The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the New Orleans Pelicans, 110-107, at the Moda Center on Saturday, improving their record to 23-5 on the season.
Professional athletes aren't immune from the tug of an impending holiday break, and it's fair to say that the schedule did the Blazers a favor in their final pre-Christmas contest. The Pelicans were an ideal opponent under these senioritis circumstances: they haven't yet beaten a team that's currently above .500, they are tied for the second-fewest road wins in the Western Conference, and their closing five-man line-up (Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis) has played just 81 minutes together all season, in large part due to injuries.
By comparison, Portland has just one loss to a sub-.500 team, they're tied for the second-most home wins in the Western Conference and their closing five-man lineup has already logged 556 minutes together, including 55 minutes during so-called "clutch situations" (last five minutes of a game or overtime, either team ahead or behind by five points). As of Saturday night, the Blazers possess the league's best record in clutch situations (13-3), the league's best plus-minus in clutch situations (plus-3.0), and the league's second-best field goal percentage in clutch situations (46.3 percent).
There are contrasts, and there are stark contrasts, and there are contrasts so stark that they can actually dampen the drama, even in a game that came down to a hectic final possession. New Orleans' top five looked tantalizing but untested, and the disparity in chemistry and experience played out as one might have expected, with Portland reeling off a 7-2 run in the closing two minutes to pull out the home victory.
Hero honors went to Blazers guard Damian Lillard, who took a crucial charge with less than two minutes remaining and then delivered the go-ahead three-point just 15 seconds later. The bang-bang, defense/offense sequence continued what's been a stellar, highlight-packed week for Lillard, who made it clear that professional athletes aren't immune to a little afternoon dozing, either.
"Lately I've been taking naps," he said, not joking, after posting a game-high 29 points (on 11-for-21 shooting) and five assists in 37 minutes. "That might be the difference."
The Blazers looked drowsy early, yet again, but they snapped alive when it mattered, even after conceding a 14-2 run that set up a tense final two minutes. It's not every day that an offensive foul will swing a game's outcome, but Lillard's ability to anticipate Holiday's movement, take the contact and get the call even though he was playing with five fouls was the difference-maker.
"I saw the action was to my right, it seemed like [Holiday] was going to try to look at that and take me away from the strong side," Lillard said. "I saw him take off, his whole momentum was going to the right, and I just jumped the move, jumped on his right hand, and I let him run me over. I wasn't worried about [getting a sixth foul]. There was about a minute left. I didn't have time to be worried about my fouls. I felt in my gut that that was the right play."
His deep three moments later seemed almost like a karmic reward for the stop. It's not often that a go-ahead 29-footer is the third-most memorable shot of a player's week, but that was the case here, with his game-winners against the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers looming as high standards.
"I think everybody [expects Lillard to make that shot]," Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge said, after finishing with 18 points (on 8-for-24 shooting), eight rebounds and four assists. "We all have the most faith in him. ... He's definitely playing at an All-Star level right now."
Lillard's late-game numbers are starting to border on crazy town. He's up to a league-leading nine clutch three-pointers on the season, and he's shooting 52.9 percent from deep on such attempts, the best in the league among players with at least 10 clutch three-point attempts. His overall clutch field goal percentage is 53.1 percent, fourth in the NBA among players with at least 20 clutch attempts. Overall, Lillard is shooting 42.6 percent from deep on the year, up from 36.8 percent as a rookie, and he ranks in the top-10 among three-point shooters with at least 100 attempts.
"It's coming around," he said of his shot. "I might be a better shooter this year than last year. Last year I thought I was a really good three-point shooter but the percentages didn't show it."
That level of performance -- and his low-key, unimpressed thoughts on said performance -- are both representative of the Blazers' calm, businesslike approach to endgame scenarios. The strong sense that the Blazers would escape in this one had something to do with New Orleans' shortcomings, mentioned above, but it was equally influenced by Portland's track record of smart decisions and quality execution that grows by the week. Here, Portland got three stops on New Orleans' final four possessions, including the last one which saw two missed three-pointers, while scoring on its own final three possessions.
Blazers center Robin Lopez, who spent the 2012-13 season in New Orleans, said he can feel the contrast.
"Last year we were young and we realized that, we were out on the court gaining experience," Lopez told Blazersedge, after finishing with 14 points (on 6-for-11 shooting) and seven rebounds. "It's a different thing year. We've won a few games, we have an idea of who we are. When you're talking about confidence, you just need to look at the last few minutes of the game, when it comes down to the wire."
Part of the late-game comfort factor, Aldridge said, stems from a developing, unspoken understanding of the pecking order when the game is on the line, which can shift from night to night. Achieving what he's describing is no easy task: look around the league and you'll see teams unnaturally taking turns, you'll see teams predictably force-feeding an alpha dog, you'll see teams unsure where they want to go, and you'll see teams that abandon their strengths under pressure.
Aldridge openly admitted that he never found a rhythm with his jumper against the Pelicans. Related: he didn't take a shot in the game's final three minutes, while Lillard stepped into the leading role, without really being told.
"Last year to this year, [I see] growth of where we want to go," Aldridge explained. "[We go to guys based on] how guys are playing out there in that game, and guys [are] more comfortable making shots."
Lopez sees confidence, Aldridge expresses trust, and Blazers coach Terry Stotts continues to let his second-year point guard pull from anywhere, run the show and, on this night, deliver a victory with two-way play.
"Damian is Damian," he said. "He just understand what needs to be done, he takes it upon himself when he needs to. He's fearless taking the ball to the basket. He makes big shots. He competes defensively. I think Damian kind of speaks for himself. It's not like we should be surprised by it any more."
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced as a sellout at 20,027. There was an easy-going holiday vibe at times but it got loud down the stretch.
- Here are the game highlights via YouTube user portlandtrailblazers.
- With the team off on its recent roadtrip, the Blazers decided to remove approximately 700 seats from the arena. It wasn't exactly difficult to see where those seats, which were located in the back areas of the 200 and 300 levels, had once been if you were in their vicinity. Take a look at the back of one of the 200 level sections.
- According to a team spokesperson, the seats were removed after the organization conducted an audit of the Moda Center's seat totals, with an eye towards increasing flexibility and aesthetic appearances for a variety of other events that might take place in the building (Arena Football, tennis exhibitions, etc.). The motivating factor with regard to Blazers games, the spokesperson said, was to create the ideal fan experience and put the organization in a position to sell every seat.
- The spokesperson said the team remains "thrilled" with its ticket sales even though the Blazers have failed to sell out on numerous occasions during one of the best starts in franchise history. Like previous Blazers administrations, the current management group continues to pound home the idea that visible empty seats aren't necessarily unsold seats, and that weather-related issues or group no-shows can misrepresent the appearance of a game's popularity among ticket-buyers.
- Even with the 700 seats removed, the building's "official capacity" will remain at 19,980, where it was previously. Any ticket buyers who were in seats that have been removed will receive upgrades.
- What to make of this change and its midseason timing? It certainly seems the organization is trimming dead weight seats that they are unable to sell at their self-mandated price points. Basically: if you can't sell 'em, just take 'em out. That fits with a developing sense from this current management group that the Moda Center -- one of the league's largest buildings -- is "too big."
- Removing the seats does produce multiple benefits for the organization: the crowd "appears bigger" because ticket-buyers have been scrunched together and the empty seats are no longer visible on TV, demand for individual seats should increase with less supply, and the ability to charge higher prices for the remaining seats (now and in the future) should follow if the team continues playing well. One would guess that this further squeezes (or will squeeze) the secondary ticket market, too, which has been a goal of the new regime.
- It's not clear yet what happens next in the emptiness. As you can see from the photo, the space where the row used to be is quite unsightly. That said, the empty seats don't really impact a vast majority of the crowd. A huge portion of the arena wouldn't really know that anything has changed. The areas where rows have been removed really are mostly out of the way and not very functional unless the Blazers are planning some serious renovations.
- It's possible that the removal of the seat will just create sight lines for more banner-style advertising. On Saturday, a number of fans in the 200 and 300 levels simply used the extra space to stand up and watch the game. We'll see how this unfolds.
- Brian Gjurgevich of the Portland Mercury first noted the seat change plans last week after talking with a season-ticket holder.
- One of the biggest developments from this game was Meyers Leonard replacing Thomas Robinson in the rotation. Leonard had two points, four rebounds and one block in 10 minutes while Robinson received a DNP-CD. The move was planned in advance, Leonard said, as Terry Stotts informed him this week during practice. Both Leonard and Stotts indicated that the switch is here to stay, at least for the time being.
- The goal of the move, Stotts said, was to create better spacing in the second unit's offense. The theory is that Leonard's ability to shoot the mid-range jumper -- and potentially the three-pointer -- will make teams pay in a way that Robinson couldn't if they concentrate on Portland's other weapons.
- Leonard to Blazersedge on what is being asked of him: "I think with the second unit they're looking for one more guy who can space the floor, complement the other guys while they're on the court. They can create, and if I'm open, I have the confidence, and my teammates and coaches have the confidence in me to knock those shots down. In fact, they stop practice and get me at me if I don't shoot. Yesterday they had me play like Ryan Anderson, I was like 5-for-6 from three in practice."
- Leonard said that Stotts also likes having both Freeland and Leonard together on offense because both can potentially keep defenses honest: "I feel when I'm out there that they're not going to respect me yet. When I'm open, I have the confidence to take a mid-range jump shot."
- Leonard said all the rights things when he was demoted back in October and he said all the rights things on Saturday. He admitted that there were some "tough times" as he waited his turn but he thinks he's "gained some respect" from both the coaches and his teammates by "climbing back in" to the rotation. He made a point to say that he would be back in the gym on Sunday (an off day) to show he was still going above and beyond in his work. He also thanked assistant coach Kim Hughes, Joel Freeland and Earl Watson for offering encouragement, advice and pointers over the last few months.
- Leonard on the journey back into the rotation: "Looking back at it, I'm just happy I didn't put my head down, crawl away, or get down on my teammates, or look down upon them. 'Oh I should be in, I would have made that jumper,' or, 'Why isn't coach playing me?' I knew quickly if I stayed positive, worked hard, and showed the people around me in this organization that I could do it, then my time would come around."
- Leonard was generally pleased with how he played, but did tell Blazersedge: "I have this -- not really a problem -- something I need to work on, is making the second and third effort [on defense]. [On one play], I went straight up, [Anthony Davis] missed the lay-up, I should have just turned around and grabbed it, it virtually would have fallen right into my hands. He's pretty athletic and long but I thought I handled it pretty well."
- Leonard was understandably in a happy mood after the game, and he did a little goofing behind the cameras during Wesley Matthews' post-game interview. Matthews joked in response: "Have you ever seen the show Johnny Bravo? Google it. It's worth a google."
- Here's what a google produced...
- Pelicans coach Monty Williams appeared to take issue with the officiating during his post-game comments (?): "There's a lot of things I'd like to say that wouldn't be appropriate. I thought our guys battled and some things didn't go our way tonight. I have nothing bad to say about the game because of the way we competed."
- Portland had some nice passing in transition. LaMarcus Aldridge hit Damian Lillard for a three-pointer on one break in the second quarter, and Nicolas Batum fed Aldridge for a trailing dunk in the third quarter.
- All sorts of Christmas stuff going on during the in-game experience. Robin Lopez delivered a pre-game "thanks" and "happy holidays" to fans. "I'm glad to spend the holiday among special fans. Go Rip City, go Blazers," he said. Charlie Brown music, Blazers offering holiday wishes on the jumbotron, BlazersDancers in red psuedo-Santa outfits, etc.
- Damian Lillard had two impressive finishes. First, after taking hard contact from Anthony Davis. Second, on a cool, falling alley-oop from a sideline inbounds play.
- Lillard on the alley-oop, which he banked in high off the glass before falling backwards to the court: "I knew they would try to deny me the ball because it was a low clock. We cleared out the backside and I knew it would be open. I had to find the ball. I slipped, I looked up, and the ball was in the air. I just wanted to catch it, I jumped up and gathered it, and I just played it high off the glass and it went in."
- Lopez on his twin brother Brook's season-ending broken foot: "I haven't talked to him. It's obviously a sad thing. Injuries happen in the league though. We're going to hope for the best."
- Lopez isn't ready to call this his career year. To Blazersedge: "I'm enjoying this year. I'm enjoying this year quite a bit. We'll see where it goes before we put any labels on it, but I'm having fun."
- Best signs of the night: "Robin the red nose reindeer," "Merry RIP-Mas," "Peck da Pelicans," "Party like it's 1977," and a "How The West Was Won" movie poster with the Blazers' faces as the actors. There was also a whole row of young ladies with innuendo signs: "Nic is on my naughty list," "All I want for Christmas is T-Rob," etc.
- Chad Ford of ESPN.com reported on Twitter that Blazers GM Neil Olshey was scouting in Las Vegas at an Oklahoma State vs. Colorado game on Saturday.
- The Chalupa chant was another squelched non-event. No instructions, no protest chant, and light cheers after the McMuffins were won.
- Stotts seemed just a touch peeved with his team's defense again but he didn't want to address specifics when asked about it after the game. Makes sense heading into the holiday break.
- A first for me: A chiropractor seated in a luxury suite informed me during crunch time that she was "concerned" about my posture as I hunched over my laptop, while offering to give me her card. She seemed genuinely concerned to the point where there's a decent chance she went home and confided her concern about me to her loved ones. That's a weird feeling. If you're reading this, I'm sorry! I'm almost positive things will turn out OK. I am experiencing no back pain currently and I'll have my spine study some Roy Hibbert tape to see if it can improve its verticality.
- I haven't even gone to bed yet and I'm already having a recurring nightmare where this woman is followed by an optometrist, who comes up to me concerned that I'm squinting at my screen, and then a pediatrician, who comes up to me concerned about the callous on my wristbone caused by my keyboard, and then the professionals just keep coming with a never-ending list of guilt-laden demands for self-improvement.
- Happy holidays from me to you.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
Well, believe it or not we still keep preaching defense. Slow start, one thing about our team, we keep competing, as a coach that's all you want your team to do, keep competing. We got good contributions from everybody who played, we find ways to win, we get stops when we need them, make big shots when we need them. New Orleans is a tough team to guard, I think their record is deceiving. When Ryan Anderson came back, they were without Davis for awhile, they were without Anderson for awhile. Now that they have both of those guys on the court, they're a very potent offensive team with those three guys that can penetrate.
Getting out in transition, push tempo
It coincides with getting stops. It's more difficult to run when you're taking the ball out of the net and their defense is set. Those go hand-in-hand. It's like that for every team. You get stops, you get out, that's how there are swings in the game. Both teams experienced that. Probably the team that gets more of them usually wins.
Damian Lillard, slow start, then got going
Damian is Damian. He just understand what needs to be done, he takes it upon himself when he needs to. He's fearless taking the ball to the basket. He makes big shots. He competes defensively. I think Damian kind of speaks for himself. It's not like we should be surprised by it any more.
Damian Lillard taking charge with five fouls
Well, that's a good example of him competing. Some guys would have gotten out of the way because of that. He knew, I don't remember what the score was at the time, but we needed a stop and he was in good position. You've got to play the game. If he had hesitated, if he had shown any reluctance not to do it, he would have been called for a foul.
Meyers Leonard into rotation
I wanted to help that second unit out with a little bit of spacing. Meyers has a good understanding of spacing, he sets screens, he and Joel [Freeland] play well together, I want to be able to help out Mo [Williams] and Damian. They're in there with Mo and Damian, add a shooter, Dorell or Wes, I want those two guys to play off of pick-and-rolls, have Joel who spaces well, and Meyers who spaces well, to play off of that.
Mo Williams hobbled off court
He got hit. I don't know if he got hit by a person or on a fall. It's his right hip. We'll have some update on that.
Keeping Meyers Leonard in rotation going forward?
I thought he played well. I thought he did what we needed him to do. He still needs to rebound a little bit better. I was pleased with the way he played. And yeah, he deserves another shot, that's for sure.
What keyed your comeback?
Specifically I don't know. To me there were a lot of ebbs and flows to the game. We'd make a little run, they'd make a little run. Other than the first six minutes of the game when they scored 20 points in the first six minutes, I thought the game went back and forth. For us, basically, we got back in the game when we held them to six points in the last six minutes of the first quarter. Then it was kind of just back and forth.
What is troubling you defensively? Slow starts -- lack of effort or focus early in games?
No. New Orleans is a very effective, very potent offensive team. When they have their guys -- with Ryan Anderson on the floor, they rank as one of the best offensive units in the league. They made seven out of their first nine shots, they're mostly jump shots, hit some threes, that's what they do. We got off to a slow start. Trying to pinpoint or place blame, now's not the time for that.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter