The New Orleans Hornets once again beat the Portland Trail Blazers tonight, scratching out a 98-96 win in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter. This was less because Portland played poorly and more because the Hornets were able to take advantage of a couple of Portland's chronic weaknesses throughout the game.
The Blazers shot 49% on the night and hit a healthy 11-25 (44%) from the three-point arc. The Blazers hit 11 of 12 free throws against 7-9 for New Orleans. Portland only scored 34 points in the paint but the Hornets only had 40. That's close enough from Portland's perspective. 11 turnovers, 20 assists...the Blazers have done worse. Portland even had some amazing streaks during the game. Three pointers fell like spring rain during the second half, particularly for Wesley Matthews. Damian Lillard roasted the Hornets in the fourth quarter, breaking containment like a virus. The Blazers did enough things to win tonight for sure.
But the Hornets broke the Blazers' backs on the boards. Anthony Davis was a terror on the glass, particularly on the offensive end (in addition to playing some mighty fine defense). Portland's inability to secure a rebound threw a monkey wrench into several aspects of the game. The Blazers had but 6 offensive rebounds, cutting down on their second chances and easy points. On the defensive end the Blazers had to send extra men into the paint to secure the ball. This prevented them from fast-breaking (2 points on the night) and took away another source of easy buckets. Plus, committed to keeping in shouting distance of the lane, the Blazers were a step late getting back to New Orleans' excellent three-point shooters. The Hornets shot 55% from the arc, 11-20 for the night. With the defense spending energy recovering, New Orleans drivers got steps into the lane for the easy finish or dish. Alternately they commanded even more defensive help, leaving the Blazers even further out of position for the rebound.
The game-winning possession for New Orleans showed up all of Portland's flaws save rebounding, as their shot went it. Greivis Vasquez drove the lane on Nicolas Batum (guarding him most of the game because Damian Lillard was overmatched). Vasquez easily got a step, requiring Jared Jeffries to slide over to cover. Vasquez flipped the ball to Jeffries' man, Ryan Anderson, who converted the and-one with 1.8 seconds remaining. It was a classic, simple play...just take your man and react to the defense. But the Blazers were spread so wide that reading the right move was easy as pie.
The Blazers had one shot left. They ran Wesley Matthews in the classic Nicolas Batum Sideline Three set instead of Batum himself. Matthews had hit 8 of 14 shots in the game to that point. Batum had only taken 8 shots, hitting 3 of them. But Matthews isn't quite as fluid as Batum on the catch and shoot and his leaning heave from beyond the arc hit the back bracket and bounced away high and harmless. New Orleans walked away with the 98-96 victory. It wasn't a 30-point win like last time but Vasquez, Anderson, and Davis got the job done again.
LaMarcus Aldridge wasn't in rhythm this evening and his teammates did little to help him get there. Post plays were few and far between. Aldridge never set up aggressively and the Blazers seemed content to shoot around him instead of through him, giving him the occasional face-up jumper. To their credit the New Orleans bigs had plenty to do with the difficult night. Aldridge shot 6-14 for 16 points and 6 rebounds. He had another pedestrian defensive night as well. It think it's fair to say that when the team is defending well around him Aldridge makes a nice defensive weapon. But if the fort isn't secure he's not going to hold it, nor turn the tide.
Damian Lillard had another nice offensive night, scoring 20 on 9-16 shooting with 8 assists. The Hornets couldn't do anything with him once he got rolling. When the Blazers slipped in the fourth quarter Lillard did a credible job of leading them back by taking over the offense, calling his own number multiple times. I'm not sure if that's the best plan as he seems to overextend, leading to one too many shots or one too many turnovers. But hey, after San Antonio he had to try. The Blazers waved the white flag on Lillard's defense early in this game, sending Batum in to watch Vasquez after Lillard got mowed over. In a scary moment for Portland fans Lillard went down in the first half holding his shoulder and grimacing hard. He returned showing no ill effects. Sigh of relief.
Wesley Matthews shot 6-11 from distance tonight, one of those games where he looked like a superstar every time he released. Three-point attempts accounted for all but 4 of his shots. This is the best way he can contribute, though, especially when he's shooting that purely. 24 points.
J.J. Hickson did his best to keep his team afloat on the boards, scooping up 14 to go with 14 points on 6-12 shooting. New Orleans did a good job of bothering his attempts in the lane, keeping him from cutting freely and forcing him to shoot over the top. Hickson also had busy hands with 3 steals.
Nicolas Batum had a tough defensive assignment watching Vasquez. He also needed to step up scoring and play-making when Lillard went down. He did neither particularly well. Vasquez wasn't as dominant as he had been against Lillard but he still got free, particularly on that decisive play. Batum also had trouble closing on shooters when he wasn't watching Greivis. And this was another night when Batum all but refused to shoot. He finished 3-8 for 11 points, 2 rebounds, and 3 assists in 40 minutes.
Eric Maynor did OK statistically, scoring 7 on 3-5 shooting with 4 assists in 20 minutes but even he had 3 turnovers in that span. The rest of Portland's bench got owned. The reserve corps totaled 11 points, 2 rebounds, and 5 assists in 49 minutes. Ryan Anderson scored 20, grabbed 13 rebounds, and dished 3 assists all by himself in 34 minutes of play.
The story of this road trip was quality play from the Blazers but still only a 1-2 record. A 3-game homestand follows but 2 of those 3 opponents are Memphis and New York. The Blazers do well at home but those aren't gimme games. In fact 17 of Portland's last 20 contests come against teams currently above .500 and a playoff-hungry Mavericks squad accounts for 1 of the other 3. One wonders how close to the precipice the Blazers are.
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At The Hive will celebrate Davis and the New Orleans win.