OK, before we say anything else...my God, what a game this was. If you have not seen it you must immediately go beg, borrow, or steal any copy you can get your hands on. I say that less as a Blazers partisan (though the Blazers did indeed win it) and more as somebody who has watched his share of mediocre basketball games. This is why following the NBA is worthwhile. You can get excitement and scoring in almost any league around the world, but seeing two really good professional teams play at a high level, making adjustment after adjustment to counter each other...that's a rare treat. If you're any kind of a basketball purist, this game is must-see.
Now, how did the Blazers come away with the 106-102 victory? Well...
Unlike many teams Portland has faced this season, the Indiana Pacers demonstrated that they had scouted the Blazers and intended to press the right buttons all night long. From the opening tip they forced action towards the center position on either end of the floor. They started out by dumping the ball to Roy Hibbert, first high and then low, making Robin Lopez alternate between good defense, fouling, and having to range outside his comfort zone. Indiana's plans were foiled somewhat by Hibbert missing his inside attempts, the start of an on-and-off night for him. But the theory was solid. On the other end, Indiana cut off three-point shooters and used extra men to force the ball out of the hands of anybody who penetrated with the dribble. The guy they chose to leave open? Lopez. Robin hit a couple shots but again the results were going to be potluck. Indiana didn't build a big lead early but the opening moves of the chess match were as solid as you could get. Portland was in for a contest.
The Blazers rebuttal involved forcing turnovers on defense and running the ball through LaMarcus Aldridge on offense. Aldridge provided the only steady offense Portland would find in the first half. Both jumper and post moves were solid. Other than LMA, Portland's attack involved plenty of dribbling and one-on-one heroics to mixed results. Meanwhile Indiana countered Aldridge's offense by pulling their power forwards--first David West and later Luis Scola--outside to hit face-up jumpers. Every time Aldridge would hit a great shot on one end they'd strike back with the power forward "J" on the other. And back and forth it went for most of the first half. Indiana would inch ahead. Portland would reel them back. The Pacers pressed an advantage on the boards and rode the back of Paul George but then they'd give it back with their bench or by letting Portland's guards see a little daylight. The score was 46-45 for the Pacers at halftime. The chess match would continue.
Now before we get to the fun stuff for Blazers fans, let me say this. If you want to see a clinic on how to defend--in general, yes, but specifically against Portland--watch the first six minutes of the second half of this game. Indiana closed down the three-point arc, closed down the lane, rebounded the ball, forced the Blazers into turnovers, and kept Portland shooting the mid-range jumpers that the Blazers desperately want their opponents to shoot. We've seen other teams ground and pound Portland using low-post offense, but this was the Pacers slapping a submission hold on the Blazers with defense. Portland usually absorbs punches and gets back up, but when they went down 8 with 4:00 left in the third and Indiana in seeming control, things looked dire.
Yet the Blazers managed to wiggle out. Wesley Matthews took advantage of Indy's one weak spot tonight: guard play. He drove on Lance Stephenson and Orlando Johnson, making layups, drawing fouls, or both. That opened a crack of daylight. Then the Blazers shook it off and reversed the hold with a little more Aldridge action. All of a sudden 8 points looked like just 8 points instead of the first crack of a bone breaking. Portland closed the gap completely by the end of the quarter, tying the game at 72. Both combatants faced each other again, on their feet and ready for the deciding round.
Maybe "almost ready" would be a better description. In the closing minutes of the third and through the early fourth it became apparent that Indiana was running on fumes, especially their bigs. David West and Roy Hibbert both walked down the court as if they were carrying luggage through the airport. A moving sidewalk would have been faster. To their credit, they slowed down on offense. They hustled back defensively, but still they were playing halfway. The Pacers stopped going inside, shooting jumper after jumper. Their rebounding advantage faded. The Blazers smelled blood.
Figuring the goose-gander axiom was worth a shot, Portland started attacking Indiana's guard weakness in earnest. Mo Williams dribbled by defenders and tickled the twine with pull-ups. Damian Lillard chipped in, using screens to slingshot into position for open jumpers. Indiana's guards weren't getting around and their bigs were slow in getting over. When Lillard wasn't hitting the "J" he was driving and drawing foul shots. The two-headed guard attack put Portland into winning position and a return to Aldridge for the coup de grace nearly sealed the deal. Portland led by 8 with 6 minutes to go, by 7 with 3:15 left.
That's when Paul George made like the Black Knight and started yelling, "It's just a flesh wound!" The Blazers foiled Indiana's defense again and again, scoring or drawing fouls every trip down the court. But Indy would not die because George came back and hit a three-pointer after all but 2 of Portland's 7 scoring trips in the final 3:15 of the game. Five three-pointers by George in that span almost gave Indiana a comeback that would have been compared to Reggie Miller's bomb-fest versus the Knicks. But the Blazers kept their heads, made their free throws, and held the Pacers 4 points short. In the end, even the last-minute flurry only added to the savor of Portland's 106-102 victory.
The Pacers' defense held the Blazers to 13 three-point attempts and only 5 makes, a 38.5% clip. That's still a good rate for normal teams, but for Portland it's practically a drought. The Pacers also held Portland to only 6 offensive rebounds, another source of scoring cut off. But Portland returned the favor by keeping Indy to 30 points in the paint...a masterpiece by Portland standards. The Blazers dominated the foul line battle, attempting 33 free throws to 17 for Indiana, ending up +14 from the stripe. Some of those were intentional foul shots late, but even so the stat was huge in a game where Portland had to fight for every point prior to the 4th period.
Add it all up and you come away with the most satisfying victory of Portland's season so far. Since there have been 15 to choose from, that's saying something.
LaMarcus Aldridge is a master of his craft. There's no other way to put it. Those who have worried about him not being a team leader or a true #1 option, look at what he's doing so far this season. He may not have been before, but he is right now and he was doubly so tonight. He was the only Blazer playing his normal game when the Pacers put the screws to Portland's offense. He scored 28 on 11-19 shooting, hit 6-8 free throws, and taught Roy Hibbert not to try and stop him on the way to the hoop by leading with his knee on the jump and taking out Hibbert's gall bladder twice. More impressively, Aldridge finished the game with a team-high 10 rebounds after being drawn away from the hoop for most of the first half.
Damian Lillard scored 26 tonight. The most impressive part of his offensive game came at the foul line where he went a perfect 10-10. Not settling for jumpers, attacking both his individual defender and the slow-rotating Pacers bigs in the second half proved a smart move. Lillard hit 2 of Portland's 5 three-pointers, dished 6 assists, and grabbed 5 rebounds.
Wesley Matthews didn't have his greatest game of the season BUT he took Lance Stephenson out of the game, driving on him and making the Pacers pay from the foul line. Matthews hit 4-5 free throws and 5-11 shots overall for 15 points. He was the lifeline for a while there in the third period.
Nicolas Batum got worn out trying to guard Paul George, got shaken out of the offense by defending running at him whenever he thought about shooting the three or passing the ball, and basically had to make do with clawing at the Pacers wherever he could. He recorded 5 rebounds, 5 personal fouls, and 8 points tonight.
Robin Lopez also had to take what he could get. The Pacers stamped a target on his back and he earned 4 personal fouls trying to get it off. He had 7 boards and 8 points plus he didn't let Roy Hibbert score easily even when Hibbert got good position. Roy ended up 6-13. That looks pretty good, but he could have easily been 9-13 given his floor position on those shots. Lopez bothered him just enough and Hibbert got in his own head after that.
Mo Williams played an ineffective first half but made up for it by sticking the dagger in during the ultimately-decisive fourth-quarter run. He saw an opening, he went for it, he scored enough to keep Indiana on their heels. Williams ended up 6-12 with 13 points in 23 minutes. He had only 2 assists but it wasn't the night for him to be passing.
Joel Freeland inherited Robin Lopez's target when he checked in the game and appeared a little overwhelmed by it at first. The Pacers went at him pretty methodically. But when Freeland gained his sea legs he did OK, getting in 4 rebounds and at least one of his trademark shoves in 16 minutes.
Dorell Wright got 12 minutes, ranging from mostly invisible to getting eaten up on a couple of individual possessions.
Thomas Robinson didn't care who the opponent was. He was just going to rebound. Which he did. He grabbed 5 boards in 11 minutes. He also hit 2-3 shots for 4 points, one jumper and one opportunity lay-in. He collected 3 personal fouls in that span too.
The Blazers get a day to rest up and then Oklahoma City comes to town on Wednesday for another big night.
Timmay's Instant Recap and Gameday Thread Review...happy happy time!
Hopefully Indy Cornrows thinks this was just as good of a game as we do.
For those asking about the Jersey Contest, we're still working out a couple unexpected bugs. Keep in mind we had to re-code the whole system on short notice. It'll be back.