If one of the characteristics of an elite NBA team is the ability to coast against inferior opponents for a couple quarters then turn it on enough to win the game, the Portland Trail Blazers can check off yet another item on their journey to contending status. The Blazers approached their contest with the Utah Jazz tonight with as much verve as a trip to renew a license at the DMV. Portland being Portland and Utah being Utah, it didn't end up mattering. The Blazers still walked away with a fairly comfortable 105-94 victory.
Calling Portland's defense lackadaisical at the start of this game was like calling Big Ben "big". One glance told you all you need to know. The Blazers rotated slowly, slid sloppily, contained Utah's dribble like it was a movie super-virus. As a result the Jazz christened their key "Lover's Lane" because of all the scoring going on there. Between drives and offensive rebounds, Utah could hardly believe their fortune. On the other end of the floor LaMarcus Aldridge's shot was falling everywhere but in the hoop and Portland's three-point shooting was as cold as Mama Bear's porridge. The Blazers set screens for each other but barely passed the ball save in the most obvious of situations. It was a recipe for disaster.
Except these were the Jazz we're talking about. Given every opportunity, Utah could only muster 22 points in the first period, the same as the Blazers.
The second quarter saw some individual heroics off of Portland's bench but mostly more of the same until LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews finally came alive late, propelling the Blazers to a pre-halftime surge and a 6-point lead at intermission.
In the third period the Blazers finally unleashed the Kraken that is their starting lineup. Aldridge's shot came back into alignment and when it didn't he just drove the lane and scored. Wesley Matthews hit a couple jumpers. Robin Lopez rebounded and took advantage of free dunks when the defense was occupied elsewhere. Nicolas Batum didn't score but he dished the ball and played defense like a master. Meanwhile Gordon "Perseus" Hayward ran around yelling, "Where's my Pegasus?" When informed that the team traded away the pegasi to Atlanta and Charlotte in the off-season, leaving them a little short, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "Find another hero, then." The Jazz couldn't. Portland added 7 to the lead in the period, exiting up 13, and that was essentially the ballgame. Utah made a run in the fourth but couldn't come closer than two-possession territory even at the high mark. Portland walked away with another road win, Utah with a higher ping-pong bounce.
The Blazers shot only 6-19 from distance tonight, a measly 32%. Then again, the Jazz shot 1-7. But the Blazers didn't need the long ball once a couple of their scorers got going and once they finally started keeping Utah out of the lane. The interior defense got so tight that the Blazers actually surpassed the Jazz in the paint 44-38. Portland got up more shots and made more of them. Even if everything else came out pretty close to even, that's not a bad way to secure the win.
How good is LaMarcus Aldridge? He played half a game (in spirit, anyway) and he still scored 24 on 10-18 shooting. Whatever the first two quarters looked like, when it was time to go LaMarcus led the charge again.
Damian Lillard missed the memo about coming out of the funk. He stayed in neutral all night long, sputtering out the occasional bucket or the nifty bypass of opposing screens but mostly keeping to himself. He shot 5-14 for 18 points and 5 assists. His single glowing stat: 7-7 from the foul line.
Wesley Matthews rode alongside Aldridge, perking up whenever LMA did and adding in his two cents. He scored 16 on 6-11 shooting including a couple drives ending in makes and fouls.
I'm pretty comfortably sure that Nicolas Batum had the most valuable 7-point game anybody's had this season in the NBA. His stat line of 11 assists and 8 rebounds tells part of the story, but he played tremendous defense tonight too. Plus when the Jazz had the temerity to close within 5 with 1:28 remaining Batum found himself 30 feet from the bucket with the shot clock expiring. Guess what? Swish. 8-point lead and the hearts of Jazz fans spilled all over the floor. The improbable make caused Batum to do that French Guy shrug and half-smile thing while several of his teammates laughed into their towels on the bench.
Robin Lopez got hung out to dry by less-than-energetic teammates early but turned that around with great rebounding, good defense, and nice hands as he caught passes and converted at the hoop. He scored 15 on 6-9 shooting with 11 rebounds in 34 minutes.
Mo Williams had another one of those "everyone around him is semi-sucking but he's just going to be Mo" nights. He came into the game firing and never really stopped, getting up 12 shots in 26 minutes, showing his teammates that lofting the ball towards the bucket isn't really that complicated. Granted, he only made 4 of those 12 attempts but the point still got made. Relax, take your shots, it's no big thing. Williams added 3 steals, 3 turnovers, and 3 personal fouls to his ledger as well. It wasn't a perfect game but it was kind of symbolic of what Williams brings to this sometimes-too-cerebral lineup.
If Energy Solutions Arena was a Jazz bar tonight Thomas Robinson did the equivalent of busting down the front door and swinging a gunny sack full of bowling balls through the entire combo. In 14 minutes he grabbed 6 rebounds, helped shut down the lane with 2 monster blocks, and hit 4-5 shots for 8 points. He was the only numerically-productive bench player tonight but the dazzle in his game far outshone the numbers.
Dorell Wright hit a couple of threes on a night when nobody else was making them. On the other hand those 2 triples accounted for his only 2 makes in 9 attempts. Plus he had 0 rebounds, 0 assists, 0 steals, 0 blocks, 2 turnovers, and 3 personal fouls in 17 minutes. This wasn't a night to remember for him.
Joel Freeland continued his trend of semi-effective, foul-plagued ball, drawing 4 personals in 14 minutes. He had 2 points, 4 rebounds, and 1 really nasty blocked shot.
The Blazers get a couple nights off now before the bell sounds for Round 2 against Houston on Thursday night.
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SLC Dunk will be wondering if we can just end the season now and get to the lottery already.
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