The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Detroit Pistons, 112-101, at the Rose Garden on Saturday night, improving their record to 31-34.
With only seconds remaining in the second quarter, J.J. Hickson secured a defensive rebound and wheeled to throw a touchdown pass to nobody, chucking the ball away thoughtlessly for a turnover. Seizing the moment, acting Pistons coach Brian Hill called a 20-second timeout in hopes of sneaking a few additional points onto his team's five-point lead. Instead, Charlie Villanueva immediately tossed his own touchdown pass to nobody, straight out of bounds, stubbornly refusing to let anyone get the thoughtlessness upper hand on him. The stench of all that brain flatulence hung over the entirety of this laugher, which wound up ending in perfectly appropriate fashion, as Villanueva carelessly lost the ball out of bounds while under no pressure other than his own incompetence.
Portland, through lack of attention, offered Detroit a legitimate shot at ending what is now an eight-game losing streak, but the Pistons remain about as depressing as NBA franchises get, a mess of middling veterans who took the court without two of their young building blocks, Andre Drummond and Brandon Knight, because of injury. Eventually, all the mediocrity caught up, LaMarcus Aldridge did enough to stand out from the crowd and the Blazers pulled away with an uninspiring home win.
It would take real effort or willful disregard to paint this as a truly positive night. To his credit, Blazers coach Terry Stotts didn't make it through his opening comments without copping to his team's defensive struggles early.
"Needless to say, I was very disappointed with our defense in the first half," Stotts said.
At times in the first half, it looked as if Portland's defense believed it would be in violation of NBA rules by stepping foot inside the paint. The corner three might be the favorite shot of basketball nerds everywhere but let's not overlook a big man walking from the free throw line straight to the rim unscathed as a high-efficiency, desirable offensive opportunity. This isn't a new phenomenon for the NBA's No. 25 defense but there's only so much one man can take.
"We've been getting off to a slow start all year," J.J. Hickson said, before apparently resigning himself to the results. "At what point is it going to change? I don't know."
The Pistons scored 57 points in the first half, hitting 58.3 percent of their shots, scoring 34 points in the paint and getting to the line 18 times (15 more than the Blazers). There were blown pick-and-roll coverages, blown help rotations, free leakouts, an incomprehensible foul to allow an and-one in transition, and virtually every other type of mistake that might cause you to roll your eyes or slap your forehead.
Stotts called the performance "a little disconcerting" before defending his team's effort level, which appeared questionable before halftime.
"I don't think it's effort," Stotts explained. "My main concern is probably focus. We're making mistakes that we know better. Whether it's gambling or not being alert on a play, I thought it was more mental than anything else. As far as being focused, I thought our movement and alertness in the second half was very obvious. That was just being in tune with what we were trying to get done."
It was virtually the same game flow as Portland's win over the New York Knicks on Thursday. Two days after going on a 13-0 run to close the second quarter, the Blazers opened the third quarter with a 10-0 run that ensured this wouldn't be another damaging loss to a bottom-dweller.
"I don't think we're letting up, we're just not on edge enough," Blazers guard Damian Lillard said, after finishing with 14 points (on three-for-12 shooting) and seven assists. "It's early in the game, we know it's a long game. We don't do it on purpose, it's something that we've got to be better about as the year closes."
Early foul trouble for Aldridge helped open the floodgates, but the Pistons scored easily throughout the opening two quarters even when he was on the court. Detroit's backcourt got what they wanted -- and got lucky hitting some high-difficulty shots -- as the Rodney Stuckey, Will Bynum and Jose Calderon trio combined for 68 points on 41 shots.
"We let them play like they want to play," Nicolas Batum said. "We had no contact, no pressure, Stuckey killed us. More focused in the second half, we did a better job."
While the arrival of Eric Maynor has pushed Portland to its most efficient offensive stretch of the season, the early returns on the defensive end aren't as kind. Over the last 10 games, per NBA.com, Portland's offensive efficiency has been an excellent 113.6 points per 100 possessions, up a gigantic amount from their overall rating of 103.6. However, the team has conceded a pitiful 112.1 points per 100 possessions when Maynor is on the court, even though his time in Portland has included games against the Boston Celtics, Minnesota Timberwolves, Charlotte Hornets, Memphis Grizzlies (twice), New Orleans Hornets and Detroit Pistons, all teams that possess well below-average offenses.
Stotts said that he doesn't believe he is conceding defense for offense when he goes to the two point guard lineup, which he has used extensively since Maynor's arrival.
"No, I don't think so," he said. "They had two point guards, they had Bynum and Jose Calderon. They didn't post us. In theory, those two guys should be even better."
Lillard also backed that theory: "I think [our defense] should be better because you've got two guys who are quick and who can move. We can move our feet. It shouldn't make a difference."
Despite the impressive offense and the boost Lillard has received, the Maynor/Lillard tandem has been a net negative when they play together, although the numbers have been even worse when Maynor substitutes in for Lillard, just as they were when Ronnie Price or Nolan Smith used the keys to run the car off the road, flipping it upside down into an embankment. In case you were wondering, the Oklahoma City Thunder also saw their defensive numbers decline when Maynor was on the court, whereas Reggie Jackson, the man who beat him out for his job, actually improves their defense slightly when he plays.
The small sample size warning applies here, without question, but the Blazers will need to post better defensive results with Maynor on the court before his future in Portland can be considered a top priority. If he can't reliably stretch the defense with his range and he can't be something closer to a plus defender, the argument is there to be made that any competent point guard could have a similar effect on Lillard's offense. Whether the tandem can improve defensively is something to watch down the stretch or until the starters finally see their minutes cut.
Anyway, the second half saw a straightforward Aldridge takeover. Without any opposing players capable of making him truly work, Aldridge scored 21 of his game-high 31 points in the second half, including a stretch of 10 straight Portland points over the end of the third and beginning of the fourth quarters. He posted up with ease repeatedly in isolation as the Blazers turned over their offense to him, and he shot in sync.
"I found my rhythm in the second half," Aldridge said. "We just rode it all night. ... I was just feeling it. I had a really good rhythm going. I saw Dame was a little tired or a little off tonight, I was trying to pick it up. ... We played through the post, I thought that was good for us tonight."
"Remarkable," Stotts said. "He had it going. He created a problem on the block all night. Whether he was scoring, passing, he's just making his jump shot, rebounding. When he sat out in the first quarter and we were struggling, he came back into the game pretty aggressive for the rest of the night."
The Blazers fiddled with the game a bit down the stretch but a Batum three and a strong closing push from Aldridge made up for more defensive miscues.
"We saw they were rotating, trying to run us off the line," Lillard said of Batum's three, which pushed Portland to a 102-97 lead with 2:33 remaining. "One guy ran at me, they left Nic in the corner. It was the second time he got that shot and it was one we needed."
There are teams that can make you pay for inconsistent effort and execution. These Pistons just don't happen to be one of them.
"We had a period of the third quarter when we played lockdown defense only to give it back up in the fourth with mental lapses," Hickson said, after finishing with 18 points and 15 rebounds. "That's been our story all year. We have to learn how to get multiple stops without being satisfied."
There is exactly one month left in the season for that satisfaction to wane, but the final grueling stretch includes 17 games, thirteen of which come against playoff teams and eight of which come against top-10 offenses. The run starts with a five-game, seven-day trip on Monday against the Philadelphia 76ers.
"Make or break trip," Aldridge said, repeating the same take he gave before the Blazers went 1-5 on a February trip that significantly reduced their playoff odds. "I keep saying that. We're right there. If we take care of business on this trip, anything is possible."
A good place to start on the path towards "anything is possible" is right in front of the hoop, with both arms raised, feet set, eyes open and brain turned on.
Random Game Notes
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
I liked how we tightened things up at the beginning of the second half. Our defense was noticeably better, much more connected, much more aggressive. I thought that set the tone for the second half. Other than the last four minutes of the game, where they got some transition baskets off of our misses when they went ot the zone, other than that, for 20 minutes of the second half, our defense was pretty good. Needless to say, I was very disappointed with our defense in the first half.
Remarkable. He told me he should get two fouls early more often. He had it going. He created a problem on the block all night. Whether he was scoring, passing, he's just making his jump shot, rebounding. When he sat out in the first quarter and we were struggling, he came back into the game pretty aggressive for the rest of the night.
Running offense to him or he was in the flow?
Particularly in the second half, we were going to him.
Playing Freeland more
I've been reading all your tweets about wanthing him to play more.
Joel has been working really hard. Detroit plays two big guys, they don't really space the floor with a three-point shooter at four. L.A. getting two fouls. I had planned on getting Joel into the game tonight, it was just earlier than I expected because of the fouls. I thought this was a game that was set up for him to play because they play a little conventional with their big guys, just seemed to make sense.
I thought he did very well. He's made things happen, he finished around the basket, played with some energy, I don't know when the last time he played, but he was ready. I compliment his work ethic because he's been putting in a lot of time before and after practice, before the games. He's been waiting for the opportunity and he was ready.
Only 12 shots for Damian Lillard
He was reading the plays. They were aggressive on his pick and rolls. They weren't really giving him alleys to the basket. That's part of his job, to read the plays. I thought he made good decisions. He only had a couple of turnovers. He's not going to get, I'm not sure how many shots he averages, but he's not always going to get those.
Performance on the home stand
We win two of them and Memphis was a good game. I thought it was OK. There were parts of tonight's game and the game against New York that were a little disconcerting defensively but you can't take anything for granted. I would have liked to have won all three obviously but Memphis is a tough game, and we got two more wins. Hopefully it's a little momentum for us going out on the road.
What's concerning on defense?
I don't think it's effort. My main concern is probably focus. We're making mistakes that we know better. Whether it's gambling or not being alert on a play, I thought it was more mental than anything else. As far as being focused. I thought our movement and alertness in the second half was very obvious. That was just being in tune with what we were trying to get done.
Do you sacrifice defense for offense when you go to two point guard lineups?
No I don't think so. They had two point guards, they had Bynum and Jose Calderon. They didn't post us. In theory, those two guys should be even better.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter