The Portland Trail Blazers ended their seven-game losing streak tonight, defeating the Boston Celtics 92-86 in a game that featured intermittent contributions from Portland's Big 3 and a huge lift from a couple of unexpected sources.
The game started in typical Portland fashion. The Blazers seemed disinterested in defending, particularly in the lane. Boston got to the rim often while Portland bombed--and missed--from outside. The air went out of the Rose Garden crowd as the Celtics built an 11-4 lead. But Nicolas Batum set off some fireworks with his jumper and before you knew it the barn was burning. LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews fanned the flames, Matthews surprisingly scoring off the dribble. Paul Pierce, Boston's catalyst all night, had to sit with early foul trouble. Portland popped off with a 23-11 run to finish the period up 6, 27-21.
Normally the insertion of a couple bench players is enough to evaporate any lead the Blazers hold heading into the second period but tonight Portland's reserved acquitted themselves well. Victor Claver played defense, Meyers Leonard rebounded, Will Barton stayed out of crazy mode, and Eric Maynor didn't blow the game in his debut in a Portland uniform. (That may sound like faint praise but compare that outcome those generated by Portland's previous point guard reserves and you'll be pleased.) As usual Coach Stotts sprinkled in second unit players instead of subbing them wholesale and for once the lead held. A vicious run by Paul Pierce was required to close the gap at all and that came late in the quarter. Fortunately for Portland, Matthews stepped up again, making 2 three-pointers in 25 seconds, and Nicolas Batum added an offensive-rebound put back with 2 seconds remaining to push the lead back to 7 at the half. Run doused.
Pierce got serious again in the third quarter and his teammates quickly followed suit as Boston pushed to the lead midway through the period. Neither Matthews nor Batum could contain Pierce a bit and his scoring threat opened holes in the defense that couldn't be patched. On the other end the Blazers fell into their habit of over-passing the rock. I'm trying to recall the last time I yelled, "Please don't pass!" at my screen, but I was tempted tonight. Trading open shots for covered, the Blazers couldn't keep up. Batum played late-quarter hero this time but Boston's Jeff Green matched him. Then a nice steal and layup conversion by Claver plus and Aldridge jumper off a Maynor assist put the Blazers up 4 entering the final period.
Four points isn't much cushion but the Celtics looked fatigued in the fourth. Pierce slowed noticeably. Kevin Garnett tried to pick up the slack, scoring on Portland's bigs just as easily as Pierce had scored on Portland's wings earlier. But the Celtics never really got more than one player going at a time in the fourth. Scoring from a single source wasn't enough to replicate their third-quarter comeback success. The Blazers, meanwhile, got scoring from Aldridge, Batum, J.J. Hickson, and 2 more three-pointers from Matthews, the last of which put the game out of reach with 53 seconds remaining.
Were it not for the losing streak this game probably would have gone down as unremarkable. But the 7-game slide plus the utter incompetence of the bench during that stretch made this game look like a lush oasis standing in relief against the harsh desert sands. When the final horn sounded high-fives abounded.
This game was another demonstration that, despite their myriad flaws, when the Blazers play well they can be a handful. They took care of business on the boards, shot a decent percentage, and shared the ball. That was enough to overcome 19 fast break points and 16 turnovers given up plus 23 for Pierce (plus 8 rebounds and 7 assists) and 20 from Garnett. One gets the lingering feeling that were the Celtics fresher this game might have turned out differently, but it's a win for Portland build on pretty good basketball and that's that.
Wesley Matthews' scoring came in spurts tonight but those spurts tended to close quarters, making him a devastating weapon. He shot 8-11 from the field, 5-8 from distance, for a game-leading 24 points. Say what you want about Matthews, but it's obvious that this guy cares about winning...demonstrating it more so than any other Blazer. When he hits a big shot he's totally over the moon but he doesn't seem like he's praising himself. Instead he's nodding like, "Yeah, that's what we're supposed to do. And we're going to get this one." That attitude is refreshing and important to this team right now. It'd be nice to see the fruits every night but it's special when Matthews does get a chance to make the key difference.
LaMarcus Aldridge looked slow tonight...tired perhaps. He didn't play poorly but his main contribution was a couple of timely jumpers...useful but hardly Aldridgesque. He went 7-15 for 16 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, meh-level defense.
J.J. Hickson didn't dominate as much as one would expect against a center-less lineup. Like Aldridge he had a decent game but hardly representative of his best. His scoring came intermittently (4-8, 11 points) and he got jammed every time he got the ball inside. His 11 rebounds helped the cause. I guess we're used to that by now.
Nicolas Batum draws praise from me for coming out looking for his shot again and keeping it up throughout the game. He missed a few, shooting 6-14 for 18 points. But he drew fouls, hit a couple of threes, and I'd rather have Batum 6-14 than 4-7. It makes a big difference to Portland's floor balance when he's a threat. 6 rebounds.
Damian Lillard had a tough night outside of a nifty layup or two. It wasn't entirely his fault. Give MASSIVE credit to Boston point guard Avery Bradley. He was a defensive Picasso out there, painting Lillard up one side and down the other. It's been a long time since I've seen a performance that impressive. Lillard shot 5-16, 0-5 from distance, for 12 points. The critique of Lillard--and it's totally youth-related--is that he lets defensive pressure get to him even when he's not being pressured anymore. When he does get a free look, as with most of those three-pointers, he's still looking rushed. To his credit, Lillard managed 6 assists and 6 rebounds so he was still in the game. We weren't seeing that earlier in the season on his off-nights.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the star off the bench in his first ever career night...Victor Claver. He gobbled up 20 minutes of playing time (no Babbitt, Pavlovic, or Jeffries tonight and Joel Freeland played but 4 minutes), grabbed 11 rebounds, poked away 2 steals, and shot 2-4 for 4 points...a virtual cascade of productivity by his standards. Before noting any of that, however, rewind the tape and look at some of his nice defense in the early second quarter. Gone are the days (one would hope) where Claver was all energy and no clue. His showing/recovering and his court sense looked much better tonight that early in the year. That kept him on the floor long enough for him to collect those boards. Bravo!!! Standing ovation.
Meyers Leonard stayed active tonight, continuing his run of decent games. He grabbed 6 rebounds in 16 minutes.
Will Barton hit a nice shot, going 1-2 in 7 minutes. Joel Freeland got 4 minutes but couldn't do anything with them except foul twice.
Everyone will want to know how Eric Maynor did in his 15-minute introduction to the Rose City. It was about what you'd expect. The ball handling was good. He's much quicker on his feet than Ronnie Price was and much more economical in his movements than Nolan Smith. He got 3 assists and the offense didn't stall when he was on the floor...a major plus, considering. On the other hand the shot was bad (1-5) and his defense was nothing to write home about unless you want to occasionally use the word, "Drat!" But it's encouraging that he was that in tune with the offensive game plan after just one practice. Portland fans should like him closing the season.
The Blazers will have a couple days (and a little more Maynor practice time) to savor this win before taking on Denver on Wednesday. 1 up is way better than 8 down. Congratulations to the unexpected guys who dug deep to make sure this one went in the win column.
CelticsBlog won't like the outcome, but hey...it's a long trip.