The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the San Antonio Spurs, 115-105, at the Moda Center on Saturday night, improving their record to 2-1.
Wednesday was for the glass-is-half-empty cynics, Friday was for the glass-is-half-full crowd, and Saturday was for the "my cup is overflowing with champagne and now my hand is all wet but it's cool" revelers. It's been a long time since the Blazers have turned The Building Formerly Known As into a true party -- Portland last won a regular season home game on March 16 -- but that's what they did here, providing a chest-swelling performance that stood as the inverse to their embarrassing season-opening loss to the Phoenix Suns.
Like any team, the 2013-14 Blazers will ultimately settle somewhere on the spectrum between "everything went wrong" and "everything went right." Somehow, both poles have been mapped out in just five days.
If this wasn't coach Terry Stotts' happiest post-game moment in Portland, then whatever topped it happened so long ago that it escapes the memory. Helpless down the stretch of last season and a bit cautious and guarded during the preseason, Stotts saw many of his goals play out as expected, against a top-tier team no less. He saw scoring balance among his starters, a spark plug performance from Mo Williams, a quick start and a level-headed ending, great shooting, quality defensive effort, and a plus-four night on the glass.
He saw exciting stuff too: alley-oops, pretty one-on-one plays, a number of big three-pointers and 115 points total. Only five teams tallied 115 points against the Spurs last season (Portland was one).
"It's difficult to game-plan [against] if you have different players who are capable of making shots and making plays," Stotts said of his offensive attack. "As long as the ball is moving and the shots are in rhythm, whether everybody scores double-figures or one guy gets 40, as long as the game is played at the offensive end with some continuity, passing and teamwork, that's the most important thing."
He was too pleased to nitpick or to take Nicolas Batum to task for launching a three-pointer at the buzzer while up by seven points, a clear etiquette violation. Batum's heave going in -- thereby enlarging the victory margin and putting him over the top for the third triple-double of his career -- would draw a "tsk tsk" on most nights, but definitely not this one.
There was just too much for Stotts to savor. LaMarcus Aldridge finished with 24 points (on 11-for-17 shooting), seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks, and he clearly has his jumper radar locked in. His footwork/fake combinations make it clear that he put in some hours this summer. He buckled Tiago Splitter at the knees while setting up one turnaround -- making him lean like a fiend -- before draining the shot. It's not easy for a seven-footer to make YouTube light up with a mid-range jumper, but there he was.
Damian Lillard wasn't scorching but he was plenty engaged, scoring a game-high 25 points (on 7-for-16 shooting) and adding seven rebounds and seven assists. He kept San Antonio at bay from the free-throw line in the game's final minutes and he oversaw a night in which Portland put six players into double-figures and registered 29 assists on 45 baskets.
The successes weren't always individual. Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez teamed up on a series of fruitful pick-and-roll plays. Using Batum as a ball-handler has often been a boom or bust proposition; here we saw almost exclusively boom. In an ideal world, these two should be able to execute side pick-and-rolls in a pure two-on-two setting, as Portland's other options require defensive attention and obstruct the opposition's ability to load up with help.
"I just know when I roll, [Batum is] going to be looking for me, and I think that's how it is with anybody who sets a pick for him," Lopez told Blazersedge. "He's so talented offensively that people have to watch him, but he's also a gifted passer. It makes it easy for me."
Batum -- who finished with 11 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists and 4 turnovers -- timed his passes to Lopez well, after first drawing out Duncan. The rotating defense was often rendered useless as Lopez generally moved directly from the point of the catch to the rim, without detouring. You can't build an offense around this duo but the combination has the ability to be a reliable method for squeezing out some points in a change-of-pace setting, and it was key in keeping San Antonio's defense guessing.
"I want Nic to be aggressive, period," Stotts said. "A lot of times people think that that means being aggressive looking for a shot. I thought the two plays he made in the first half, finding Robin on rolls, were because he was being aggressive coming off of a ball screen. Whether it's going for rebounds or running the court or being aggressive, taking the ball out of the basket, he's a better player when he's aggressive."
Portland's attack really was unpredictable in all the right ways. Points came quickly from a variety of sources and the Blazers succeeded in generating a good flow even though they didn't get out on the break much. That's long been the stated goal, and here it was actualized.
Meanwhile, league-average seems to be the target on defense, and while this wasn't a masterpiece on that end there were positive flashes. Tony Parker played in the paint but he didn't crack the Blazers, as he is fully capable of doing on any given night, and Tim Duncan was steady but not altogether dominant. Portland will be thrilled with the Spurs' ratio of long twos to threes, and they'll take their chances when Marco Belinelli -- who finished with 19 points on 8-for-12 shooting and was en fuego late -- decides to lead the way.
Lopez's final line stood at 12 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks in 40 minutes, tying his career-high for minutes played in a non-overtime game. He stayed out of foul trouble, he looked comfortable with his defensive positioning, and his ratio of positive plays to mistakes was solid. His mandate isn't to win his match-up but to be a headache for opposing teams, doing whatever is necessary to help Aldridge win his match-up. He succeeded on both counts.
"He's taking on the challenge of guarding the other center. Tonight he battled with Tim all night," Aldridge told Blazersedge. "That's been better for me. Normally I've been guarding [Duncan]. [Lopez] blocked shots, clogged the paint, just played the big boys."
Stotts added: "He plays hard at both ends of the court, goes after every rebound, made a big block down the stretch, his presence in the paint just makes a difference. His effort -- you feel his effort and his energy when he's on the court."
Just as Lopez seems to be developing some offensive chemistry with Batum, he said that his pairing with Aldridge is inching closer to being more than just an offseason concept.
"I kind of flashed back to the Denver game, where J.J. Hickson, he's a great finisher at the rim," Lopez said. "[But] LaMarcus was on one side and I was on one side and [Hickson] kind of had to pick his poison. He had to go up against one of the guys."
That frontcourt pairing has looked fairly competent after an impotent performance against Phoenix, and that's true even though Portland conceded 52 points in the paint. Even on a good night, this wall is still missing a few bricks; at least it's not a cardboard box anymore.
One topic Lopez wasn't touching was Hickson's jab about his weak rebounding numbers against the Suns. He claimed to be "unaware" of the comments, said that he didn't view them as fuel for the fire, and dodged with a simple: "Whatever." Lopez isn't particularly easy to read -- unless he's frustrated, in which case he's an open book. While his coach and a number of his teammates looked ecstatic, Lopez said that he was "satisfied" with his play and that he would enjoy it for a few hours before moving on. His flat tone made it seem as if perhaps he had already moved on.
If Lopez wouldn't toot his own horn or even allow himself the luxury of openly enjoying the victory, Wesley Matthews was happy to do it for him. Following a preseason that saw both a long stretch of rough shooting and an irregular heartbeat scare, Matthews finished with 20 points (on 8-for-13 shooting), including 10 in the fourth quarter. Among those 10 points was a dunk in the game's final minute, a two-handed slam that brought the Moda Center to its highest volume of the night. Lillard missed a three and the rebound was batted towards Matthews, who wasted no time bee-lining for the hoop to put the Blazers up six.
This was an assertive, instinctual play that the crowd saw develop at the same time as Matthews; this was the cork popping.
"I was mad at myself from the first half," Matthews told Blazersedge, remembering the play. "I had a similar play against Tim and I tried to reverse it and I just couldn't let it go. [I told myself to] just go dunk the ball. God gave me the second chance and I was going to convert it. I've got to give Robin credit, Robin had a good seal. No doubt in my mind, I was going to make that play."
Watch the tape again: Lopez had a great seal.
Great basketball requires individual plays, and team plays; glory plays, and overlooked plays; players who do the little things, and players who do the big things and recognize when their teammates do the little things. The lasting image of the 2012-13 Blazers will be of a team that stood and watched as it was run over. Here, at the home opener, was a strong counter to those memories, which had flooded back on Wednesday.
"We had two statement wins in 48 hours and that's tough," Matthews told Blazersedge. "The [Spurs are] Western Conference champs, they represented the West in the Finals. Denver is an extremely tough team. For us to play the way we did, and have leads the way we did, and for them to cut back and us still hold them off, that's a lot of growth from last year."
Random Game Notes
- Here are the official game highlights.
- The Blazers announced the home opener as a sellout (20,028 fans). Large swathes of multiple sections were entirely empty but the crowd was much larger than I anticipated given the preseason turnouts and how regularly they were announcing that tickets were still available. This was a "sellout" (quote unquote, rather than actual factual) but we've seen way worse in the past.
- Hopefully you guys know by now how I feel about the late-game etiquette violations. I'm a hardcore stickler and even the minor infractions grind my gears. Batum's three-pointer definitely looked worse than it was but, still, it should never happen.
- Afterwards, he handled it as well as anyone could, totally owning it and going above and beyond in his apology. "When it went in, I was like, oh no. Why did I shoot and why did it go in? That may have been the worst thing I've done in my career. I didn't mean to disrespect this team. The San Antonio Spurs are the best team from the last 15 years in the NBA so I've never disrespected this team, I love this team, I have a lot of friends on this team. I think too much on the court sometimes but I didn't really think about that. I know this is a bad thing to do and I want to apologize to the Spurs organization."
- I found it noteworthy that Stotts totally passed on the questions about Batum's three. Last year, he took questions when Damian Lillard found himself in a similar situation and he also second-guessed Batum after one game, saying he wanted Batum to drive instead of shoot a three on a late possession. Knowing how Batum felt on Saturday, passing here was exactly the right play by Stotts, and owning the faux pas was exactly the right play by Batum. I wonder whether things would have played out differently last season. I'm inclined to view this as an example of a coach and player getting to know each other better with the passage of time.
- Batum also said that he wouldn't count this triple-double as a real triple-double (the second time he's said that).
- Bruce Ely of The Oregonian with the picture-perfect view of Batum's sheepishness and Tim Duncan's incredulous reaction.
- The Spurs -- who have fried plenty of bigger fishes -- totally played off Batum's three. Coach Gregg Popovich: "Why would I be mad at that? He's a good kid. I don't care." Tony Parker said the same thing.
- LaMarcus Aldridge on Batum's three: "I think he feels bad about it. That's all that needs to be said. I talked to him about it but he's already talked about it, so that's fine."
- Aldridge on playing against one of his idols, Tim Duncan: "Until the day he walks away from the game, it's going to mean something. I've watched so much film on that guy. I've watched him, how he handles double-teams, how he has patience on the block. ... I think he has some potion that makes him stay 31."
- Aldridge picked the pre-game music: "Hannah Montana" (NSFW).
- The Blazers ditched the "players enter through the crowd" season-opening gimmick and had a fairly subdued intro, at least by 2013 NBA standards. The centerpiece was a video tribute that included Jerome Kersey, Bill Walton, Brian Grant, Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Bill Schonely. The theme was heavily focused on "Rip City" past and present.
- The video also cited praise for Portland's offseason that was attributed to "Bill Simms, Grantland.com" -- which was about as perfect as typos get.
- As with all big Blazers games, saxophonist Mike Phillips did the National Anthem.
- Aldridge addressed the crowd at center court before the game to offer thanks to the "best fans in the NBA."
- "Portlandia" stars Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen had a taped message on the jumbotron and they were also in attendance. The show recently filmed a skit at the Blazers' practice facility.
- Best sign of the night: "We put a bird on it. Welcome Robin!"
- Another good sign: "Spurs rust in a Portland reign."
- Blazers coach Terry Stotts remarked that he lost track of Robin Lopez's minutes in the second half. It's the second time in three games that Lopez has played well over 30 minutes, a significantly heavier load than he played last season. Is he ready for that type of load on a regular basis? "It's easy to say yes right now," he told Blazersedge. "But we'll see." This is a major storyline to watch over the next two months. Just glancing at the 40 in the boxscore gives off a "totally untenable" vibe.
- The new, upgraded wifi was hit or miss when I tried to test it so I just gave up. Allan Brettman of The Oregonian reports that the Blazers acknowledge the problem and expect improved performance going forward.
- A fourth local sports talk radio station has launched: 910 AM. Details here. The station's programming consists of CBS Sports radio talent.
- One new game operations wrinkle: a clip from the telecast version of the Blazers trumpets now gets played at the start of quarters.
- All the "Blazers vs. Timbers" stuff came to a head on Saturday with both teams playing simultaneously (the Timbers faced their archrival Seattle Sounders, to boot). PA announcer Mark Mason announced the Timbers' halftime score during the game, and their lead was greeted by significant applause.
- Many fans chanted "Cha-Lu-Pa!" instead of "Mick-ee-dees!" when the 100 point shot approached. It took multiple possessions for the Blazers to top 100, but the jumbotron instructions were not successful in converting a good chunk of the building to the correct corporate chant. It would be pretty incredible if "Cha-Lu-Pa!" just organically lives on for years.
- So a duo named Feddy & Pip made a rap song called "I'ma Bring My Own Chalupa." It's definitely... something. Thanks to @LindsayMills for passing it along.
- The Blazers handed out free t-shirts (see below) to every fan. What a no-brainer goodwill gesture, even if they have the Moda Health logo on the back. Free t-shirts should become a standard for all home playoff games going forward. They were very well-received by the crowd (as you would expect).
- Aldridge credited his hot start to the season offensively to his second-year comfort factor with Stotts: "I think Terry and I have a better page of having our balance of what he sees and what I want to do. I think that plays a really big part in it."
- There were some strange calls that you only see early in the season during this game, but the weirdest one was the rare double foul on a block/charge scenario between Aldridge and Aron Baynes. Two referees saw it differently and both refused to back down, so a double foul and a jump ball at midcourt was the resolution. Usually the tiebreaker on that one goes to the All-Star...
- Did the Moda Center masses got the memo about Jeff Pendergraph changing his last name to Ayres? He didn't get the type of applause I expected when he checked into the game.
- You knew things were clicking on all cylinders for the Blazers when Thomas Robinson -- who played just nine minutes -- started to do one of those spin moves than leads to disaster and then stopped halfway through to find a better option. Progress!
- Blazers forward/center Joel Freeland played 8 minutes total and less than a minute in the second half. He is listed day-to-day with a strained left hip.
- This was bound to happen as soon as the naming rights deal was announced.
- Here are some photos of the new Moda Center signage and updates...
The free t-shirt design.
The arena bowl caked with the white shirts before the start of the game.
A new "This is rip city" sign in the 300 level.
The new Moda Center signage on the jumbotron.
My back now has a sponsor. My rump has yet to agree to terms.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
Obviously it was a really good win. It's nice to get a home win against the defending Western champs. Two different halves. First half I thought both teams played really good defense, I was really pleased with our defense in the first half, we took care of the rim, we took care of the threes. Two-thirds of their shots were mid-range shots. We took four threes, the first half was an excellent first half. I don't know what happened but both teams caught fire in the second half and it was a shootout.
I was pleased with our poise down the stretch, we kept making plays that we needed to make at both ends when it mattered. It's good to open up the home season with a win.
I didn't realize he had only been out 50 seconds in the second half. He just kept plugging. He plays hard at both ends of the court, goes after every rebound, made a big block down the stretch, his presence in the paint just makes a difference. His effort, you feel his effort and his energy when he's on the court.
I like it because it's difficult to game-plan [against] if you have different players who are capable of making shots and making plays. As long as the ball is moving and the shots are in rhythm, whether everybody scores double-figures or one guy gets 40, as long as the game is played at the offensive end with some continuity, passing and teamwork, that's the most important thing.
I'll let Nic answer that.
Ever seen one like that?
No. I don't think I have.
Damian Lillard's defense on Tony Parker
He really stayed after him. We changed up, it's fatiguing to do it at both ends. We put Nic on him at the end. I thought Damian took the challenge of pursuing him. Parker gets a lot of screens, on-ball screens, off-ball screens, he's running around. It takes its toll. I thought Damian was up for the challenge.
Team defense more what you're looking for
Certainly, first half it was. Second half, not as much, but I thought we adhered to our principles. We forced a lot of mid-range jump-shots and they made a decent share in the second half. Fundamentally, how we guard pick-and-rolls, how we try to keep in front of guys, chase over screens, that's what we want to do.
Belinelli made some unbelievable shots. He almost single-handedly made it a game. He kept them in it with some timely shooting, some were twos, some were threes. I thought the last two threes he hit were incredible shots. I was a little disappointed we gave up some easy ones after we scored a basket and they ran it back on us, but we were getting a little gassed at that time too.
I want Nic to be aggressive, period. A lot of times people think that that means being aggressive looking for a shot. I thought the two plays he made in the first half, finding Robin on rolls were because he was being aggressive coming off of a ball screen. Whether it's going for rebounds or running the court or being aggressive, taking the ball out of the basket, he's a better player when he's aggressive.
I don't ever want to take LaMarcus for granted because he's been remarkably consistent, not only last year but throughout his career. What he's doing right now is playing his game and playing it well. I certainly don't take it for granted but it doesn't surprise me either.
I think we're gaining confidence. I think the preseason really helped our confidence. I think we believe in what we can do and what we can accomplish if we play the way we need to play.
Lillard's late free-throws
I think everybody whether it's him, Nic [Batum] or L.A., when it's your time to make a play, we ran a couple of pick-and-roll plays for him. When he's involved in a pick-and-roll he needs to be aggressive, he needs to make the right play, whether it's take the ball to the basket, or hit the roll man or hit the weakside three, it's whatever the game gives him. The ball is going to be in his hands and he has to make the decisions.
Having that one, being able to play him and Damian together, when you have more play-makers that makes a difference. Mo is going to continue to get better the more comfortable he is, I think you saw a glimpse of what type of season he's going to have. He's a formidable offensive player who can get into the paint, make shots, push it up. He's going to create problems. This was just a taste.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter