The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Phoenix Suns, 90-89, at the Moda Center on Wednesday night, improving their record to 6-2.
The sea parted on one end, the drain clogged on the other, and that made all the difference.
Maybe there was some Basketball Gods karma at play in this one; if not, it was just ugly. Forty-eight hours after LaMarcus Aldridge marveled at how the offense was coming easier than it has in years, the Blazers tossed up airballs (plural, oh yes), missed lay-ups, bricked open shots and repeatedly turned the ball over. Not even a 28-point fourth quarter prevented Portland from netting a season-low for points, and the Moda Center never had the chance to snub the McMuffins chant.
That didn't mean the place was quiet, at least not in the fourth quarter. The man of the hour was Monday's forgotten man, Thomas Robinson, who took a sleepy game by the shoulders and shook it. Navigating Suns defenders in the paint as if swerving through freeway traffic, Robinson changed to the middle lane just as an Aldridge jumper rimmed off with a little more than eight minutes remaining in the game. Snaring the carom with one hand, he pummeled home a putback dunk.
"It came off the rim into my hands, that's pretty much it," Robinson told Blazersedge. "I went after the board, once I realized, I stretched out and had it. It was cool. My eyes were probably closed, to be honest."
Before he could open them again, Portland completed a 9-0 run to take the lead with a little less than seven minutes to play. This wasn't a dunk to break Phoenix's back, but it was the game's fulcrum point, the moment when Portland's attack no longer seemed futile.
"He definitely led the comeback," Damian Lillard, who finished with 11 points and 8 assists, told Blazersedge. "I think emotionally more than anything else, I think the game could have went either way at that point. They could have pulled away. What happened [afterwards] could have happened. He dunked it, everybody got excited, the crowd got behind us. I think it made us believe a little bit more."
In his best game with the Blazers, and perhaps of his brief career, Robinson tied his career-high with 15 points (on 6-for-9 shooting) and added eight rebounds in 16 minutes. He scored nine fourth-quarter points and led Portland in scoring on a night in which six Blazers finished in double figures.
"I don't know if there was one play [for Robinson]," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. "It was just the whole energy at both ends of the floor, getting rebounds, getting out, obviously the dunk was a big play. The general feel for that stretch, I thought there was a stretch of [positive] momentum, the dunk was certainly part of it."
Robinson was pressed into slightly extended action after Aldridge picked up two offensive fouls in the first quarter. Stotts elected to ride Robinson during the fourth quarter, because he was playing well, even as Suns coach Jeff Hornacek broke out the "Hack-a-TRob" strategy, intentionally fouling Robinson after he started 2-for-7 from the stripe.
"Coming into the night I was actually shooting pretty good from the free throw line," Robinson told Blazersedge. "I don't know what I happened. I lost a little bit of my rhythm. I hit a few, missed a lot. It's over with now."
Robinson -- a career 53.8 percent free-throw shooter who was 7-for-10 on the season entering Wednesday -- went 1-for-2 when he was intentionally fouled with a little more than three minutes remaining in the game. His make cut Phoenix's lead to three, helping keep Portland within striking distance as the two teams traded baskets down the stretch.
"I thought he handled it well," Stotts said of Robinson's reaction to the intentional fouling. "The first one almost went in, the second one he knocked down. Look, he was struggling from the line, they took a calculated risk and did it. It's part of the game."
With the table set, the Blazers and Suns headed into the opposite end-to-end, game-deciding sequence. Down one, Portland called timeout with 11 seconds left. Decision time. On Portland's previous possession, Aldridge, who finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds but shot just 5-for-19 on the night, missed a turnaround jumper from his favorite spot near the left baseline. Coming out of the timeout, the Blazers elected to run a high pick-and-roll with Lillard and Aldridge, surrounding them with a trio of spread three-point shooters, rather than isolate Aldridge again.
Simple play design, lots of options, plenty of auxiliary plans, and enough time to scramble if the first foray came up empty. Route one was all that was needed.
"That's a tough play to guard, especially how quick we got into the set, with shooters spread all over the court," Wesley Matthews said. "With LaMarcus in the pick and roll, it's a tough play to guard."
Aldridge cleared Eric Bledsoe off Lillard with a hard screen well outside the three-point line, and Channing Frye inexplicably turned his back on Lillard, freeing up an easy driving lane. Once Frye realized the severity of the situation, it was too late.
"I nailed his man," Aldridge said. "They had a missed coverage by Frye or whatever, he didn't switch or the guy didn't get through it, and Dame got to the basket."
Lillard coasted around the corner, dodged a reaching steal effort from P.J. Tucker and went straight to the front of the rim, where he deposited a lay-up that provided the winning margin without any help defenders to worry about.
"I know Channing Frye was real hugged up to L.A.," Lillard told Blazersedge. "I came off [the pick] and they probably thought I was going to throw it back to L.A. or find a way to get it to him. But I came off and it was wide open. There was one guy that was guarding the guy on the wing, he kind of stabbed at the ball, I just picked it up. It was a pretty easy play."
An easy play at the rim following a night of tough attempts at the rim. Prior to his game-winner, Lillard was just 2-for-6 in the paint against the Suns.
"It was uncontested, I got straight to the rim," Lillard said. "I missed a couple where I was right at the rim. That's when they count. When they get to that part of the game, I forget about everything else. I want to be in that situation and I'm glad to be able to execute."
The hole opened so wide, so quickly, that there wasn't much to think about. The finish was so breezy that the shot went in with more than six seconds remaining; rarely does a final possession in that situation have its beginning, middle and end unfold in roughly five seconds.
"The sea parted," Stotts said.
It was an unfair ending for the Suns, who play as hard and disciplined on defense as any young team in recent memory. Phoenix opened the game with two deflections and a steal on Portland's first three possessions, and they succeeded in making Portland's offense look choppier than it has since opening night.
"I give Phoenix a lot of credit," Stotts said. "They play hard. I don't think anybody could watch that game and not come away with the feeling how hard Phoenix plays. They compete for catches, they push out post-ups, they're physical in the paint, they go after the ball. They're active with their hands. I give Phoenix a lot of credit with their defense."
Goran Dragic, for one, laid out completely horizontally to break up one Portland fast break, and he ended the night with 13 stitches on his head after colliding with Mo Williams. The medical attention kept him out of the game's final sequences, and Hornacek turned his team's final possession over to Bledsoe, who finished with a game-high 23 points (on 10-for-21 shooting) and six assists.
Bledsoe didn't hesitate, charging hard towards the hoop, but his attempt rimmed off, completing his 1-for-8 fourth quarter. An all-out scramble ensued: if Lillard had the restricted area to himself on one end, it seemed all 10 players were crammed into the semicircle just seconds later on the other.
"That was the longest time of my life," Aldridge joked.
Two Phoenix putback attempts just narrowly missed, unable to creep over the rim, and still the game wasn't done.
"I was on the edge of my seat with everybody else," said Robin Lopez, who was pulled from the game for Portland's final offensive possession. "I think that just speaks to the tenacity we had at the game. We knew we had to get down, we contested every shot they put up, we boxed out, I think we did a good job of coming up with it."
Finally, the ball sprang free, the buzzer sounds and the confetti fell. In total, Phoenix went 0-for-3 in a possession that lasted just 6.5 seconds.
"You're just waiting for the horn to go off," Stotts said. "Every time the ball is alive, and every time the ball has a chance to go in, you're hoping it doesn't go in and you're hoping to see those red lights around the backboard."
The red lights confirmed Portland's fourth straight victory and gave the team sole possession of the Northwest Division lead. It bears repeating, whether by blowout or coinflip, this group is riding high on really good energy.
"Good teams learn how to win ugly games," Aldridge said. "I thought we grew a little bit tonight."
Matthews added: "Last year, we don't win that game."
The Blazers now embark on a four-game road trip with the knowledge that all nine rotation players have had signature performances this season. Robinson had been the missing link, but he looked plenty satisfied after this one. This is the first trip in awhile that Portland can approach without any bar-lowering: the Blazers can and should expect to compete in, and win, all four games. Boston, Toronto, Brooklyn and Milwaukee are a combined 12-20 on the season; There are no tossaway gamess here, and there should be no excuses or no-show efforts.
The last 12 days, spent mostly at at the Moda Center, have seen some fine moments, smart play and flashes of resilience; winning on the road is never a skip in the park down the middle of a wide open paint, but this isn't exactly an obstacle course with fire-breathing dragons and mud-filled moats.
"We've got a chance to really pull away from some teams in the West," Matthews concluded. Right attitude.
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced at 19,537. No way.
- Here are the game highlights via YouTube user NBACalifornia.
- The best sign of the night read: "Robin: Rip City's Boy Wonder."
- The Blazers did a jumbotron feature that showed Robin Lopez side-by-side with Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons. After the intro, various hairstyles from the TV show were superimposed on the screen as the camera sought out fans in the stands to "wear" the hairstyles. It was a good idea but the execution left a little bit to be desired, as people kept looking up at the screen and messing up the head/hair combination visual. It's cool that Lopez is in on the joke.
- Lopez registered a third straight double-double, putting up 13 points and grabbing 15 rebounds, much to the astonishment of the Phoenix media who covered his first few years in the NBA.
- Portland entered the game averaging 10 three-pointers made per game, fourth-best in the NBA. They had just one make at halftime but pulled out a 6-for-15 night overall.
- Gerald Green's cuff dunk was sick.
- The teams exchanged dumb first quarter fouls: Marcus Morris fouled Thomas Robinson as he attempted a three-pointer and then Joel Freeland fouled Eric Bledsoe as he attempted a three at the end of the quarter. Oof.
- Robinson underlined one finish with a deliberate, hulking celebration on the baseline that involved a bit of a gun show. I asked if the celebration had a name, because it should: "My step? I don't know. I don't know what that was. I don't know where that came from. Y'all can name it." You heard the man. Suggestions are welcome.
- Robinson on whether his up-and-down playing time is affecting him: "As far as mentally and being strong, I'm the the strongest when it comes to that. I went through a rough year last year, I know to keep my calm. I know I only played five minutes last game, you never know what happens. L.A. comes out and gets two quick fouls tonight, and my name was called. You can't hold on to it [any negative feelings]. If I would have done that, my game wouldn't have ended up the way it did tonight."
- Wesley Matthews jokingly pointed out that one of his teammates didn't use the foul to give on Phoenix's final possession. "That was a long six seconds. I think we had a foul to give, too, Nic."
- Matthews later credited Nic Batum for posing problems for Bledsoe with his length during the fourth quarter. That cross-match look with Batum on point guards continues to pay dividends.
- In addition to Stotts' praise for the Suns' defense, the Blazers seemed really impressed by what Phoenix is doing on that end given their youth and lack of big name players. Matthews: "They're a different kind of team. You look at them and you don't think they have a true shot-blocker or rim protector. They do it by committee. They're one of those teams that does everything by committee. They play hard, they're in the passing lanes, they convert to the ball, they make you make the extra play."
- Aldridge on the same subject: "They're just active. They crash the boards, they're in the passing lanes. They use their young athleticism to their advantage."
- Aldridge admitted to "over-thinking" after he picked up his first two fouls. He pressed a little bit in the fourth but it was more a matter of him missing makeable shots as opposed to recklessly going off the grid.
- Damian Lillard on Robinson: "He played huge for us. In practice that's who he is all the time, with energy, aggressive, attacking the glass, finishing strong. That's what we need from him."
- Aldridge on Robinson: "That dunk was huge, he was crashing the boards and being a man down there."
- The Goran Dragic vs. Mo Williams collision was pretty intense. "This last one month I have had bad luck," Dragic said. "I am done injuring myself."
- Suns coach Jeff Hornacek was looking for a call on the final play: "When you're on the losing end, it's always tough. I thought Eric [Bledsoe] got fouled."
- Miles Plumlee has obviously come out of nowhere this season and he impressed with his diligent pre-game routine. He went through lots of situations, catches, turns, low block moves during work that began more than two hours before the game.
- No "Cha-Lu-Pa" hijinks to report with the Blazers only hitting 90 points. Blazers president Chris McGowan should try to enlist a sponsor for game-winners. Set some parameters: if one of the Blazers hits a go-ahead or tie-breaking shot in the last 30 seconds everyone gets a free coffee/Slurpee/whatever. If Portland happens to go over 100 points, everyone wins twice. Seems like that moment is worth enhancing.
- Check out Dane Carbaugh's second video breakdown that investigates Portland's problems with transition defense. There were plenty of breakdowns Wednesday, particularly in a turnover-riddled stretch of the second quarter. Stotts actually singled out his team's transition defense for praise (see below) even though Phoenix had 20 fast-break points (compared to Portland's four).
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
It wasn't looking good for a long time. We didn't have much going on offensively. Defensively we were pretty solid, except for the fast break points we gave up in the second quarter, mainly due to our turnovers. Obviously Thomas Robinson came in and gave us a lot of energy and got us back into the game. That sparked the team, it sparked the crowd, just got us back into it. On a night where the ball wasn't going in the basket, it was good to get a win with our defense.
Last offensive possession; game-winning lay-up came from pick-and-roll
When you put shooters on the court, it opens up the middle. Dame was aggressive, L.A. set a good screen, the sea parted.
I don't know if there was one play, it was just the whole energy at both ends of the floor, getting rebounds, getting out, obviously the dunk was a big play. The general feel for that stretch, I thought there was a stretch of momentum, the dunk was certainly part of it.
Neither team shot did much from deep
They hit five threes on the night and three of them were consecutive. We kind of played the odds a little bit with switching Robin onto them and he made some contested threes. Overall it was a good defensive night. The thing I'm most pleased with is the transition defense. We made some great hustle plays getting back. For them to have 20, five or six below their average, and the fact that they had 10 of them in the second quarter, they didn't have any in the first quarter, there were a lot of good defensive plays. That was probably the best part of our defense.
What happened to your offense
Really? Hey, I give Phoenix a lot of credit. They play hard. I don't think anybody could watch that game and not come away with the feeling how hard Phoenix plays. They compete for catches, they push out post-ups, they're physical in the paint, they go after the ball. They're active with their hands. I give Phoenix a lot of credit with their defense. Like a lot of games, you're going to miss shots, but I'll give them credit, they're a good defensive team.
Last Suns possession; what were your emotions?
Well, one of them I'm not going to say. The other -- you're just waiting for the horn to go off. Every time the ball is alive, and every time the ball has a chance to go in, you're hoping it doesn't go in and you're hoping to see those red lights around the backboard.
Take some pleasure from winning ugly?
Yes I do. Look, I love an offensive game, I love scoring a lot of points. For us to be the team we want to be this season, these are the type of games we have to find a way to win. We did it with some toughness and energy. We made some plays when it counted. L.A. hits a big shot, Damian gets to the rim. We get stops when we needed them.
I think that's the strength of our team. I think we have a lot of guys who can make offensive plays for us. We can get scoring off the bench. Our starters -- four of the starters from last year have proven they can score. I don't know if I could call it balance, but the ability to have multiple guys contribute, is important. Some nights it may be balanced scoring, some nights it may be two or three guys having a night. That's going to be one of our strengths offensively.
I thought he handled it well. The first one almost went in, the second one he knocked down. Look, he was struggling from the line, they took a calculated risk and did it. It's part of the game.
I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be a good test. Any road game is tough, any East Coast trip is tough. We have our work cut out for us. I don't want to necessarily look at the road trip. We're looking at Boston on Friday and we'll go from there.
Thomas Robinson only five minutes last game; 16 minutes this game
I think I answered the question that [Detroit] game that Joel [Freeland] was playing well, and this night, Thomas was playing well.
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