The Denver Nuggets defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 111-109, at the Rose Garden on Wednesday night, dropping Portland's record to 26-31.
What to make of an All-Star who easily laughs off a game-deciding, last-second miss?
The locker room following Portland's down-to-the-wire loss to Denver was as quiet as it has been this season. That's easy to say, because once J.J.Hickson, knees loaded with ice bags, made his way to the shower, the place was deserted. The word funereal initially came to mind but eventually it became clear that the emptiness shouldn't be mistaken for total melancholy.
Late-night interviews were eventually conducted quickly and efficiently and before too long, one corner filled with quiet, whispered chuckles, the loss already apparently forgotten. Finally, LaMarcus Aldridge emerged, beaming, watching highlights of Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry scoring 54 points against the New York Knicks, and cracking loud jokes about his age relative to his teammates.
This scene -- his easy-going demeanor, the open laughter, the distance from the disappointment-- would have been inconceivable last season. Especially after a loss. Especially after he missed two shots in the final 14 seconds, including a turnaround jumper at the buzzer that would have sent the game into overtime.
The man whose public persona has long been defined by his secrecy, his relative silence and his bristling at criticism delivered a fairly convincing and straightforward, "Hate me or love me" ultimatum, right out of the 50 Cent playbook. The turnaround jumper, the one he left short over Wilson Chandler, is his bread-and-butter and it's not going anywhere. Take a long walk off a short pier if you don't approve.
"If they like it, cool, if they don't, then don't watch me," Aldridge told Blazersedge. "That's just who I am. I think I've definitely made my career off my shot... That's just life. When you make it, everybody loves it. And when you miss, they don't."
Aldridge delivered that gauntlet with a full smile, shortly after joking that he skipped fastening a button on his shirt because he wanted to show off his abdominal muscles and a minute after ragging on Will Barton for not being old enough to have seen Jerry Maguire. "Only McGwire I know is Mark," Barton replied. "He used to knock it out the ****** park."
This season, Aldridge has reveled in his big late-game plays and taken full responsibility when he has faltered with the game on the line. Here, he was simply looser, much looser. Is it the age factor? The experience? The fact that the writing is on the wall for this season? Perhaps his personal late-game successes and failures are stacking up to the point that any individual game, even a tension-filled one, now feels less important? Maybe it's a defense mechanism? A distraction? Has he simply heard every insult that exists and is finally inoculated?
"I haven't thought about the ones I miss," he said. "I think that would be kind of bad to do. I try to stay positive. I try to think about the ones I've made or I'll be negative going into my shot."
One of Michael Jordan's legacies has been that the only way for a star to lose is with gritted teeth and an endless series of rematch challenges, because losing is never acceptable. His fame and eventual success cemented that ideal, one that has been reinforced by Kobe Bryant, who was recently glorified for staying late to take shots after a big loss, and LeBron James, who said that he essentially locked himself in his house and didn't communicate with his family members in the weeks after his 2011 Finals defeat. There's no bigger goat in the NBA right now than Dwight Howard, and one of his chief perceived faults is that he's too happy-go-lucky to be reliable at the championship level.
I have a hard time looking at my mother when she beats me in Scrabble. The level of perspective it takes to modulate one's emotions after nearly delivering an ecstatic moment, but instead sending 20,000 people home empty-handed, is incomprehensible. There's just no way to walk in those shoes remotely; there's no comparison. Still, this was unusual behavior, both for Aldridge and for any NBA player in his position. Unusually open and loose.
Perhaps there was a "You win some, you lose some" consolation to be found in just how similar his final attempt was to the basket that defeated the Dallas Mavericks in January. Same play, same spot for Aldridge, same shot, opposite result.
"I had a great look," he said. "We talked in the huddle and coach ended with the play that we ran against Dallas. I started out on the block, I cut back and up, he kept giving ground, Wes [Matthews] threw me the perfect pass. I think I was so deep I misjudged my shot but I missed it. It felt good but it didn't go in."
Neither his coach nor his point guard seemed to share Aldridge's ability to so cleanly separate from the game's result, but both made it clear that the ball ended up where they wanted it to on the final possession.
"I liked the match-up, I knew they had [Wilson] Chandler on him," Blazers coach Terry Stotts explained. "I knew he would get a good look. And he did. He just missed it."
Damian Lillard added: "I always put my money on L.A. If we had to do it over again, I'd probably do the same thing. That's our All-Star, best player, that's his shot. I thought it was going in and I'm sure next time it will go in."
Aldridge finished with 22 points (on 11-for-24 shooting) and added five rebounds, three assists, one steal and one block in 41 minutes. While he was the only 2013 All-Star on either side, he often seemed no better than the fourth most influential player on the court for most of the night.
Lillard, who tallied 26 points and four assists, engaged in a fierce match-up with Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson, who scored a game-high 30 points, including eight in the fourth quarter. Nuggets guard Andre Iguodala was the game's brightest light, finishing with 29 points, eight assists, seven rebounds, five steals and a block in 43 minutes, hitting all manners of circus shots and highlight dunks, and playing with the most active hands you will see defensively.
Even with strong efforts from both Lawson and Iguodala, the game was within reach for Portland until a series of mistakes tilted the time/score situations in favor of the Nuggets. At the 1:10 mark, Lillard drove hard, collapsing the Denver defense in full, before dishing to Hickson, who couldn't hold on to the pass. Lawson then missed a pair of free throws, only to have Kosta Koufos secure an offensive rebound on the second miss.
"At all costs, if they miss it, just get the rebound," Koufos explained. "That's all I have programmed in my mind."
After an exchange of possessions, the Blazers needed a stop in a tie game. Instead, Hickson was juked out of his sneakers by Andre Miller for an up-and-under bucket that gave the Nuggets the lead for good.
"That's just Dre," Aldridge chuckled, marveling at his former teammate. "I didn't think they were going to go to him. Once he had it in his hands, I knew he's so crafty that anything is possible."
"It sucked to come up short at the end of a game that we really needed to win," Lillard said. "We made some mistakes that we could have prevented. ... We had a couple of turnovers, they missed some free throws and they got an extra possession out of it, we didn't get the rebound. Missed some good looks. Probably didn't execute a couple of plays that we should have. I think the turnovers were the main thing."
He delivered that verdict exactly like you would expect: a cut below level given the hard-fought defeat. He wasn't laughing, he toted his Skills Challenge trophy out of the locker room like a bit of a burden, and you had the sense that the turnovers -- those jump passes! -- were going to nag at him a bit, even though he's shown to have an exceedingly short memory for a rookie. Lillard's behavior -- here as in everywhere -- fits the model. His reaction is what is generally expected following a close, nationally-televised loss at home to a division rival, a loss that made slim playoff chances that much slimmer, a loss that comes on the heels of a recent seven-game losing streak.
For whatever reason, Aldridge was having no part of the model. An optimist would assert that Aldridge is at peace with his standing in the league, comfortable with the fact that he is human and happy to conclude that beating himself up accomplishes more harm than good. A cynic might try to suggest, as many have for years, that Aldridge is not wired to be the leader and game-deciding killer that he says he wants to be.
Without staking a claim on either side, I will say this: I believe Aldridge now, far more than ever before, when he says he doesn't care about the criticism.
Random Game Notes
- This game was announced as a sellout and it was packed. The Rose Garden was much livelier than Sunday's sleeper against the Celtics.
- The Nuggets had a nice pre-game drill for Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov. The big men would cut to the basket from various spots on the floor, simulating a dive after a high screen or an off-ball cut from the weakside. They would then receive a pass from an assistant coach while being asked to complete the basket in one motion (no dribbles or stopping to catch themselves). While they were rising up to attempt the shot, the coach would then fire a second basketball at them, forcing them to recover their balance, see the pass into their hands, catch the ball, and then explode back up for a second shot attempt near the basket without delay.
- This way, the bigs got some repetitions that simulated game experiences and the difficulty that is often involved in catching quick-trigger passes from the likes of Ty Lawson and Andre Miller, while also forcing their bodies to react instinctively in attempting shots in traffic. This was a simple, elegant drill and the type of thing that makes sense to implement if you're a high school coach. Much better than walking through pick-and-roll movements at 75 percent speed, which is the norm for most teams during warm-ups.
- Corey Brewer needs a concussion test after JaVale McGee volleyball spiked that block off of him.
- Damian Lillard received his Taco Bells Skills Challenge trophy before the game in a made-for-TV moment that the Blazers probably should have skipped. I can't be the only person who thought it came off a little tacky given the quality of Lillard's overall body of work.
- "[Bleeping] Hickson," said one fan seated next to media row during the game's final minute. Hickson finished with 18 points and 14 rebounds. The "double-double machine" blue screened late.
- Lock Victor Claver in a gym this offseason and don't let him out until he can make open three-pointers. 5,000 a day or however many it takes.
- Best sign of the night: "It's past my bed time." Indeed. The game's tip off was delayed by the national broadcast. It's been awhile since we've had a national TV game at the Rose Garden.
- Meyers Leonard's big dunk was the Blazers' highlight of the night, although Nicolas Batum was right there with him thanks to a pair of sensational blocks on Ty Lawson attempts.
- You don't have to read too far between the lines to get the impression that Stotts still isn't satisfied with Leonard's play. The rookie center finished with 13 points and five rebounds on his 21st birthday, a nice showing overall. Nevertheless, Stotts offered only a tepid assessment (see below). Leonard hasn't played 20+ minutes in a game since Nov. 30. I've been whining about his need for minutes on TV for a few weeks now but it's getting past the point of ridiculous.
- Leonard on his night: "I feel like I'm starting to come along and understand the game a little better. I found myself in good positions to score. My teammates found me. I played like I think I'm capable of. ... I would have loved to got a win on my birthday. It's just rough. We battled back. We've had three games in a row where we've really competed and played hard. We got Boston here at home. We had a really close one here tonight. It just really hurts when you lose the really close ones."
- Lillard on Leonard: "The last couple of weeks he's been playing strong in practice. I can't say I expected [his big game on Wednesday], but I could see it coming. He's been dunking every ball in practice, blocking shots. Just playing a lot more physical. He went out there, played more physical, dunked on people in the game."
- Lillard on his match-up with Lawson, who he called a "top ten" point guard: "It was what I thought it would be. I knew he would be in attack mode the whole game and I attacked him back. He's probably the fastest point guard in the league and he uses the screen and rolls really well. I wanted to guard him and he guarded me. A few times he lined me up and took me. He used the screen and rolls really well. He played a good game."
- Nicolas Batum played the "we're not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs yet" card, which is always a good canary in the coal mine.
- Eric Maynor: zero-for-four, three assists and one turnover in 14 minutes. He came in early during the first quarter. The timing of the rotation offers something new to monitor over the next few games.
- Nuggets coach George Karl on the Blazers: "They have this magical belief that they can come back and overcome tough circumstances." Almost, but not quite this time.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
It was our third good game in a row. We just came up short in two out of three. I like the way we competed in the second half. They're a talented team, they cause a lot of problems on the defensive end by what they do. We stayed with it. We put ourselves in a position to win or go to overtime. It's a tough loss but they've been playing well.
I liked the match-up, I knew they had [Wilson] Chandler on him. I knew he would get a good look. And he did. He just missed it.
Play too fast with the Nuggets?
No. We scored, they scored. We needed to take better care of the ball. We got back in the game because we got some transition and ran out. To beat a team like Denver you've got to score. They've got a lot of length, they switch a lot of things. Every time we made a run it was because we got some stops and were able to get it out and run.
LaMarcus Aldridge was first option and the look you wanted?
Yes. Great look, yeah.
I thought he played with a lot of energy. I was glad for him that he got involved in the game. He made mistakes, but that's probably one of the more energetic games he's played in awhile. he finished around the basket. Defensively, there were areas to improve on. It was a good game for him, room for improvement.
74 points in the paint for Denver
They had 78 against the Lakers, they had 74, they had 68, that's what they do.
Ty Lawson vs. Damian Lillard
I thought the charge that Damian took in the first half was a big play, especially having two fouls. Lawson is playing at a high level. I thought Damian held his own against him.
What did he end up with? He made two threes which you don't expect him to do. They're putting him in a position where he's able to make a lot of players, as a passer, driver or shooter. It's probably the best game he's had against us in the three games. He had struggled up in Denver. He's a talented player.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter