The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Boston Celtics, 92-86, at the Rose Garden on Sunday night, improving their record to 26-30.
The win marked Portland's first since Feb. 4, a span of 20 days that included seven losses, an All-Star break and a precipitous drop in their playoff chances. The recent "Make or break" road trip didn't totally destroy their spirit -- as evidenced by a hard-fought loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday and a complete, two-way win over the Celtics here -- but it emphatically caved in the season's ceiling.
According to Basketball-Reference's forecast on Sunday night, the Blazers have the same chance of winning the draft lottery as they do of making the playoffs (0.6 percent). Hollinger's playoff odds are slightly more generous, giving Portland a 2.9 percent shot at the postseason. Portland's standing four games out of eighth in the West with 26 games to play isn't as daunting as the fact that 19 of those remaining contests are against playoff teams. It's not the distance they need to swim upstream so much as the strength of the current.
There can be a sheepishness and a restraint to snapping a long losing streak, as if genuine excitement is difficult to muster after a series of flat performances and winnable games that slipped away. You might think the Blazers would be in full celebratory mode after beating the Celtics for the first time since Dec. 30, 2008, and avenging an ugly loss from earlier this season, but it wasn't there.
"It's good to get a win after a losing streak," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said flatly, fumbling a bit. "More importantly, how we got the win, against a good team, physical game. A lot of good performances."
There were flickers. One player cut up the locker room by joking that he wasn't going to shower until the playoffs and newcomer Eric Maynor took care to note that all three of his previous NBA seasons have ended with a postseason run.
"I like to win," Maynor said, after finishing with two points (on one-for-five shooting) and three assists in his Portland debut. "Right now, I'm thinking about trying to get in the playoffs. This is my fourth year and every year I've been deep in the playoffs, so I'm going to come in here and do everything I can to help the team out so we can get there."
It was the right message -- the only one Maynor knows -- but it didn't quite fit the mood. Not with thousands of loud Celtics fans legitimately splitting the rooting interests in the arena. Not with Stotts experimenting with a new role for Victor Claver. Not with LaMarcus Aldridge in first half foul trouble, opening up minutes for younger reserves. Not with rookie Meyers Leonard flashing some rim-protecting potential with a pin block and a little nastiness with some trash talk. And not with Maynor's own arrival, a try-out that will be defined far more by how well he plays and fits compared to how well the team performs from a win/loss standpoint.
Those conditions chipped away at the intensity level during a complete Portland victory, as did the absence of Rajon Rondo. After a string of victories earlier this month without their All-Star point guard, this looked like the Celtics team people were expecting when he was lost to a season-ending knee injury: stagnant, predictable offense and stifling, but not overwhelming, defense. Insufficient depth. Not enough fluidity. A team now flawed to the point that beating them doesn't bring nearly the unadulterated joy like defeating the Miami Heat. They're just not the same bullies who have haunted Portland in recent years.
The Blazers' defense stood up just fine against a predictable Celtics attack that relied heavily on Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, neither of whom had an explosive night. The second unit versus second unit play in this game was quite choppy, with Boston's reserves combining to shoot seven-for-26. None of the Celtics' perimeter players could stretch Portland's defense -- they shot just two-for-13 as a team from deep -- and the Blazers settled into a defensive approach that prepared for Garnett to shoot from the elbow or pump fake and drive from the elbow, over and over down the stretch. Portland cleaned its defensive glass nicely, winning the overall rebounding battle 47-to-36, and allowed the Celtics just two points in the game's final 2:53.
"I thought our team defense for the most part was pretty good for most of the night," Stotts said.
Compared to other recent performances, it was masterful.
Claver was a spark throughout, utilized as a Luke Babbitt-esque smallball power forward in a match-up against Jeff Green. The Spanish forward is at his maddening worst when he timidly drifts on the perimeter, sometimes for minutes at a time. At the four, such inactivity is impossible because he's required to do more on both ends. Whether that is a good thing for Portland on the whole remains to be seen, but it was good for Claver on Sunday. He finished with four points, a career-high 10 rebounds, a steal and a block.
"Coach told me to be ready to play as a four too," Claver said. "I tried to do my best to bring energy to the team."
Asked if he liked playing three or four better, Claver joked, "I like playing," before adding, "When I played in Spain I used to change position sometimes. I do what I do."
"The first time I knew Vic, he was a four," Blazers forward Nicolas Batum, who finished with 18 points, six rebounds and three assists, said. "He was the best power forward in Europe of our generation. He was a four, he moved to the three, but he can play the four because he's played that."
An engaged Claver was an intriguing Claver. He made a nice instinctual play on his steal, stepping into a clueless Jason Terry cross-court pass in the backcourt and taking it straight to the basket. More importantly, he wasn't a defensive liability while guarding Green, who finished with 11 points on 12 shots two nights after exploding for 31 points on 14 shots in a win over the Phoenix Suns.
"Might have been his best game," Stotts said. "Ten rebounds, he was a plus-14 on the court. He made a lot of good reads, he had a tough defensive assignment in Jeff Green, who was coming off a pretty big night. Especially with LaMarcus getting three fouls ... he was able to fill in very well for us."
Portland never trailed in the fourth quarter, staving off Boston pushes through a collective effort. All five Blazers starters scored in the final period, as did Claver, even with the Blazers outscoring the Celtics just 21-19 in a defense-first period.
"I thought when we needed stops, we couldn't get them," Garnett said after finishing with 20 points (on nine-for-19 shooting) and nine rebounds. "When we had the chance to turn the corner, we didn't turn it."
Matthews, who has battled injuries to his ankle and elbow, was a prime factor in generating that feeling, even as stops on both ends outpaced the scoring.
"Everybody's got a little bumps and bruises but he's got some issues going on," J.J. Hickson said of Matthews. "It's great to see him out there playing and toughing it out."
Matthews finished with a game-high 24 points -- marking his biggest scoring output since Jan. 7 -- and he made five threes, one more than everyone else on both teams combined. He hit one shortly after the seven-minute mark of the fourth to push a four-point Blazers lead to seven, and then nailed the dagger with 52 seconds left, doubling a three-point lead to six and providing the final margin.
"We got the stop we needed, the ball swung to me, I don't remember how much time was on the shot clock," Matthews said of his final shot, a pretty step-back three from near the top of the arc. "I think it was like seven [seconds], I saw everybody spaced. I had to get us an attempt."
"The last three I can live with," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "That was a step-back three going to his right. God bless him. He's done it all year. He's made some great shots, but I can live with that."
It wasn't the most efficient look but this game wasn't particularly full of great looks. Portland's fourth-quarter shot chart was littered with perimeter misses and it seemed like half of Lillard's shot attempts on the night came as he went flying to the court in one direction or another. For the fourth straight game, Lillard struggled from the field -- finishing with 12 points (on five-for-16 shooting), six rebounds and six assists -- but he salvaged a tough night with a savvy drive that immediately preceded Matthews' final three.
After Boston clawed back to tie the score at 86, Lillard used a high screen from Aldridge to shake the tenacious Avery Bradley. Boston's help defense seemed to be playing Lillard for the pass, so he drove hard into the paint. There, he found a seam going to the right of the basket, smoothly avoiding the possibility of a charge while also getting straight to the rim. The referees gave him a whistle to put the cherry on top of a nice driving finish.
"We knew it would be tough to get a post entry into L.A.," Lillard said. "Avery Bradley was big-time pressuring. We ran a play where L.A. usually goes to the block, but he cut it off and ran into a ball screen. I came off and the big thought L.A. was going to the block, so he wasn't up on the ball screen. I was able to turn the corner and saw I had some space. I was going to attack the rim. They fouled me and I finished it."
"We're counting on him," Stotts said of Lillard. "We need him to do those things. He's done it all year. For the amount of minutes he's played, he's not a rookie any more. He's there to make plays, especially when it counts."
The standard for Rivers and company is championship-quality defense and it's quite possible that the ideal is no longer attainable. One gets the sense that they will go all the way down with the sinking ship.
"We just lost sight of guys," Rivers lamented. "Some of it was good offense and some of it was we didn't play good defense the way we're capable of."
"We have to be a shut-down team in the last couple minutes of the game," Paul Pierce added.
For Portland, the take-it-in-stride vibe to this one reflects a reality in which the pressures of a true playoff chase no longer hang over day-to-day life, at least not at the moment. With the fog of losing lifted, the Blazers seem to find themselves in a position where evaluating progressions in play has moved to the front and center. There's a soft sadness to that, knowing that the sentiment after a win against an opponent with this reputation could have been different had the Blazers taken better care of their routine business over the last three weeks.
Random Game Notes
- The game was announced as a sell-out. It was packed. Tons of Celtics fans, especially in the end zone seats closest to the Celtics bench. Even Terry Stotts expressed amazement in his post-game comments (see below). It was the largest and loudest non-Lakers visiting crowd presence I can remember seeing in the Rose Garden in recent years.
- Public address announcer Mark Mason offered a "Welcome to Portland" to Eric Maynor as he checked in the game.
- Nolan Smith was immediately jumped by Maynor on the depth chart (rightfully so, of course). To add insult to injury, Smith was cast off to the inactive list as well. Hopefully Ronnie Price, who should still have his job, got a kick out of that development.
- Maynor is more authoritative and confident on the ball than either Price or Smith, without question. He didn't do all that much in his 14 minutes but the standout sequences came when he negotiated pick-and-rolls and zipped passes on the pick-and-pops to Aldridge. "Just playing basketball," Maynor said of that chemistry. "Everybody does the same thing. He's a great scorer. Good pick and pop guy, I just tried to find him."
- Maynor said that he is living in a hotel for the time being but noted that he made a point of unpacking his things immediately because he's "not going to live out of bags." Every little bit of comfort counts.
- Maynor on his debut: "It was cool. Glad to get a win. Wish I could make some more shots. That will fall for me. I'll get all them jitters off, get that first game out of the way. I'll feel normal on Wednesday. It felt natural after awhile, but at first it was new city, I didn't really know what was going on. Coach just lets us play and I think that's going to be good."
- Maynor maintains that he's feeling good after his knee surgery last season and said that he was happy to be out of a knee brace that he wore until about three weeks ago.
- Maynor's final thoughts on leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder, who are reportedly poised to sign Derek Fisher to replace him: "It was good while it lasted in Oklahoma. You've got a lot of talent [here], why not try to get something going here? That's what we did in Oklahoma."
- Lillard on Maynor: "I thought he did well. First day he got here for practice, even during the game, I noticed there was stuff he was doing that I can get better at. It'll be fun having him around."
- Lillard's shot selection was pretty aggravating all night but he made the toughest one he took, a left-hand runner that he banked in while falling during the second quarter.
- Lillard complimented both Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee on their perimeter defense; Bradley, from Tacoma, stripped him clean in the open court on one play. Strong defense or not, Lillard must continue playing within himself and shooting within himself, to coin a phrase, as the stretch run unfolds. He has enough hot spots on the court and sufficient ability to get to them that some of the higher degree-of-difficulty looks should never get launched.
- That said, I've been harping on him to get to the basket late in games, especially when his jumper isn't falling. You can't ask for more than that and-one late, which combined great awareness, body control, timing and a good finish. Video here.
- Doc Rivers is going to need to invest in a second basketball if he plans to play Jordan Crawford and Terrence Williams at the same time.
- Williams, signed to a 10-day contract, was wearing green versions of the Jordan XX8s. A somewhat blurry photo here.
- Bill Schonely sang "America, the Beautiful" and "God Bless America" before the game, earning a hearty handshake from Terry Stotts.
- Former Blazers forward Lloyd Neal was in attendance.
- There were a number of Celtics-themed signs: "Stew the Irish," for example. Another good one: "No. 88 CAN handle the truth," in reference to Batum and Pierce.
- Claver on whether he will continue to play a lot of four: "[Stotts] told me some days ago to be ready, the system, the plays, I don't know if it's going to be for more games or the games that have players like Green."
- Doc Rivers on LaMarcus Aldridge: "He had a good game but it was not a dominant game." Aldridge finished with 16 points on 15 shots and four rebounds.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
It's good to get a win after a losing streak. More importantly, how we got the win, against a good team, physical game. A lot of good performances. Wes was big with his shot-making. I thought our team defense for the most part was pretty good for most of the night. It was a good way to introduce Eric Maynor.
And I didn't know we had this many Celtics fans in Portland. That did surprise me.
We're counting on him. We need him to do those things. He's done it all year. For the amount of minutes he's played, he's not a rookie any more. He's there to make plays, especially when it counts.
We're in the game against the Lakers because he's back. We win this one because he's back. It's not to say we couldn't have won it without him but he's an instrumental part of what we've done to be successful.
Eric Maynor's debut
His shots didn't go but I thought he played with a lot of confidence. I thought he was solid defensively. For the first time out there, finding his way, it was good to have him out there. Having him and Damian play two guards together, we were able to play them together. I'm looking forward to his progress.
Eric Maynor picking things up quickly?
He's a sharp guy. The things we were talking about he knew. We were getting things done that we needed to get done offensively when he was out there.
Might have been his best game. 10 rebounds, he was a plus-14 on the court. He made a lot of good reads, he had a tough defensive assignment in Jeff Green, who was coming off a pretty big night. Especially with LaMarcus getting three fouls and then four, with those minutes, he was able to fill in very well for us.
Nicolas Batum being aggressive
We need him to be aggressive. We talked about it, it doesn't need to be necessarily scoring, we just need him to be aggressive, making plays, shooting, passing, driving. He's better and we're better when he's aggressive.
Bill Schonely singing pre-game
Is that a nightly thing? ESPN on Wednesday. I'm just saying.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter