In their final game before the holidays the Portland Trail Blazers gave their fans the only kind of present that matters in the NBA, edging out the New Orleans Pelicans 110-107 for their 23rd win of the season.
The game flow tonight was familiar to those who watched the Blazers on their recent 3-1 road trip. The Blazers started the game poorly. The Pelicans' starting lineup is fond of jumpers but Portland didn't close on shooters early, allowing New Orleans to dart out to a 20-9 lead. The Blazers also ceded the rebounding battle to the opponent, a sure sign of a rough go. Portland strung together long series of one-and-done possessions, courtesy of smart Pelican defense and poor decision-making by the Blazers. Unlike many teams who double LaMarcus Aldridge the minute he touches the ball, leading to easy passes for weak-side jumpers, New Orleans relied on length and speed to double Aldridge after he put the ball on the floor. They lived with a one-on-one matchup if he wanted to shoot the turn-around but they hawked him on any other scoring move. This led to several Aldridge misses and a notable lack of successful ball reversal. The Blazers still took plenty of threes but hardly any came uncontested on the weak side. Almost all of them missed the mark. Portland shot 35% in the first period and New Orleans led 26-21 at the end of the frame.
The second quarter didn't start out that much better for Portland. Mo Williams played aggressively but he was the only real spark. Fortunately for the Blazers the New Orleans bench played just as poorly. The game stalled, the margin hovering around 5 points for the Pelicans for most of the quarter. Then with 4 minutes left in the half Portland put on one of their patented flurries. They crashed the offensive boards, started generating second-chance points, hit a couple threes, and shocked the Pelicans into hurried misses on the other end. Like so many Portland opponents this year New Orleans had the seemingly-docile Blazers on a leash for 20 minutes then lost control. The Pelicans were lucky to maintain a 53-52 lead heading into the half.
Remaining true to form, the Blazers came out rededicated in the third period. Their biggest achievement: total dominance on the offensive glass. Portland executed more crisply, set and used screens better, forced New Orleans to commit then spun the ball for open jumpers. But rebounding proved the difference. Through the entire third period and the first part of the fourth it seemed like ever time Portland missed they'd just scoop up the ball and reset. That and the sharper execution gave them a 10-point lead with 7:50 remaining in the game...fairly significant considering how close the game had been to that point.
But New Orleans wasn't done yet. They put on a flurry of their own, mixing in a couple of three-pointers with solid Tyreke Evans drives. The Pelicans erased the lead in 4 minutes, leading 103-101 with 3 minutes to go.
It wouldn't be a late-December Blazers game without some heroics from Damian Lillard and he provided them as the clock ran down in the fourth. He hit two long jumpers, a three and one just inside, serving notice that if the Pelicans wanted the game they were going to have to come and take it. New Orleans responded with an Anthony Davis putback off of an Evans layup attempt and a successful Evans lay-in. Sandwiched in between was another quintessential Portland Trail Blazers 2013-14 moment, the heart-stopping near-miss by the opponent. As you may have gathered, Evans was destroying the Blazers in the lane late in the game. With barely over a minute left and his team down 1, Evans drove from the left side and got in the paint once again for a fairly clean look. It bounced around the rim 2-3 times and then fell out...into Evans' own hands. Playing, "Lookie here!" ball he immediately put the short shot right back on the rim...where it bounced around yet again and fell out. Dodging bullets like the Matrix the Blazers showed them how it was done, getting the ball to Wesley Matthews who converted a layup to push the spread to 3 again. The second Evans layup prompted New Orleans to foul for possession, again down by 1. Nicolas Batum calmly sank the free throws and the Pelicans missed a couple ugly threes as the clock dripped its way to 0:00. In a game that looked pretty evenly matched, the Blazers once again emerged victorious, 110-107.
Second chance points were the key stat in this game. The Blazers scored 26 of them. Nearly a quarter of their total production came after an offensive rebound. This saved their bacon on a night when they fired only 8-29 (28%) from the arc, when their superstar scored only 18 and was held to 33% from the field, and when the free throw edge to which they've become accustomed netted them only +3 points. Also important: the Blazers held New Orleans to 8 fast break points, roughly half of their average.
The big picture says the Blazers could have played better but they could have played worse as well. The same can be said about the Pelicans. Portland executed a smidgen better than the New Orleans did and pulled out another close victory. As Blazers fans know so well, in the end that mark in the "W" column is all that counts.
The Pelicans were set up pretty well talent- and size-wise to guard LaMarcus Aldridge and they did a great job giving him different looks all night. He shot 8-24, earned only 2 foul shots, and ended up with an 18-8 night. Those are good numbers but hardly Aldridge-esque. You have to give credit to those Pelican bigs and to coach Monte Williams. This wasn't an off night for Aldridge, it was a tough night.
Fortunately Damian Lillard was available to take up the slack, scoring 29 on the weaker members of the New Orleans defensive corps, hitting 11-21 shots and 4-10 from range. The close of each half was Lillard Time tonight and he made the most of it. Closing strong is getting to be a habit with him this month and it's a fine one to have.
Lack of open looks make Nicolas Batum's shooting night rough (4-10, 1-7 from distance for 11 points). He made up for it with 7 assists and 8 rebounds.
Wesley Matthews struggled at the start of the game but once the floor opened he resumed his usual scoring demeanor, adding a couple strong drives to the jump shooting. He scored 18 on 7-16 shooting, 2-6 beyond the arc. Once Lillard started shish-kabobing the Pelicans Matthews sat down to feast.
As you'd expect against a team with perimeter-shooting bigs, Robin Lopez got turned around and tied upside down on defense in the first half. Thanks to a little help his second half was more effective but it wasn't his greatest night. It was a great night for Lopez in two ways. First, when you say "Offensive Rebounds" in this game you can substitute "Robin Lopez". (As in "Offensive rebounds won this game for Portland...") 6 of Lopez's 7 boards came on that end of the floor. Second, Lopez did his usual masterful job of being ready when New Orleans opted to cover everybody else on the floor. When Robin was open, Robin made the Pellies pay. He finished the game with 14 points on 6-11 shooting.
Joel Freeland had the best night off the bench for Portland tonight. He threw himself at rebounds when the team desperately needed them, corralling 6 in 17 minutes, 4 of them offensive. He combined mobility with physicality, hustling through rotations but also shoving people around inside.
Meyers Leonard played 10 minutes in a game where closing speed was as important as bulk on defense. Not that Leonard is much of a defensive presence still, but he did manage 4 rebounds.
Dorrel Wright hit 2 shots, made 2 free throws, grabbed 2 rebounds, and scored 7 points in 14 minutes. He wasn't terribly noticeable but he did his job.
Mo Williams may have been reading the burning Blazer's Edge discussion threads about him recently because it looked like he took the floor expecting to go ham tonight. His body language, his dribble, the rate at which he tried to make things happen all spelled aggression. His evening was really more spam-ish though. (Spastic as a mother...?) He hit a couple shots but finished the night 2-8 with 7 points, 5 assists, 2 turnovers, and 5 personal fouls in 24 minutes. The last foul was intentional as he walked off the court grimacing and put ice on his hip as soon as he sat down.
The Blazers get a long and well-deserved rest now, their next game coming against the Clippers on Thursday the 26th in the Moda Center. But don't think we'll be taking a break just because the team is. Monday will see the debut of a new Blazer's Edge feature plus you'll be asked to vote on a historical Blazers team to give comeuppance to Sonics Rising and the hated Seattle Supersonics. On Christmas Eve we have a huge announcement and we'll be around Christmas Day for your post-celebration chatting pleasure as well.
It should be interesting to hear what The Bird Writes thought of this game from the Pelican point of view. Glass half empty, glass half full, or glass completely abandoned to Portland thus leading to a loss? From my Blazer-centric point of view, I took away two overwhelming impressions from the Pelicans tonight (besides that they're a decent team). First, Anthony Davis...wow. The material is still raw but this guy is going to be scary. Second, how good would Ryan Anderson look in a Blazers uniform?