The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Detroit Pistons, 109-103, at the Moda Center on Monday night, improving their record to 5-2.
It's been years, the Blazers said, since the points have flowed quite like this.
After digging out of an opening night sand trap, Portland has strung together six consecutive impressive offensive outings; Going 5-1 in that span, they've averaged more than 106 points, climbed to a top-five ranking in offensive efficiency, placed two players in the league's top-20 scorers, and won three consecutive games for the first time since January. Here, they yawned their way to 58 first-half points -- shooting nearly 55 percent over the first two quarters -- and they eventually won with comfort despite giving up a 9-0 run in the game's final three minutes.
The execution has made the scoring look almost leisurely, particularly in the three most recent wins, against Sacramento (twice) and Detroit. The triple swing pass around the perimeter that paid off with a corner three was a thing of beauty, but it was just one of many successes for the Blazers' offense: Damian Lillard shook off a rough night on Saturday to knock down five three-pointers, Robin Lopez unfurled a textbook spin move to score at the rim, LaMarcus Aldridge finished a tip pass with a lay-up in transition, Mo Williams (finally) found the touch on his jumper time after time, Nicolas Batum slammed home a putback dunk on the weakside, and Dorell Wright kept his shooting finger on the trigger throughout the party.
"At least three or four years," Aldridge told Blazersedge, when asked how long it's been since the offense has come this easily. "I can't even remember. Maybe when we had [Andre Miller]. I thought Dre was good enough that he got guys easy points. I got lay-up after lay-up when Dre was here. Wes [Matthews] would go off a pindown, get threes, Nic [Batum] would get threes. We haven't been this fluid since then."
Lillard wasn't present for Brandon Roy's decline or Raymond Felton's bumbling but the highs and lows of last season's rebuilding run are still fresh memories. The Blazers scored their share of points last year but there was often a perceptible difficulty involved, whether that meant digging out of an early hole, scrambling to put together third-quarter runs, shooting a subdivision full of brick houses during road trips, over-relying on Aldridge and Lillard, closing your eyes whenever half the roster lined up for a jumper, or watching capable offensive players slowly drown in water that was just a bit too deep for their skills. Right now, with a fully healthy rotation, it's a different story.
"It is [easier]," Lillard, who had a team-high 25 points (on 7-for-16 shooting) told Blazersedge. "You can tell guys are happy for each other. Not to say we weren't last year, but it's a different excitement when we see L.A. hit four fadeaways down the stretch, when Mo comes in and knocks all those shots down. Like in Sacramento, when Wes hit all those shots, or Nic going out there getting a triple-double [against San Antonio]. ... This year, I think being excited for each other and caring about winning, that's a huge difference."
We spent lots of space last spring cataloging the Blazers' embarrassment, frustration and lack of answers down the stretch. That was an ego-shattering run; "L13" was a tattoo that you immediately regretted as soon as you walked out of the parlor and a summer-long walk of shame. As a result, there was plenty of waffling at Media Day about this team's fate and the early consensus settled on goal-setting rather than prediction-making. That tone shifted when Aldridge declared that Portland will take the No. 7 playoff seed, and the confidence is swelling further thanks to this 5-2 start, even if the record is inflated by a fairly weak slate.
The "happy we escaped" satisfaction that likely would have floated last season was replaced by a desire for, well, a greater volume of blood on Monday.
"Early in the fourth, we didn't put them them away," Aldridge, who finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds, told Blazersedge. "To go where this team wants to go, we have to learn how to put games away. We gave them life tonight. That's not good for us going forward. We have to learn to be like Miami and the Indiana Pacers, they'll kill you all game."
What was missing? And what would have happened if things had gone the way of Aldridge's vision?
"Staying active, doing what we did [defensively] in little spurts for the whole game," Aldridge told Blazersedge. "We would have been won by 18, [with the] starters out by the last six minutes."
That whole "you don't know what you have until it's gone" adage works in reverse, too, and it might just be easier to perceive. You don't fully realize what was missing until it returns. The swagger is back for a team that was thoroughly swagger-jacked in March and April.
It doesn't require much mental stretching to see how "nice win" immediately turned into "We should have blown them out." So many of the designed elements functioned effectively because confident, comfortable players reside in the sweet spot between assertive and aggressive. Fruit was found with the Lillard/Aldridge pick-and-roll, with the Batum/Lopez pick-and-roll, with Williams driving and kicking, and with Wright spotting up.
Terry Stotts even pulled an end-of-quarter trickeration play out of his pocket, running a hook-and-ladder exchange that saw Aldridge hit Batum at midcourt, who in turn shoveled to Williams, who took it to the house for two free throws.
"L.A. is from Dallas, he's a Cowboys fan," Batum quipped. "He do like [Tony] Romo a little bit tonight."
Perhaps because everything else was working so smoothly, Stotts was more interested in imagining the perfect outcome (Williams made the lay-up and was fouled) instead of patting himself on the back about the reality.
"It's a designed play and I've had it in our playbook," he said. "It would have been nicer if it had been a three-point play. I thought they executed it really well."
There wasn't much doubt that this would be a prototypical clash of styles -- Detroit's interior bully ball vs. Portland's perimeter fun -- and things began in a defense-optional vein. The belts tightened in the second half but Portland's lead, which stretched to 13 points, was only briefly threatened.
The Pistons, who enjoyed a season-high 28 points from Brandon Jennings and a 19-point, 8-rebound night from Greg Monroe, made a late push. Jennings had 13 points in the game's final seven minutes, and the Blazers committed three turnovers in a sloppy final sequence. They played with the game more than you would like to see: Batum badly lost Jennings defensively, which turned into a hoop, and a Lillard turnover with 23 seconds remaining gave Detroit a chance to make it a one-possession game.
"We had a good run, good action, the crowd got into it, we started to relax a little bit," Batum, who finished with 12 points and 8 assists, told Blazersedge. "They had a good run, Jennings made some big baskets. We can't let relax like that, let a team come back. We did the same thing in Sacramento. We were up 20 and they came back to eight."
Lopez, who put up 17 points and 10 rebounds for his second consecutive double-double, added: "You can get lulled into a sense of complacency [when the offense is rolling]. That's something we need to fend off. We need to be a little mentally tougher, a little mentally stronger."
Curiously, although that final fourth-quarter stretch had all the characteristics of a meltdown, disaster never seemed totally imminent. This is surely a different story had a Jennings lay-up attempt with 13 seconds remaining gone in rather than rimming off. His luck ran out, though, and Lillard iced the game with a pair of free throws. Even with Jennings streaking, and Detroit's big men pounding away to the tune of 60 points in the paint, that familiar nervous tension just wasn't hanging in the building.
"We've got a different level of confidence when that situation comes," Lillard said. "We expect to win those games. We've been there now, together, we know what we need to do."
Stotts began his post-game comments by almost dismissing his team's win, before reminding himself that he shouldn't take a victory for granted. By the end of his session, he was relishing the opportunity to needle a reporter who asked a question his decision to leave Thomas Robinson out of his second-half rotation. A three-game winning streak brought out the jokes, and it allowed a coach to skip over the details of a late-game collapse that didn't happen, and it seemed to provide a bulletproof feeling, even if only temporarily.
Watching an athlete who knows he can't overcome an injury is the most excruciating part of this job; watching a group of athletes that doesn't believe in itself can be nearly as bad. Things are clicking now, though, and self-doubt has suddenly become a scarce commodity.
"That's three in a row, but we want four," Batum told Blazersedge.
It has been years, hasn't it?
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced at 18,834, which was a larger figure than either of the two previous home games.
- The Blazers might have one loss at the Moda Center this season but the "Cha-Lu-Pa" chant remains undefeated!!! The contrast was just great as the entire crowd chanted Cha-Lu-Pa followed by public address announcer Mark Mason shouting out "Mick-ee-dees" all by himself. Stay vigilant!
- Here are the game highlights via YouTube user NBACalifornia.
- Monday night was Military Appreciation Night in honor of Veteran's Day. This was certainly the most thorough Military Appreciation Night I've seen in Portland. The flag graphics were everywhere, there were pre-game and halftime festivities, and hundreds of veterans stood up to be recognized with cheers. It was a well-received presentation from start to finish.
- I've mentioned that the Moda Center vibe has definitely changed this season -- hip hop is out, country and pop are in -- and it's producing some "What in the...?" moments. Blazers president Chris McGowan apparently has some really obscure music on his iPod. I realize I came of age in a hazy cloud of Dip Set but I have never heard half of the songs they are playing on the sound system and an additional 25 percent I've only ever heard on commercials for Chevrolet or Wrangler jeans. Detroit calls timeout, the beat drops, and all of a sudden I'm ducking in my chair out of a subconscious fear that Brett Favre is about to run me over in a Nascar.
- This music shift prompted me to joke on Twitter that I'd like to hear what DJ OG One -- who has long played the likes of Snoop Dogg and other traditional arena rap music -- really thinks about the arena's new approach. "LMAO!" he wrote back before adding that the "powers that B" are flexing their muscles.
- Then one of his friends added: " I could tell you [what DJ OG One really thinks] but I won't dry snitch on the homie! lol"
- Good times. Good times.
- Anyway, Terry Stotts ran across former Blazers forward (and current Pistons assistant coach) Rasheed Wallace in the back hallway after the game. "Hey coach," Stotts said to Wallace, extending a hand.
- Speaking of Wallace, Dan Tilkin of KATU.com tried to ambush him at Pistons shootaround with questions about unpaid property taxes. The results were fairly predictable: Wallace said nothing and the team's PR staff intervened.
- Erik Gundersen of The Columbian noted that Robin Lopez picked Michael Jackson for the pre-game music, and wondered whether that was the secret behind Lopez's big night. Lopez joked: "Doesn't Michael Jackson get everybody going? That's the impression I was under."
- Lopez had a nice big-on-small poster. GIF here via Matt Moore of CBSSports.com.
- Aldridge had some love for Lopez after the game: "His mom is here [tonight], so [now] she's staying for the rest of the season now. He was doing post moves, diving to the basket, throwing dimes to me. I thought he played with that energy and that level we need from him. He blocked shots, he's rebounding, he's scoring, he's talking more tonight. I thought his energy was great."
- Batum on his pick-and-roll success with Lopez: "I've got a good connection with him. He sets good screens, he's going to be open every time and I'm looking for him."
- Both Stotts and Lillard said the team's defense will need to do a better job taking away their opponent's No. 1 option. Self-evident after this game. Stotts' thoughts are below. Lillard's: We allowed them to get what they like to get to. We left our bigs down there on an island a few times, a few turnovers let them get out and get some easy buckets. For the most part I thought we did a good job holding on when we had a lead, getting stops when we needed to. ... They did a good job. They've got bigs that can really crash the offensive glass, they got a few tips, a couple of bounces went their way, Jennings hit some tough shots, they got themselves back into the game. We understand that's going to happen but we've got to get those stops when we need to, weather the storm, and make free throws.
- Rodney Stuckey got way up to block Joel Freeland.
- Best Moda Center signs: "The Definition of Hustle" with an artistic tribute to Wesley Matthews and "L-Train Runs Over The Motor City."
- Mo Williams on the hook and ladder play: "That was pretty sweet. That was a play that we work on. It's great to see it executed, I'm pretty sure coach will be happy to see that on film. We executed it real well. It was a good play, I think it was huge for us [momentum-wise] too."
- Stotts said in the post-game press conference that he "loves" Robin Lopez and he reached out from the bench to congratulate Freleand for hitting a bucket at the end of the first quarter on a second chance play. The good vibes are rolling.
- Thomas Robinson looked outmatched in his first half shift and I wasn't surprised to see him stay pinned to the bench in the second half. He wound up playing just five minutes, his shortest stint of the season. We'll see whether that was a one-time match-up thing or whether Stotts decides to go with a tighter three-big rotation more regularly.
- Marc Stein of ESPN.com reported last week that the NBA issued a memo regarding hazing in the wake of the Richie Incognito scandal. Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times reported that the the Minnesota Timberwolves told their rookies to stop carrying their traditional pink backpacks. Portland's rookies were still rocking them on Monday.
- "Linsanity" the movie is showing at Cinema 21 this week. Details here. I'm planning to check it out Tuesday. If you missed my review of "Lenny Cooke" from last week, it's right here.
- Be sure to check out Dane Carbaugh's first video breakdown post for Blazersedge right here. He did a really nice job.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
I thought it was another solid win. I was pleased with our offense, disappointed with our defense. Ultimately we made stops when we needed to. You can over-analyze a win too much I guess, but it's definitely good to get a win. I think it also shows that we have room to grow.
New guys going off on the same night
I wasn't worried about Mo and Dorell as far as their shooting. They've made a career of being excellent shooters. I'm glad for them, certainly glad for us that they had a good shooting night.
I like our ball movement. Three or four games now with more than 20 assists in every game. Getting off to the start we got off to, the threes that we got were all in rhythm off of good offensive plays that were open. I'm pleased with our offense. We had a few turnovers that we didn't need to have. In general we shot the ball well because we passed the ball well.
What'd you think of Lopez
I love Robin. He just plays hard every minute he's out there. He gives effort at the boards at both ends. He's a great team player and does what we need him to do. When he's able to contribute offensively, that's great, but for him to get a double-double, he's a really important part of our team.
I would like to get to the point where we are able to take away other teams' strengths a little bit better. Detroit did what they did. They are a paint team, they're an offensive rebounding team. We did a better job of the transition defense, they're a transition team. I'd like to get to the point where we're a little bit better taking away other teams' strengths.
That being said, they shot a fair amount of mid-range shots, they shot more mid-range shots than they usually do. They shot 42 percent from mid-range, which is a decent number. If you look at effective field goal percentage, we did a nice job, we took away threes. I would have liked to rebound the ball a little better. First half, I would have liked to control their transition a little better. Shots at the rim, control that a little bit better. Getting to a point where teams do what they do, we just need to not let them do it as well as they do.
Detroit made a run late
I don't remember the specific plays. To be honest, I don't remember the specific plays. I wish we had converted better offense and had gotten some stops. Specifically no.
Damian Lillard bouncing back
I had a good feeling he would play a good game. He's somewhat unfazed by a bad shooting night. In some respects, comes back even better. I think he showed that last year.
Joel Freeland shifted to four
I like the way Joel is playing.
Why no Thomas Robinson in the second half
Because I like the way Joel is playing.
Hook-and-ladder play, designed, in your pocket for awhile?
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, it's a designed play and I've had it in our playbook. It would have been nicer if it had been a three-point play. I thought they executed it really well.
Nic Batum/ Robin Lopez pick-and-roll
The match-ups kind of contributed to that. I thought that was something that we could take advantage of tonight. With Nic in pick-and-rolls in particular, he needs to not necessarily decide what he wants to do ahead of time but I thought tonight he made good decisions, whether to shoot it or pass it. He made good reads. When you're a play-making, decision-maker, it's more the decisions than anything. Reading the play as it happens.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter