The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves, 115-104, at the Moda Center on Saturday night, improving their record to 33-11.
This game brought to mind a recent debate with a certain ESPN.com (Insider) personality who, for the sake of his reputation, I will only identify as having a name that rhymes with Pevin Kelton. The subject of the disagreement, which nearly led to blood during a late-night, G Chat back-and-forth, was the definition of the word "dagger" in the basketball sense. Taking what I felt was a strict traditionalist's approach, I argued that a dagger was a shot that unequivocally sealed a game's outcome, the point of absolutely no return (not even with a miracle). Kelton offered a looser definition, which essentially amounted to an important, momentum-swinging late-game shot. Under my (correct) view, there can only be, at most, one dagger per game. Under his (incorrect) view, a knife fight between multiple dagger-wielders could ensue in the same game.
The conversation dragged on and on as we debated whether daggers worked better as pivot points between one and two possession games, or between two and three possession games, or if a go-ahead shot in the game's closing seconds could qualify, or if a pair of free throws could qualify, whether or not a dagger had to force the opposing coach to take a timeout, etc., etc. Look, we don't have a lot going on in our lives.
Portland's victory over Minnesota saw one of the most un-daggery daggers in recent memory: It didn't come in the game's final two or three minutes; it didn't prevent Minnesota from making another run; it didn't come in a one- or two- possession game and it was arguably more luck than skill. Normally, I think we would classify it as a "gut punch" rather than a "dagger," but that would drastically undersell the shot's reflexive impact on Minnesota.
The Timberwolves weren't getting doubled over in pain; they were going down -- straight down -- for the count.
With just over seven minutes remaining in the game and Portland holding a nine-point lead, LaMarcus Aldridge, who was wedged between Ricky Rubio and Nikola Pekovic, launched a fade-away jumper from just inside the three-point line. Absorbing a light bump in the back, Aldridge held his follow-through and then collapsed backwards, all the way to the floor, hitting the ground before the shot hit the net. Chase Budinger flexed the ball over his head in frustration, Kevin Love looked out into the crowd, and the game was over. "If he's hitting that, it's a wrap," Minnesota's body language screamed, as Aldridge stepped to the line to hit the free throw.
Back-to-back baskets from Damian Lillard -- who heretofore hadn't been much of a factor -- twisted the knife, extending Portland's lead to 17 points. As the Timberwolves retreated to the bench to call a timeout, they slumped, totally and in unison. They knew they were beaten, they knew you knew they were beaten, and the rest would be about pride and saving face. Minnesota mounted a 9-2 run out of the timeout but never cut Portland's lead to under 10 points. They were done.
That dagger was not the culmination of a "You'll never forget where you were" showdown between Aldridge and Love. Instead, it was the high point of what Aldridge called a "let down" face-off between the two All-Stars, who wound up shifting out of the spotlight after two days of building hype. Aldridge, who told Blazersedge that he felt he "definitely" deserved a spot in the 2014 All-Star Game's starting lineup, wasn't really able to deliver on Wesley Matthews' prediction of a "statement" game against Love, who did earn a starting spot.
Aldridge finished with 21 points (on 9-for-21 shooting) and 6 rebounds, and he said afterwards that he was satisfied with getting the victory against Love, who tallied 15 points (on 4-for-12 shooting) and 13 rebounds.
"I thought both guys competed," Aldridge told Blazersedge. "I felt a little tired. I could tell he was tired on a back-to-back. I thought both guys played hard."
Love had played 37 minutes on Friday night in a last-second loss to the Golden State Warriors, leaving that game with minor ankle and knee injuries before returning to finish with 26 points (on 7-for-18 shooting), 14 rebounds and 8 assists. Both he and Aldridge had trouble creating separation and space in one-on-one situations; there were plenty of sequences where bodies were meeting evenly like bumper cars before the ball was moved back out to the perimeter.
"[The match-up] is kind of much ado about nothing. We both particularly didn't have a great game," Love said. "This morning was one of those times where you jump out of bed and think, 'I don't know how I'm going to play tonight.' You get a good meal, a good nap and then you lace them up and hopefully that adrenaline flows. ... We're happy to have a day off [on Sunday]."
Thomas Robinson, for one, wasn't trying to hear the fatigue talk.
"We didn't complain about being tired when we got whooped down there," Robinson said, referencing Portland's 120-109 loss in Minnesota on the second night of a back-to-back in December.
Robinson, who finished with 6 points (on 3-for-6 shooting) and 6 rebounds, was part of a solid showing from Portland's second unit that ripened up the Timberwolves for the fourth quarter blitzing. Mo Williams (16 points and 6 assists) and CJ McCollum (6 points and 2 assists) both had their moments, and those moments stood out compared to the vast nothingness Minnesota's reserves offered coach Rick Adelman. The Timberwolves' bench combined to shoot 5-for-21, and they had just eight points combined entering the fourth quarter.
Whether because they were rolling, because they were taking advantage of a favorable match-up, or a little bit of both, Portland's reserves looked like a true-blue functioning group. Williams found his own offense -- a search that comes naturally -- and he also found McCollum for a jumper. Robinson provided a second-quarter burst that included three quick scores and a highlight block, all in short order. The first of those buckets was set up by a pretty look-ahead pass from McCollum, who came up with a loose ball after swiping J.J. Barea and then, seemingly in one motion, found Robinson on the outlet.
While McCollum's individual offense is coming on somewhat slowly, coach Terry Stotts said he likes the developing interplay between the rookie and Williams, and his teammates viewed Saturday's game as evidence of McCollum's impact on the reserve group as a whole.
"The best thing to happen to the second unit is CJ," Robinson said. "It gives us another threat, another scoring threat. When Mo has help as far as scoring-wise, two of those is better than one. [McCollum] makes me and Joel [Freeland]'s job easier. I can strictly focus on my energy, crashing the boards, and then other things like scoring come out of that too."
Williams added: "The great thing about it is that [McCollum is] out there with me, a veteran guy, [so] he doesn't have a lot of pressure on him. He's going to have some really good nights for us, like tonight he got it going. I thought he did a real good job defensively. He had a couple of deflections on his man, doing what he is supposed to do."
That the bench, and an 11-point first quarter from Nicolas Batum (who finished with 13 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists), took top billing in this one wound up being a nice change of pace, but it was't the mano-a-mano battle the fans had anticipated. The Moda Center crowd has generally built its momentum over the course of games this season, but the buzz was evident at the opening tip, as Aldridge knocked down an early basket and then blocked a Love attempt soon after. From there, the two stars, as dependable as just about anyone in the league, both failed to maintain their fast balls, and the building's tension had dissipated by the game's closing minutes.
"I thought they beat each other up, to be honest with you," Damian Lillard told Blazersedge. "Both guys wanted to outplay the other. I think the most impressive thing is that they both guarded each other. They made each other work."
Lillard finished with 14 points (on 5-for-17 shooting) and 5 assists, and he laughed when asked about his own match-up with Ricky Rubio.
"That wasn't the focus," he said quickly. "The focus was the two All-Star forwards."
Like Matthews' line about the "statement" and Batum's frustration at the All-Star results, Lillard's admission was another reminder that Aldridge's teammates track these things just like fans and media members do. Sometimes high-profile showdowns pay off with instant classics, like Kevin Durant's fourth quarter explosion on Tuesday, or Aldridge's career-high on Thursday. Sometimes, but not always.
"The media and we put more into [the match-up] than [Aldridge] did," Williams concluded. "I thought he just came out and played basketball, he didn't try to overdo it, he didn't try to do too much. He wasn't bigger than the game. [For him], the game was more important to win than the match-up with Kevin Love."
On that count, Aldridge succeeded, with a finishing move that wrapped up an early, low-stress victory.
Random Game Notes
- This game was announced as a sellout (20,006).
- Here are the game highlights via YouTube user portlandtrailblazers.
- This was a dine-and-dash post-game set-up for the Blazers, who rushed out of the locker room and immediately hopped on a flight to Oakland for Sunday night's game against Golden State.
- Erik Gundersen of The Columbian asked Damian Lillard if he feels there is bad blood between the Blazers and the Warriors after their last game, which saw multiple ejections, fines and a suspension. "It might be," Lillard replied, smiling.
- LaMarcus Aldridge on the match-up with the Warriors: "[I expect] a very competitive game. They're going to try to take care of business, maybe try to send a message. We're definitely ready for it."
- Fast fact: Portland now needs to go at least 1-37 over the rest of the regular season to surpass last year's total of 33 wins.
- Terry Stotts said that the Blazers have "put last year in the rearview mirror a long time ago" during his post-game comments, when asked about already matching the 33-win total from 2012-13.
- Aldridge on 33 wins: "I'm not even comparing last year, that was a totally different year. We're playing great. I think this year is just different. Different goals, a different mindset. Guys are focused on taking it game by game."
- Lillard on 33 wins: "I think I can speak for everybody, that's old news. We've got to move forward."
- Matthews on 33 wins: "Hey, congratulations to us, got to keep it moving."
- Robin Lopez on the bench: "The second unit played their asses off. They're attacking the basket, crashing the boards, they were playing defense very well."
- The NBA needs to institute a new rule whereby if your team is wearing sleeved jerseys and you're wearing a protective face mask, a la Timberwolves guard Alexey Shved, then the face mask must have ear flaps. It's only right.
- Unrelated to anything: Jefferson High's Terrence Ross had a career-high 51 points (previous career-high of 26 points) for the Toronto Raptors. Video highlights here.
- I mentioned my midseason grades on Thursday. Here's the link if you're interested.
- Burt Ward -- the original "Robin" from the Batman series -- was in attendance on Saturday as he was in town for this weekend's Comic Con.
- Lots of signs: "Blazermania is here to stay," "Totally Love Aldridge," "No Love for Minnesota," "No Love At Home For Kevin," "Mo Williams, Mo Points," "Batum, You Rock-a-laka," "Send the T'Wolves home howlin," "Stotts Brought The Blazers Back," "Lillard for Prez," "Catch the L-Train because the Love Boat is sinking," "I Love Mike Rice," "Love Slap," "Red Hot and Rolo-ing," and then two girls had signs that read 1) "Let's Go Timberwolves" and 2) "Said No One Ever" -- with an arrow to the first sign.
- Timberwolves TV analyst Jim Petersen had an interesting tweet about Blazers broadcasters Mike Barrett and Mike Rice (who were simulcast on NBA TV): "Please forgive Blazer announcers..they are pressured by team to be positive. [Play-by-play announer Dave Benz] and I are lucky to not be under same pressure."
- Petersen later deleted the tweet and wrote in a follow-up message that his statement "wasn't cool. ... [Barrett and Rice] are great friends and broadcasters. We all love our teams & want them to win."
- Thomas Robinson's block made one fan so excited that he spontaneously executed a jumping 360 in one of the baseline aisles.
- Robinson's block only earned a silver medal, though, as Ronny Turiaf absolutely tossed a CJ McCollum lay-up all the way over Minnesota's bench.
- Ricky Rubio found Corey Brewer with an alley-oop pass (GIF) from well behind half-court.
- Portland's transition defense was brutal but the Blazers managed to generate 17 fast break points of their own.
- Kevin Martin led all scorers with 30 points. He's possessed one of the weirdest looking shooting motions throughout his entire NBA career and after one early make he seemed to do a hop, skip and a jump in celebration. For a split-second, I wondered if he would be doing that after every shot as part of an even more elaborate full-body stroke.
- Aldridge took longer than usual in preparing for his media remarks and he apparently entered the cold tub before realizing that he hadn't taken questions. When he finally emerged, he jokingly called the smaller crowd of media members that was still waiting for him the "Last of the Mohicans."
- Aldridge stopped mid-sentence during one question because his name flashed across SportsCenter and he wanted to know why. Turns out he was included on a list of 40+ point scorers this year in a graphic related to Ross's big night.
- Aldridge was profiled on NBA: Inside Stuff this weekend. Video here.
- Same old, same old with the Chalupa/McMuffin business. No JumboTron prompt and no chanting.
- Matthews on Portland's ability to win while hitting only 4-for-16 on threes: "A lot of people mention that we shoot threes and that's the only way we can win. I think we've shown when we don't shoot it that we can still be a tough team. We still have the best power forward in the game. We've still got guys that can attack the rim, make free throws, get their own shot. Our threes will fall at some point."
- In the post-game notes sheet that goes out to media members, the Blazers made a point to include: "LaMarcus Aldridge is now 12-3 in his head-to-heads with Kevin Love."
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
I thought we played a good game from start to finish. Our bench was terrific. Our reserves were very good in both halves, made a difference in the game in both halves. The energy, just a little bit of everything. Mo [Williams] did a nice job of running the team, CJ [McCollum] took advantage of his opportunities, Thomas [Robinson] brought energy, Joel [Freeland] battled like he always does. Those guys really made a difference for us. But like always it was a team win. I thought our defense for the most part, they got behind us in transition, for some transition lay-ups, which is what they do.
[Kevin] Martin was hot, I thought made some tough jump shots, cooled off a little bit. This is two games in a row where we make four threes in the last two games and we win it in other ways, whether it's getting to the paint. We had 60 points in the paint, which is not something we do a lot. It's good to see we can win games in different ways.
Trying hard to push the pace
Not really. I like to do that every time. Every time we get a stop, I'd like to push it. I thought we had good energy, good legs, they played last night. Not usually different.
Defense on Kevin Love
I thought we were very attentive to how he gets his baskets. They run screens for him. LaMarcus did a very good job on him in the post, we kept him from getting easy baskets. For him to only have one offensive rebound, takes a lot of work because he's always around. If you do a good job on his post-ups, take away the offensive rebounds, that leaves perimeter shooting. I thought we did a good job of not necessarily giving him clean looks.
I think every night is a team rebounding night. If one gets double figures rebounding, everybody has to be in tune and go after it, particularly on the defensive end. Offensively -- we've been a good offensive rebounding team all year. Going into this game, the turnover differential, the free throw differential, and offensive rebounding -- the rebounding differential -- were all really important because Minnesota is good at it on the offensive end and the defensive end in those areas. I thought we did a nice job in all three of those areas.
What does 33 wins, equaling last year's mark, mean to you?
Honestly, nothing. We put last year in the rearview mirror a long time ago. Early in the season, the comparisons to last year were understandable. I think everybody in the locker room and the team have certainly moved on from last year.
Nicolas Batum early offense
It doesn't have to be any one particular guy -- Nic, L.A., Dame, Wes. Rolo, the way we play, you don't know which guy it's going to be. I like the way Nic came out, he was aggressive in transition, took the ball to the basket, that kind of sparks confidence with our team.
Developing interplay between Mo Williams and CJ McCollum
Good. I think Mo -- we want to take advantage of CJ's offensive ability when he's in the game. To do that, we've either got to run some things for him or give him the opportunity, rather than just playing him off the ball. Mo has been pretty good about putting CJ in those positions. The way the rotation works, they're going to be in. CJ is going to be in with Mo most of the time, it's hard to work it out where he's in with Dame. Those two are learning to play off each other, CJ is getting more comfortable with what we need from him, particularly at the offensive end.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter