On a night when everybody in the basketball world is paying attention to the NCAA Tournament, the Portland Trail Blazers turned in one of their best efforts of the season, beating the Chicago Bulls 99-89 to notch their first win of this five-game road swing.
A half-dozen factors played into this game heavily:
1. Chicago seemed to know how they wanted to beat the Blazers in theory but this didn't match up with their optimal strategy. The Bulls came out pushing tempo, looking as if they knew the Blazers had struggled early in games and wanted to jump all over them. The assessment was correct but the reasoning was flawed. Portland has succumbed in first halves because of a lack of energy, playing almost as if in a stupor, walking up and down the court. Chicago pushing tempo actually seemed to wake up the Blazers. The Bulls did end up with 22 fast break points (their average is 10) but at what cost? They almost would have been better off slowing the tempo to a crawl, lulling the Blazers into the teeth of their superior defense and rebounding.
2. Portland also played a smart style against the Bulls' vaunted defense. Portland didn't come anywhere near matching Chicago on the break (9 fast break points) but they didn't get stalled in their halfcourt sets. Sure, Portland's guards--especially Damian Lillard--dribbled the ball plenty up high. The Blazers weren't shooting in the first 6 seconds of the clock. But they weren't shooting in the last 6 seconds either. Whenever the attacking pass or dribble commenced a shot followed rapidly, before the Bulls could set or think about helping. LaMarcus Aldridge scored 28 in this game but we saw comparatively few sets in the post. He flashed, caught, and shot. Fortunately the Blazers excel at this type of "shooting from the hip" offense. The lower-percentage shots that the Bulls force other teams into are routine for the Blazers. Step-back three? No problem. Power forward firing from 20? Bingo. Where other teams say, "DOH!" the Blazers say, "Thank you."
3. Once again the Blazers rode their two stars, Aldridge and Damian Lillard, to early scoring. They returned to the well every time Chicago threatened. 40 of Portland's 84 shot attempts came from this duo. They shot 57.5% between them. That alone was enough to put the Bulls in a bind. They can defend you all night but when they need to generate an extra 15 points, where do they go?
4. One thing's for sure, they can't go to their guards. The trio of Lillard, Wesley Matthews, and Eric Maynor scored 43 points tonight. Kirk Hinrich actually returned from injury to start the game but he didn't look anything like his normal self. Matthews wrapped up Marco Belinelli into a little bag, double-knotted, and tossed him to the curb. Nate Robinson had one monster dunk in the middle of a 4-12 shooting night. Those three guards scored 17, leaving Portland +26 in the backcourt. How's the Chicago frontcourt going to make up that kind of disparity?
5. Chicago is a great offensive rebounding team. The Blazers ate their lunch tonight. The Bulls had only 2 second-chance points at the half and didn't add many more off of 9 offensive rebounds total for the evening. In the game preview I talked about the possibility of J.J. Hickson getting slaughtered by Joakim Noah, as we've sometimes seen against decent centers. I owe Hickson an apology. Noah did score 18 on 7-10 shooting but he needed jumpers and free throws to get to that level. He had only 2 offensive rebounds and 6 rebounds total. Hickson? Only a career-high 21 boards. I doubt he could have done better had the refs allowed him to keep a palm on Noah's mug all night. Chicago had no chance to mount a comeback without those rebounds.
6. The Blazers went 10-21 from distance tonight with Lillard, Matthews, and Batum all shooting well beyond the arc. Obviously Chicago's guard defense was lacking but to Portland's credit they never forced the deep shot. Those 30 points proved critical as the Bulls outscored the Blazers in the paint 54-30.
In short, the Blazers did everything the way they were supposed to tonight. It wasn't an aberration, with the team peaking in an extraordinary night. Rather the Blazers showed all of the hallmarks of their 2012-13 style--the good and the bad--and ran into a team that wasn't prepared to handle it.
LaMarcus Aldridge was steady on both ends in one of the best all-around games he's played all season. He didn't get flustered when Noah and Carlos Boozer started getting physical. He just released the shot quicker on offense and dared them to make up the difference on the other end. They couldn't. 28 points, 14-23 shooting, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks.
Damian Lillard drove the Bulls defenders crazy. Play for the drive? THREE! Come out? Whoops! Into the teeth of the defense he goes for a layup. He had a free pass tonight and made the most of it. Hinrich going 1-7 on the other end gave him a night off on defense as well...always bad news for the other team. 9-17, 4-7 from the arc, 24 points, 7 assists, and a bunch of Bulls fans wishing D. Rose would hurry back.
Do you need to say anything else about Hickson besides 21 rebounds?
Wesley Matthews didn't have a dominant night but as the season progresses we're finding out that he doesn't have to as long as he hits his threes. His 4-8 shooting for 11 was his only statistical contribution but his 3-5 clip from the arc kept Chicago off-balance.
Nicolas Batum followed roughly the same offensive pattern except his shooting was worse (3-12, but all three makes were threes) and he added 6 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 blocks. Plus Luol Deng attempted only 7 shots and hit but 2, the death knell for Chicago's comeback hopes. 12 shots, good defense, and other contributions on top? We'll take that!
Only two players made it off Portland's bench until the last minute of this blowout win. Eric Maynor took advantage of "Guards Eat Free" night, shooting 4-9 for 8 points plus 2 assists. He wasn't world-shaking but his buckets confirmed that the Bulls had no hope. In addition to his 8 points and 5 rebounds Meyers Leonard was involved in the three biggest highlight plays of the evening. He jumped to the roof to block Kirk Hinrich's shot on one end, then ran to the other end for a swooping dunk off of a Batum toss. Leonard also ducked out of the way instead of challenging the allegedly 5'9" Robinson so the latter could throw down the kind of dunk that made the Las Vegas Summer League retire his number.
This was a nice win in the middle of a not-so-nice stretch of the schedule. The Atlanta Hawks may not be so kind tomorrow, but for now...all hail the dynamic duo of Aldridge and Lillard. It's a good night to be a Blazers fan. Too bad nobody was watching.
BlogaBull might swear about this loss.