8 points, 3 assists, and 2 rebounds in 14 minutes. Still, Price added value during the quarter in which nobody else prospered.
There's a difference between aggressive and single-minded. Luke Babbitt got on the wrong side of that line tonight. His stats weren't bad: 2-5 shooting, 2-4 from distance, 6 points in 15 minutes. But that nice three-point percentage belies the way he busted up the offensive flow most every time he touched the ball and covers up the general lack of supporting stats (1 rebound, 1 steal, 1 turnover).
Joel Freeland had 5 rebounds in 7 minutes. He's turning into a rebounding machine.
Victor Claver went 2-3 in 14 minutes for 4 points but wasn't as noticeable on the defensive end tonight.
Miami comes up on Thursday. The Blazers have plenty of time to think about this one. As mentioned above, the circumstances will certainly be more favorable heading into this game than they were tonight. If they're hungry for national attention and confirmation that something legit could be happening here, a victory over the World Champs would certainly provide both. Stay tuned...
Orlando Pinstriped Post will rightfully be frustrated by the outcome of this game. The difference between a good road win and 9 straight losses was razor thin tonight. That's the story of their season, though.