The Portland Trail Blazers marched into Denver on Friday night with a chip on their shoulder and hands on their six-shooters. The Nuggets assembled the Marshal, the Sheriff, a few deputies, and a posse to meet them in the street at high noon. "Alright," said the Nuggets, "We're gonna give you to the count of three to leave town. 1...2..." But before they got to the hard "G" in "give" the Blazers had shot down the lawmen, bowled over the deputies, scared off the posse, and put bullet holes in the player piano, six beer mugs, and an old spittoon. That was enough of that. Portland walked away in a 113-98 laugher...a game that was never close after the first period, a game in which the Blazers opened to 20 in easy fashion.
You can read Timmay's quarter-by-quarter recap and highlights from the live GameDay Thread in the Instant Recap. Here's the rest of the story.
The game started reasonably close as both teams played like they were in a YMCA rec league. The Nuggets looked like they were following a set of philosophical points ("Play fast! Shoot early in the clock! Shut down the paint!") instead of actually game planning for the opponent. Their guards took a variety of long, early shots. When they bothered to test Portland's interior defense it was with revenge-seeking J.J. Hickson instead of athletically-dominant JaVale McGee. The results were pretty gross. The Blazers, on the other hand, utterly failed to cover for Robin Lopez on the glass whenever he had to commit to help defense. Lopez moved with the ball. Everybody else stood and watched. Portland's game look more skilled and polished than Denver's, but the Nuggets' effort was superior. Effort was beating skill until Nicolas Batum took over the quarter with three-point shooting. Portland's offense found him open in the corner and Nic delivered. This freed up his game and he ripped off 15 points, including three triples and two layups, in the period.
The Blazers led by a single point entering the second but Denver went from misguided defense to no defense at all. Portland pounded them with three after three, jumper after jumper, salting in a few layups. Damian Lillard led the charge towards 40 points in the period and the rout was on.
Wesley Matthews dominated the third period with even more three-pointers made. LaMarcus Aldridge held off the predictable Nuggets run in the fourth. And that was that.
Portland ended up scoring 42 points off of threes, shooting an astonishing 64% from distance. The Blazers' offense is designed to create and value the triple. Denver's defense didn't compensate in the slightest. Whatever flaws the Blazers might have as a group, jump-shooting accuracy is not among them.
The Blazers showed a few other positive signs in this game. They committed to transition defense all night long. Phoenix peppered the Blazers with 2-on-1 and 3-on-2 breaks on opening night. Denver couldn't manage more than even numbers on the run, if that. This was HUGE for Portland, as Denver obviously wanted to play fast. Slowing down the Nuggets took away any pretense to offensive potency. This was hands down the best defensive development of the night.
The Blazers also rebounded well after the first period snafu. It's all relative, as the Nuggets got 20 offensive rebounds to Portland's 16, but second chance points turned the threat of the three-point shooting into a back-breaking reality that Denver couldn't overcome. The Blazers also did a great job closing out the game with rebounding when Denver made that fourth-period run. Whenever the Nuggets missed they were done.
The Blazers committed only 7 turnovers, making that transition defense easier.
Portland played pretty physically as well, taking some intense fouls against the Nuggets. Those don't substitute for skilled defense but it's nice to see the Blazers fight to keep control of the lane instead of shrugging their shoulders when the opponent penetrates or rebounds hard.
I suppose we should also mention that J.J. Hickson's revenge never materialized. The Nuggets TV cameras caught Robin Lopez glaring at him as they passed each other in the early seconds of the first quarter. After that Aldridge just stuffed Hickson down a hole. J.J. ended up with 9 boards, but that's not an overwhelming number considering 202 shots went up in this game. More importantly, Hickson shot 2-13 on the evening, many of those coming on ill-advised solo moves or solo jumpers. Aldridge equaled Hickson's 9 rebounds but errrr... scored 25. End of story.
Despite the heartening win, a few flaws still materialized in this outing for Portland. Points in the paint ended up 50-32 for Denver. The Blazers also gave up 34 foul shots to Denver, attempting only 15 themselves. For a while there the Blazers seemed stuck at 7 FTA's while the Nuggets collected them like Halloween candy. Portland's bigs, in particular, had a hard time defending without fouling. Had Denver managed more than a pitiful 20-34 at the charity stripe their night might have borne better fruit. Two Nuggets guards--Ty Lawson and Nate Robinson--topped 20 tonight. Andre Miller also scored 10 in 17 minutes of play. But at least the Denver bigs stayed relatively quiet.
Long story short, the Blazers had a night to remember at the three-point arc...everything they could have dreamed. But they also played solidly in enough other areas to make the shooting count instead of it being a nice stat earned in a loss.
As mentioned, each of last year's Core Four took a quarter to shine in this game. Batum's 15 kept Portland even in the first quarter. He ended the game with 21 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists on 8-14 shooting, 5-8 from the arc. After facing up for a sweet shot or two early Aldridge spent much of the evening beating up on Hickson in the post. He shot 12-26 for 25 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 assists. Lillard shot dagger-like jumpers off the dribble, firing 3-4 from distance and scoring 18. After hanging around on the edge of the pool for most of the last four weeks, Wesley Matthews cannonballed into the 2013-14 season with 21 points, perfect 4-4 three-point shooting, and 12 rebounds.
Robin Lopez had another quiet statistical night but he played much more effectively in this game than in Portland's last. He wasn't the first guy down the floor but he was seldom the last either. 5 fouls limited him to 22 minutes of play...an issue caused as much by the Blazers needing him to rotate as his own defense. But his positioning under the boards was impeccable, he roughed up McGee enough to throw him off his game, and Lopez sold for plays the whole game long, doing everything he could. The Denver bigs had to fight for position and rebounds when Lopez was in. 1-5 shooting led to 2 points but he also had 2 blocks and 5 boards.
Joel Freeland was the unsung hero of the evening for Portland. It's not so much what he did--1 of 7 shooting, 5 points, 3 assists, and 7 rebounds in 18 minutes isn't earth-shaking stuff--but what didn't happen when he was forced into extra platoon duty due to Lopez's fouls. The rebounding didn't drop off. The lane didn't open up. The Blazers didn't go soft. The Blazers didn't lose confidence. He did what a reserve is supposed to do: hold the fort and let his teammates keep playing around him without worrying whether the evening just went to heck because of some whistles. Though it doesn't show overtly, this was one of Freeland's nicest NBA outings.
Thomas Robinson grabbed 5 boards in 12 minutes but he also committed 4 fouls in that same span. He hit a jumper but he's still a walking crapshoot on offense and in need of tutoring on the other end.
Dorell Wright and Mo Williams were huge bright spots on offense. Wright continued the three-point show during his 11 minutes, hitting 2-3 and ending with 8 points plus 5 boards. Williams kept the pressure on with 11 points in 27 minutes, though he took 13 shots to get there. Wright's defense was solid, Williams not so much, both as expected.
It's a TON more fun facing tomorrow's home opener against the Spurs with a 1-1 record instead of a worrisome 0-2 mark. Even with Denver's run forcing starters back in the game in the fourth, Portland's key players all logged reasonable minutes tonight. With a little confidence and a lot of hustle, maybe the Blazers can earn their first winning record of the new year. Watch for Chris Lucia's preview of that contest and join us again tomorrow night for the fun and festivities.
Denver Stiffs will have their version of this story, probably not so gleeful.
For those wondering, the JERSEY CONTEST will start soon, but let's get our legs under us a little first.
Whether you're wooting or just saying, "Whew!" enjoy the first victory of the year!