The Portland Trail Blazers kicked off their six-game road trip with one of the weirder games in memory, besting the Minnesota Timberwolves 100-98 on a night when they played far from their best basketball. Plenty of things went right in this contest but the couple that went wrong were really wrong--as in, "That should be illegal" wrong--and it almost cost the Blazers the game.
Portland opened the contest with a couple of auspicious developments. First, Wesley Matthews took the floor with the starters despite not playing in the last game due to a sprained ankle. Matthews not only started, he poured in 9 points off of 3 three-pointers in the first period alone, continuing his seemingly-perpetual trouncing of the Timberwolves. Second, LaMarcus Aldridge also came out focused and hot. He added 8 in the opening stanza. With Aldridge on one side and Matthews on the other, Minnesota's defense didn't know where to turn. They slathered BBQ sauce all over Ricky Rubio and slow-roasted him. They took Nikola Pekovic out of the game defensively by moving him side to side and hitting shots to eliminate his rebounding. Nobody else on the Minnesota side came even close to defending well, especially on the perimeter.
Unfortunately the Blazers also treated the ball like it was the head cheerleader at their first junior high dance. They stuttered, stammered, stared at it from across the room but ended up making fools out of themselves any time they even considered getting close to it. When the first unit is throwing the rock into the hands of poor defenders, traveling, dribbling off of their own feet, picking up dribbles for no good reason, and blowing multiple screens you know it's going to be a long night. And it was.
Portland led by 7 coming out of the first period but the second unit continued the turnover follies. Except they also added, in no particular order: no scoring, no rebounding, no defense, and no decent screens to speak of. Only Minnesota's propensity to blow open shots saved Portland from a trouncing. Aldridge and Matthews redeemed the Blazers at the end of the period, though, and the lead expanded to 11 at the half. The Blazers' 49 was nothing to crow about, especially since they were hitting an obnoxious number of shots. But Minnesota only managed 38.
The third period saw the turnovers continue full-force. The Timbewolves cut the lead to 5 midway through the quarter but the Blazers were saved by a couple of fast break runs and by the 'Wolves settling for outside shots instead of working inside. That's a part of the game they're really, really, really, really not good at and it showed. Managing their chaotic tendencies for a little while, the Blazers finally pulled away late in the third and took a 19-point lead into the fourth.
Then the turnover jinx returned. And it brought friends. Dante Cunningham's hot hand showed up, as did poor defense for the Blazers. Little by little the 'Wolves began to crawl back, echoing many comebacks the Blazers themselves have made over the course of the season. This was less a fourth period and more like Jacoby Jones' Superbowl kickoff return. 15...10...5...they could...go...all...the...way! It's not like the Blazers were stopping them. Portland got pressured into picking up their dribble four feet past the midcourt line. They passed into double teams instead of out of them. It got so bad that at one point they turned over the ball on a bad pass when they had a 5 on 4 advantage as J.J. Barea wasn't off the hardwood at the other end yet.
The 'Wolves closed within a single possession with a minute left and then within a single point with 36 seconds left, both buckets coming after Portland turnovers (naturally). At that point LaMarcus Aldridge stepped up to save the game three times in the last 30 ticks. He hit a bail-out 20-footer with 27 seconds left to put the Blazers up 3. 20 seconds later he'd block Ricky Rubio's layup attempt after following him with some fantastic halfcourt defense to keep Portland's lead at 2. Then, like Moses Malone intentionally missing a shot so he could grab the offensive rebound, Aldridge blew 2 free throws which would have iced the game. Yeah. 0 of 2 in the critical trip. (Not sure that's what folks meant when they wished he'd stop hitting 1 of 2 in those situations.) But all of that was a setup so Aldridge could close and cover the scorching Cunningham on the game-tying shot, forcing Dante to take a dribble and loft a desperation shot that fell way short. The Blazers left Minnesota with a win, half because of their play and half in spite of it.
Portland shot 59% from the field in this game, 39% from the arc. They outrebounded the 'Wolves 39-29 and kept Minnesota to 10 offensive rebounds...a more than acceptable number. But they turned over the ball 28 times. Minnesota scored 33 points after those turnovers. That turned a 15-point win into a 2-pointer.
But hey, it still shows up as a "W", right?
LaMarcus Aldridge was superb in this game. Every time the Blazers needed something he gave it to them, from the hot start to the big finish. He shot 12-17 for 25 points and 13 rebounds. Add in 5 assists and 2 blocks, including the crucial rejection on Rubio. The only drawback to his evening was the 1-5 effort from the line. He's a good free throw shooter but he's so into his own head at the stripe that he has to be able to see his way out the other ear soon, right?
Wesley Matthews also had a strong effort, shooting 7-11, 4-8 from distance for 22 points and 5 assists on a bad ankle. He didn't look to force much, sometimes a habit when he gets hot. You could tell he wasn't elevating or driving but he found ways to do damage. He did have 5 turnovers. Those could have been mobility-related (not much escape-power) or it could have been bad juju.
Damian Lillard spent much of the night carving up the opposition with the pass and the shot. Somebody in the preview thread asserted that Rubio is Minnesota's toughest defender. That may be so, but it's like saying you have the best ice cream topping made out of Shell Motor Oil. Lillard had Rubio on a string early and continued to punish until Minnesota wised up and started trapping him. That's when the game stalled and the really bad turnovers took hold. (Credit the 'Wolves defenders here too.) The 5 TO's and 5 personal fouls made it somewhat of a mixed night for Lillard but otherwise he looked fine: 9-17, 21 points, 6 assists, 3 steals.
J.J. Hickson did the usual scrappy-efficient thing, just less often than the norm. He went 4-6 for 8 points and 9 rebounds with 4 turnovers and 4 fouls.
Nicolas Batum was openly grabbing his wrist in the first half and managed 4 shots, 4 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks in 35 minutes. His defense wasn't crisp and he went for 7 turnovers. I wonder what the Blazers are thinking here. Despite the omnipresent "better than expected" label they're still only 25-23, not exactly setting the world on fire. They can't afford to have this next generation of players shuffling around with chronic injuries. If Batum can't go, shut him down. And judging by the last few games he's either going halfway or not at all.
Nolan Smith had a really good game off the bench as long as he was catching passes instead of making them. As a point guard he coughed up 3 turnovers to go along with his 3 assists. But he shot 2-3 for 7 points. Either way he committed 4 personal fouls as well.
Luke Babbitt saved himself by hitting 2-4 threes for 7 points. He had some game-icing free throws just before Aldridge did but went 1-2. He also played plenty of "Why, Luke, Why???" defense. Like many of his teammates he went foul-heavy with 3 infractions in 14 minutes.
Victor Claver had 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 points in 17 minutes. He was better on defense than on offense.
Meyers Leonard pretty much doubled his recent minutes average, playing 7 tonight. He had a couple of rebounds, a block, and a couple of personal fouls. Still working on it.
Will Barton was plenty aggressive in his 6 minutes of floor time. For the most part his 4 shot attempts looked good. Unfortunately only 1 of them fell.
The Blazers have the luxury of a travel day before showing up in Dallas to face the Mavericks. That day off will feel a lot better than it would have had they blown a 19-point lead in the fourth.
Canis Hoopus is probably going up and down about this effort. Good thing we ended up on the right side of the teeter-totter.