The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Chicago Bulls, 98-95, at the Moda Center on Friday night, winning their ninth straight game and improving their record 11-2.
A contest that swung as if controlled by a bungee cord was decided when Wesley Matthews stuck his landing, collected his wits and calmly sank the go-ahead jumper. This was State Fair stuff, an unpredictable game in which the fretting over a potential tragedy involving a superstar was put on hold just long enough so that an oft-overlooked player could have his star turn.
The ball was sailing over Matthews' head, though, as Damian Lillard's pass looked headed for the courtside seats. Chicago was up by one with less than two minutes to play, and an unforced turnover would have been a momentum-killer. Instead, Matthews elevated to prevent the disaster, only to realize that he would need to tightrope walk on the sideline as he descended to ensure that the turnover was avoided, rather than simply delayed. He managed to do just that.
"I couldn't believe I caught it," Matthews told Blazersedge. "I've been saying I could play on Sundays. That catch was evidence."
All the necessary elements were there: the leap, the haul and the feet inbounds. Let's call it Ironman's Megatron moment, but that was the easy part. Now, to step forward and make sure that a 21-point Portland comeback -- highlighted by a furious 26-5 rally to close the third quarter -- didn't go to waste.
Rarely do you see urgency transform into serenity quite like it did over the next few seconds, with Matthews' body relaxing as if kneaded by an invisible masseuse. Settled, he advanced to his left against Luol Deng before coming back to the right to step into a mid-range jumper. It swished through to give Portland a lead it wouldn't relinquish.
"We needed that possession," Matthews, who finished with a game-high 28 points (on 12-for-19 shooting), continued. "I was able to compose myself, Robin [Lopez] came up and set a screen, I didn't like it. He came back and set another one, I had a little bit of space and I took my shot."
Chicago came up empty on its next three trips and LaMarcus Aldridge, who scored 12 points and shot just 4-for-20, sank two free throws to provide the final margin.
Matthews' 28 points marked a season-high and it was fitting that he delivered the winner; not usually the headliner, the fifth-year guard has been absolutely feasting so far this season, shooting 53.5 percent from the field and 50 percent from deep entering Friday. Both Aldridge and Damian Lillard, who finished with 20 points (6-for-14 shooting) and six assists, struggled most of the way, and Matthews was the stabilizing offensive force early on. In the first quarter, he accounted for four of Portland's eight baskets and 10 of the Blazers' 22 points.
"His shooting speaks for itself," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said, after agreeing that Matthews' hot start represents his best stretch since Stotts took over. "His offense is in the flow of the game. I don't run a lot of plays for him. Part of [his success] is a function of how well we pass the ball. He's opportunistic in how he reads the game, how he spaces the court. He's aggressive when he has the opportunity."
This is some kind of zone. The Great Regression is coming sooner or later but for now he's simply roaring. "No, don't shoot that," one fan muttered, seconds before Matthews knocked down a contested turnaround jumper. Easy.
"I don't know," Matthews told Blazersedge, when asked whether he considers this the best stretch of his career. "My success is the team's success. The team is rolling. I'm a rhythm player, I'm a rhythm guy. I'm not going to get many sets called for me, that's fine. Coach knows that, I know that."
His save-and-shot will stick in the memory because it combined quick-thinking, instincts, coordination, self-control and a pretty stroke. That combination is Matthews at his best.
During the preseason, Matthews spoke about feeling "stress" and he has mentioned his inability to sleep on multiple occasions in recent weeks. He was rushed from a practice to the hospital after experiencing an irregular heartbeat, but he returned to the court in short order. He said Friday that the stress didn't arise from any particular source, and that he was merely "too eager" to get the season started.
Perhaps this was the ongoing agony of a perfectionist playing a perfection-less sport. Case in point: his defense left much to be desired on Friday but he brought that up before anyone else had the chance.
"I was mad at myself the first quarter. I had however many points, but I was mad that I let Deng get two offensive rebounds for four points," Matthews told Blazersedge. "I was mad that I fell asleep, [Mike] Dunleavy hit a three. I was mad that I fouled Dunleavy, gave them five points [total] there. I was accountable for nine points, that was the only thing I was thinking about. That I've got to make that back."
That deficit mentality wasn't only a one-man feeling. The Blazers trailed 48-27 in the second quarter and 59-44 at halftime. "I don't think we win this game last year," Nicolas Batum said, referring to the "first game home after a road trip letdown" phenomenon.
Instead of rolling over or packing it in after a flat start, Portland played perhaps its most effective defensive quarter of the season, holding Chicago to just 12 points in the third frame. The Bulls committed 10 turnovers and attempted just 12 shot in the period, as the Blazers blocked shots, stripped balls, intercepted passes and used their fouls. At one point, an exasperated Joakim Noah turned to Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau seeking a play. The ensuing, confused possession wound up taking more than 10 seconds to begin; it ended with a 24-second shot clock violation.
"We didn't change any schemes, we just played harder, played better, played with more focus, more intensity, more attitude," Stotts said of his team's third-quarter defense.
Mo Williams popped in for back-to-back three-pointers on an otherwise quiet night for the Blazers' bench, and Portland had eaten up Chicago's entire 21-point lead by the 3:47 mark of the third quarter.
"It's not about basketball, it's just about pride," said Batum, who had 17 points, eight rebounds and five steals. "They kicked [expletive] in the first half, dominated the boards. ... We came back, it wasn't about plays. ... We just wanted it more."
A Moda Center crowd that began the night with hundreds of empty seats and hundreds of rowdy Bulls fans took over in the second half, rewarding the Blazers with a loud standing ovation when Matthews hit a last-second shot to close the third quarter.
That awakening nearly distracted from the fact that Chicago's All-Star guard Derrick Rose had left the game during the third quarter after sustaining a non-contact injury to his right knee. Rose tore the ACL in his left knee during the 2012 playoffs and he missed the entire 2012-13 season as he rehabilitated. As he received attention from Chicago staffers on the bench, the first thought was that this was simply (over)precautionary treatment to a franchise player. Instead, he departed for the locker room with assistance. Then, he didn't meet with the media after the game and used crutches when exiting the arena.
"He has pain and felt like he couldn't push off the right knee," Thibodeau said. "We're not sure [the extent of the injury]. The doctor looked at him but he's scheduled to have an MRI [on Saturday]."
The gut punch to Chicago's psyche is one that we've seen before in Portland, and their resolve to compete throughout the fourth quarter was admirable. Thibodeau looked beyond frustrated during his post-game comments, and Rose wore a blank face as he departed the Moda Center. Chicago's concern was shared by Adidas executives, who were on hand for their flagship client's only trip to Portland this season. It's overwhelming to consider how much rides on his MRI results.
Portland's players had only a brief moment to greet Rose afterwards and send off a few Twitter posts expressing their concern before it was time to fly to California for the second half of a home/road back-to-back on Saturday against the Golden State Warriors.
The confidence that was swelling before Portland's recent road trip has actually tapered a bit. Stotts mentioned that there was no obvious post-game celebration, despite the fact that Portland's ninth straight win came against a quality opponent, and the Blazers were all business by the time the media was let in. The team is no longer surprising itself with its own results.
"We needed this game," Matthews said. "We've won every kind of way, every style of team now, playing Chicago, a bully team. That's how they get stuff done and we needed to feel that."
The bullies bent Portland to the tune of 44 points in the paint, but they didn't break them. The Blazers struggled to stay between Rose and the hoop, but his damage (20 points on 19 shots) was limited by a rough night finishing. Chicago shot just 38.6 percent as a team and Portland's second-half defensive spurt was a sight to behold.
Long winning streaks and losing streaks have a funny way of manipulating time. Winners seem permanently ready to compete: all of a sudden, the idea of a back-to-back-to-back-to-back sounds pretty good. Anything that will keep the mojo alive. Losers, of course, drown in dread, hoping to push pause on life and grab a Snickers.
"Having a winning streak is nice and everything but the way we're approaching it is to just win the next game," Stotts said, true to form. "We haven't proven anything. Indiana and San Antonio, they've done something, they have a body of work, nobody questions their record. We haven't done anything."
This team won't really have done anything until at least April, but that doesn't erase the fact that they continue to impress.
Random Game Notes
- The crowd was announced as a sellout. It was amazing how many Bulls fans were in attendance.
- Here are the video highlights via YouTube user NBACircleToday.
- Here are some Wesley Matthews highlights via YouTube user NBA.
- One of my pet peeves: jerseys that are stuck time-wise between current and throwback. LaMarcus Aldridge jersey? Totally cool to wear to a game, obviously. Jerome Kersey jersey? Very, very cool. Robert Pack jersey? You are the man/woman. Ditto for the Bill Walton/Maurice Lucas approach. But it's the Brandon Roy jerseys and the Andre Miller jerseys and the Raymond Felton jerseys and the Jamal Crawford jerseys and the Rudy Fernandez jerseys that are just life violations. You don't have to chuck them in the dumpster but it's time to case them in mothballs for the next few years.
- Slowly, the Moda Center crowd is adapting its jerseys to this current group, with Damian Lillard being a very popular pick (duh). I suspect that the 300 level crowd is better at staying current with jerseys but I have no way of proving that scientifically. Anyway, Friday night's crowd surrounding my seat was dominated by Lillard/Aldridge/Batum jerseys, which deserves a thumbs up.
- Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune reports on Twitter that Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau referred to Lillard as an "All-Star" -- no qualifications -- during his pre-game comments.
- The jumbotron tried to incorporate some Twitter messages from players into its pre-game graphics but they were too small to read. That idea has some potential.
- Damian Lillard addressed the crowd before the game to offer thanks to fans who donated to relief efforts in the Philippines, where a typhoon has wreaked havoc. Blazers fans donated more than $5,000 and Seattle Seahawks fans donated more than $14,000 to the relief efforts. With corporate matching, the final donation total topped $56,000.
- Two good signs. First: a sweeping broom graphic that had the logos of the four teams Portland beat during its recent road trip inside a dust pan. Second: a Lillard sign that read "From the Big Sky to the Big-Time."
- The game program highlighted the Lillard vs. Rose match-up. Both guards scored 20 points but Rose's injury clearly overtook that storyline.
- Lillard to Blazersedge regarding the match-up with Rose: "We won the game. It was unfortunate to see he got hurt. You never want to see nobody go down. I didn't even look at it like it was a personal match-up. It was more about me doing my job better than he did so that we could win the game."
- Check out this outfit worn by Blazers guard Will Barton. He finally agreed to allow me to take a picture after I promised to tweet that he was "shinin'." And he definitely was.
- The embarrassing part was that I happened to be wearing the exact same thing. The "You look like Luke Babbitt" jokes finally stopped and now this. What are the odds?
- One of Barton's teammates cracked: "Even a blind man can see you got money."
- There was a jumbotron proposal.................... and SHE SAID YES!
- By far the best part of the proposal was that it came just minutes before "Duo Design" performed at halftime. Can you imagine spending the first few minutes of your engagement watching Jarek & Darek wear skin-colored, skin-tight outfits while balancing on each other in provocative ways? On the other hand, maybe this was a smart call. No need to elope to Vegas?
- The Blazers didn't have a final offensive possession with a chance to score 100 points so no update on the "Cha-Lu-Pa" chanting.
- If Matthews kept Portland's offense afloat, Robin Lopez (13 points and 16 rebounds) kept the overall energy up. He was valiantly fighting a one-man war of attrition at times. Matthews on Lopez: "Robin is playing like an animal. That's what we brought him in to do. We're actually putting too much pressure on him. Us guards have to keep people out of the paint."
- Lopez said he didn't care about tying his career-high rebounding number: "I'm not really watching the [stats]. It would be meaningless if we didn't get that win. I'm so glad we got that W tonight."
- Lillard, who had a rough go defensively, on what changed for the Blazers in the third quarter: "It was pride. In the first half, they were comfortable running their offense, they passed the ball where they wanted, drove the ball where they wanted, they pretty much anything they wanted. In the third quarter we knew we had to do it right then, because were down 18 or something like that. Put some pressure on them, get in the passing lanes, get a little more physical. We got them to turn it over a few times, got out in transition."
- Lillard on Matthews' strong start to the season: "He's not forcing it, shots are coming to him. He's shooting the ball really well, he's defending really well. He's being Wes, i'm not surprised by it. ... When you do things the right way, when you're consistent on the defensive end, making the right plays, it all falls into place. It's just falling into place for him."
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
I thought that was an impressive half of basketball we played, at both ends of the floor. Obviously defensively we picked it up in the third quarter, I wish we had played like that at the beginning of the game. It's good to know that we have that in us. We can point to that as what we need to do more often.
Third quarter defense
We didn't change any schemes, we just played harder, played better, played with more focus, more intensity, more attitude. All of the things basically that Chicago did in the first half, I thought our mindset and approach to the game in the second half was what we needed against a team like Chicago that's been through a lot together. They know how to compete at a very high level consistently and we did that in the second half.
Lack of energy/focus in first half
I don't know. I'll credit Chicago, I thought in the first half they took it to us. They were more aggressive to balls. More aggressive rebounding, more aggressive on their drives. That's the way they play. I don't know if we adjusted soon enough or realized the level we had to play at.
Robin was fantastic. Obviously he was a presence in the paint. He got -- whatever rebounds he got -- 16. He kept pursuing the ball, even the ones he didn't get, kept balls alive. He plays hard from the beginning. He's a team guy and he wants to do what we need him to do.
You only won the third quarter but you won the game
In the CBA, that's a 4-3. I don't know if that in particular tells us anything, to me in this league you've got to find ways to win games. To come back, the crowd was into it, we rode that. We fed off the energy of each other and the crowd. I don't know. I don't know if that necessarily speaks to anything -- winning one quarter, I don't know if that means anything.
Best quarter of the season?
I would have to go through the game, but when you outscore them by 22 in the quarter, I would think it would be up there.
Talking about the streak?
Nope. We're looking at Chicago and now we look at Golden State. You can't -- we want to win games. Having a winning streak is nice and everything but the way we're approaching it is just win the next game.
Do you have to manage thinking about streak as a coach?
I don't think so because we're playing with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. We haven't proven anything. Indiana and San Antonio, they've done something, they have a body of work, nobody questions their record. We haven't done anything. I think our mentality is to come out every night and play as well as we can and as hard as we can.
I don't know. By the time I got in there, I give them time to cool down, they were taking off their shoes and putting ice on. If there was any celebration I wasn't there for it.
Coaches locker room
We were pleased.
What do you have to prove?
In this league you have to prove it every night. Especially for us. We don't have a player that played in the playoffs last year, we're coming off of a 33-win season, we haven't really accomplished anything. We have to go out and prove it every night.
Wesley Matthews, most consistent offense he's showed?
Since I've seen him, yeah. I thought he was very good last year coming out of the gate but he's playing extremely well at both ends of the floor. Obviously his shooting speaks for itself. I get back to his offense, it's within the flow of the game, I don't run a lot of plays for him. Part of it is a function of how well we pass the ball. He's opportunistic in how he reads the game, how he spaces the court. He's aggressive when he has the opportunity to.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter