The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Orlando Magic, 110-94, at the Moda Center on Wednesday night, improving their record to 27-9.
Back-to-back losses to poor teams, a broken finger and some lineup tweaks combined to created an unexpected fragility for the Blazers over the past week. This wasn't tiptoe on winter pond ice fragility or butterfly wing fragility -- catastrophe wasn't looming, or even really threatening to loom -- but a season that has largely stuck to a simple script, and a scripted rotation, veered noticeably, buffeted by multiple variables all of a sudden.
The Philadelphia 76ers and Sacramento Kings claimed victories, forward Nicolas Batum's flip-off digit was amiss, rookie guard CJ McCollum was finally ready to go after a foot injury, and veteran forward Dorell Wright was dropped from the rotation, as coach Terry Stotts juggled his reserves, testing new combinations in search of "urgency."
That urgency was there for the first 90 seconds -- the Blazers took a 9-2 lead off the top -- but retreated back into the chrysalis for much of the rest of the first half. LaMarcus Aldridge outscored all of his teammates combined 14-10 in the first quarter and nearly held the same distinction at halftime (21-24). Portland's outside shooting again looked to be lacking in confidence and there were way too many easy points being conceded to the Nikola Vucevic-less Magic on the other end.
Trailing by six points to a team that hasn't won a road game against the Western Conference all season, losing to a team that certainly didn't have the capacity to stop Aldridge or keep up in a shootout, Portland was well-positioned for a halftime session spent with honest words delivered to ears rather than iPad videos delivered to eyes. Joe Freeman of The Oregonian reports that Stotts played the bad cop, delivering a little fury to his charges.
The good cop, or at least the "less bad" cop, was played by Aldridge, whose message sounded as if it might have been inspired by noted moral philosopher Ke$ha. The pop singer's zippy 2010 dance anthem "We R Who R Are" called upon listeners to join her in attracting attention, dancing like no one was watching, and living in the moment. "We are who we are," the chorus's straightforward identity statement demanded, so deal with it, world.
"It was about us not being us," Aldridge told Blazersedge, when asked to explain the gist of his mid-game address, acknowledging that Portland lost its way again in the first half. "It was just about us being a really good team and not dropping three games. ... [I talked about] not playing with the intensity that we can. We did it in the second half, guys picked it up."
Identities aren't permanent; in the years to come, Father Time will catch even Ke$ha -- the "forever young" part of the song is only a mentality. One day, her body will go numb, numb, numb, numb because her nerves don't respond like they used to, not because of pulsing beats and/or club drugs. In Aldridge's vision, the 2013-14 Blazers are an offensive machine that can only get in its own way, period. Anything short of success is an error in their code, not the product of outside forces.
"Teams haven't stopped us," Aldridge said. "It's not about teams scheming us. [The offensive struggles are because] guys haven't made shots."
"Us being us," then, meant rediscovering the overwhelming attack that had been dormant since a blowout victory against the Charlotte Bobcats, not to mention a level of defensive effort that could be described as superior to comatose. Aldridge wasn't yelling when he laid out his own identity statement, according to Damian Lillard, but "a little bit of frustration" did come through.
"Like, we're better than this," Lillard told Blazersedge, recounting Aldridge's stump speech. "Enough is enough. We're playing in spurts, not playing defense. Letting teams hang around. We're a lot better than what we're showing. We responded to it."
That type of declaration, considering the circumstances and coupled with Stotts' own delivery, makes all the sense in the world. Identities require regular confirmation: "unstoppable" juggernauts don't drop three games in a row to bottom-five teams, at least not without a legitimate teeth-clenching fight, the likes of which wasn't present against Philadelphia or Sacramento, late-game desperation notwithstanding.
The response wasn't immediate, as the two teams essentially played the third quarter to a draw, but the Blazers raced away to win the final period 39-19. Aldridge finished with 36 points (on 16-for-25 shooting) and nine rebounds, but the game turned as he watched from the sidelines, thanks to Wesley Matthews, Batum and Thomas Robinson.
Matthews, who tallied 17 points (on 6-for-17 shooting), five rebounds and four assists, scored 10 points in the final period, including a tone-setting three-pointer to open the quarter.
"I was just trying to get back to being angry," he said afterwards. "A new level of angry. A new level of mad. Not to say I toned it down, but over the course of the season, I might have lost a little bit of it. I had to get it back."
Again, this was an identity waiting for another round of re-definition. Will Matthews' intensity and timely shooting help spark Portland's offense to its accustomed heights, or will the team be stuck languishing on nights when he isn't clicking?
In the final period, Batum registered seven of his career-high 14 assists -- which paired with 14 points and 10 rebounds to account for the fourth triple-double of his career -- and found plenty of ways to be helpful despite a limiting hand injury.
Yet again, an identity wavering: Will Batum retreat to the passive player whose game breaks down if his body and shot don't feel right, or will he continue to leave his stamp on games in spite of the adversity?
"I guarded a lot of guys," he said proudly. "Tonight I guarded [Arron] Afflalo, [Maurice] Harkless, [Tobias] Harris and [Jameer] Nelson. I have to do a lot of things. On offense, I've got to score, rebound, assists, screens, bring the ball. I know my role, my job, I just have to do it the right way."
Still, something was missing, perhaps because Lillard scored just 11 points (on 4-for-12 shooting) and made just one shot during the third quarter. Enter Robinson, who didn't budge from the bench for the first three quarters. When Stotts tapped the second-year forward for second-half minutes, just as he had against the Kings, he likely did so looking for a little abandon. He also did it without prior warning.
"Clueless," Robinson told Blazersedge, when asked whether he knew he was going to be a part of the plans again. "I've been itching."
Robinson described watching a Blazers team that was "playing a little flat," one that "has a tendency to lay low" in a way that can sometimes catch up to them. But there was nothing flat about Robinson's impact nor did his play "lay low" in any way. High above the court he flew to swat a shot from the weakside; down the court he ran to turn defense into offense; out reached his arm, flipping home a putback dunk.
The end-to-end play following his big block was perhaps his most impressive. If ever there was a time for Robinson's energy and instincts to work against him, this was it: flush with adrenaline after his swat, Robinson found himself in the post against a smaller defender in Harris. The one-on-one sequence could have gone wrong in a number of ways, as many have for Robinson this year. Instead, he took his time, backing across the paint before setting up a regular motion -- not fast forward -- drop step for a left-handed lay-up. The basket gave Portland an eight-point lead and forced Orlando to take timeout.
And yet again, an identity in the balance, updating. Squeezed inside some of the most electric and meaningful minutes of his season came perhaps his most stoic and refined moment.
"Me being patient is something I've been learning since I've been in the league," Robinson told Blazersedge. "Me actually showing it now is just baby steps to me."
It hardly seems a coincidence that Aldridge's "us being us" speech came on the same night as Robinson's mini-breakthrough. No other Blazers rotation player has openly discussed his struggles to adapt to the NBA level quite like Robinson, although Joel Freeland does come close. No other Blazers rotation player has had to alter his playing time expectations quite like Robinson, not even Meyers Leonard. No other Blazers player has had to ask the "Who am I?" question in such a fundamental way like Robinson, not even the injured McCollum.
"I'm nothing like I play," Robinson told Blazersedge. "I'm probably calmer than anybody in here when it's off the court. [On the court], I'm 360, man."
A full spin different, in other words. What showed against Orlando was a jawing, dunking, blocking, thinking game-changer, discarding the fragility around him and plowing right through.
"If they fired you, wouldn't you want your job back?" he asked. "I want mine back."
Whether the job is his again or not wasn't clarified by Stotts, who suggested he would divvy up his bench minutes on a case-by-case basis, with an eye towards match-ups. The coach also made it known that he wasn't going to "disregard" Leonard's accomplishments over the last few weeks, implying that both players were still firmly in the mix for the time being.
If you tie these identity strains together -- Aldridge hitting shots and taking a stand, Matthews rekindling his game at opportune moments, Batum staying engaged (and more), Robinson getting back to work -- a double-digit win against a weaker opponent should be the result.
Ke$ha and Aldridge diverge in the woods because the former ignores time in pursuit of a never-ending nirvana fiesta, while the latter deals in reality, where time is an inescapable element. When the party isn't permanent, when new tests await, "us being us" identity checks are a mandatory part of the self-improvement process.
Before leaving for home, Aldridge offered one final challenge, not content to settle with what he had said at halftime, or with how easily Portland handled its business down the stretch.
"[Robinson] has to bring that every night for us," Aldridge told Blazersedge. "That's who he should be every night. He should come in and wreak havoc. Crash the boards. Be physical. Block shots. Run the floor hard. That's who he should be every night."
Nice work, he seemed to be saying. But do it again and again and again until you are who you are, and until you are unequivocally one of us.
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced at 18,949 (not a sellout). Not the greatest crowd.
- Here are game highlights via YouTube user portlandtrailblazers.
- Blazers rookie guard CJ McCollum made his NBA debut, finishing with four points (on 2-for-5 shooting) and two rebounds in 14 minutes. He received a partial standing ovation when he checked in. "A lot of thoughts," he said, when asked what was going through his head. "Thankful I was able to get back out there after fracturing my foot. Just happy to be able to play in the NBA for a winning team and a winning organization."
- McCollum, unlike Robinson, was given a heads up by Terry Stotts that he would play on Wednesday. Will Barton received the same notification on Tuesday.
- McCollum to Blazersedge on his "Welcome to the NBA" moment: "When I threw that first pass, I knew it was a turnover right away. I looked, I seen him, when you look and don't throw it right away, it's usually a turnover. I floated it across the court. ... I can't get worse than that. A turnover to start the game. ... I'm going to make sure I'm not going to throw any crosscourt passes the rest of the game."
- Damian Lillard on McCollum's debut: "It's good to see him out there. I couldn't imagine in my first season, getting hurt in training camp, come back midseason, trying to find my way. He's been great about it. He worked hard to get back. He's been a lot more comfortable than I would have been, playing after just breaking his foot. I was happy to see him out there."
- Robin Lopez's crazy fake on Glen Davis didn't qualify as an ankle-breaker but we can definitely call it a chest-jiggler.
- Lopez (seven points and seven rebounds in 25 minutes) has been laying down to stretch out on the sideline when he's not in the games. He said that he's not in any pain and that he's doing it for "preventative" reasons so that his back doesn't tighten up. Something to watch...
- Something to read: Matthew Singer of the Willamette Week with an entertaining interview with Lopez that touches on all sorts of weird stuff.
- The University of Portland's director of basketball operations Marshall Cho was in attendance to scope out Magic guard Victor Oladipo. The Rookie of the Year candidate went to Dematha High School in Maryland, where Cho used to be on the coaching staff. Needless to say, Cho enjoyed Oladipo's incredible apex block on a Damian Lillard dunk attempt as much (or more) than I did. Check out the GIF of the block -- via Dane Carbaugh -- right here.
- Bruce Ely of The Oregonian came through with a clutch photo of Oladipo's block right here.
- During the preseason, Wesley Matthews would have easily drawn a technical foul for slapping the ball after getting a big second-chance basket in the fourth quarter. The Blazers had already received a delay of game warning. Of course, no call. "Points of emphasis" -- as always -- are emphasized until they aren't.
- An entire row received what looked like stuffed pony dolls as gifts during a jumbotron giveaway. Usually it's a crappy DVD that no one wants. A few of the kids looked pretty excited about their new ponies. Maybe too excited.
- Blazers fan Mike airballed a halfcourt shot that would have won him a new car. The Pistons are reportedly interested in offering him a 10-day contract because he came closer than Josh Smith did on a potential game-winner Tuesday.
- Pretty weak crop of signs: "Portland's got the Magic," "Marry me Meyers," "I'm a Trail Blazerholic," "The Magic have no tricks," "Vamos Blazers," "I came here for you, Will #Thrill," and "Steal Orlando's Magic."
- McMuffins were delivered; I didn't hear any meaningful chanting. Same old, same old on the jumbotron.
- Things About Portland That Suck doesn't approve of the "Moda Center" name change.
- Scott Rafferty of Hardwood Paroxysm did a nice breakdown of Portland's sideline play that set up a Damian Lillard corner three-pointer against the Kings. Although the initial setup was different, the end result was very similar to a game-winning three-pointer by Boston Celtics forward Jeff Green earlier this year. Plays designed to find an opening in that far corner are an incredibly entertaining calculated risk .
- Twitter user @TeeMunny sends in this "Dame&We$&Nico&LA&RoLo." background image. I was wondering when this would become a thing given how well the starting lineup has played together.
- There was a jumbotron proposal and she said yes! They shared an extended, genuine kiss afterwards so the marriage will last.
- Meyers Leonard didn't have much to hang his hat on after this one: Two missed shots and a foul in almost seven minutes. Blazers coach Terry Stotts wasn't ready to crown Robinson after the game though.
- Extended comments from Stotts below. Good luck parsing any of the rotation questions for anything meaningful.
- In case you missed it, we switched up the Twitter handles this week. You can find Dave on Twitter right here. Timmay! is right here. I'm right here. The official site account is right here.
- The Blazers hung some pretty sick posters in the hallway that leads down to the home locker room. In the past, there were photos of athletes and random musicians on the walls and the whole thing just lacked unity. Then there were a lot of blank walls. Now, there's a chronological unfolding of various high points in team history. Sorry for the low quality (and the reflections), I snapped them quick with my phone on the way out. But you get the picture...
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
Well we needed that one. I was pleased for a lot of reasons. Our defense in the fourth quarter was very good. Thomas Robinson came in and gave us nice energy in the fourth quarter. Wes [Matthews] carried us midway through the second half. [LaMarcus Aldridge] was great all night.
Thomas Robinson back into the rotation?
He was ready to play. We'll worry about Boston in Boston. He earned his minutes tonight and we'll see how it goes. Right now, I'm going to enjoy this win.
He was good. I thought he tried to play the right way. It was a good opening night. It was a physical, fast-paced game. I don't think he tried to do too much. He executed things well, made some mistakes, for a first outing it was good to get him out on the court. Plus, I don't have to answer that question any more.
I thought we had defensive letdowns, loose balls. I thought they played with a little bit more energy and urgency than we did. We didn't necessarily shoot the ball well. A lot of times it's a combination of both things. I was disappointed with our defense in the second quarter, our urgency, affecting the game.
Learning how to play as hunted team
I don't know. I think it's important for us to play with an edge. Teams get up for everybody. I know it's important for us to play with an edge. Playing like we have something to prove. We may have gotten away from that, but that has to be a little bit of our calling card.
Nicolas Batum triple-double with broken finger
Last night in Sacramento, I thought he was tentative early in the game. As the game progressed in Sacramento, he looked more comfortable with it. He hits that first shot. Was aggressive. It didn't looked like he had any effects from it. It's easy for me to say. I'm sure it's bothering him. I didn't think he played like it was affecting him.
Nicolas Batum's 14 assists
I've said many times about Nic -- he's versatile and does those things. The fact that he had two triple-doubles last year, it's his second this year, and he's going to have a lot more. He has a knack of being able to do a lot of different things. I like to be able to run the offense through him. He can score if he needs to. When he stays aggressive, good things usually happen.
How do you balance rest vs. practice over the next week?
Tomorrow we'll be off. Should have a good practice Friday. Sunday will probably be off and we'll have Monday and Tuesday. We'll have three practices that I think will be good for us. And the rest. I don't want to over-do our practices. I want to get something accomplished with them. To be able to have this amount of time off in January is something we have to take advantage of.
What's more important, rest or practice?
If you ask the players, I know what they would say. It's a little bit of both. Keeping on task, on point, staying in shape, not getting rusty, it's important getting those practices in. It's not going to be long, grueling practices where it takes a toll physically.
Thomas Robinson earning his minutes
Energy is really important for his game. When he brings the energy he did tonight, he can really impact a game, which he did tonight. Part of it is tactical. They had a smaller big man that was a little more athletic and quicker. Just like last night in Sacramento, I thought it was a match-up that made sense. I thought he took advantage of it both last night and tonight.
We addressed it at halftime last night and we didn't have many turnover. I thought we had five in the second half last night. Everyone knows we don't want turnovers. Everybody needs to be reminded of it, especially if you're playing against a team that creates turnovers. Be more mindful of your decisions.
Substitutions coming now based more on match-ups?
Could be. Meyers [Leonard] played very well during that stretch, at both ends of the floor. The team was doing very well, offensively and defensively when he was on the court. I'm not going to disregard what Meyers brings to the game. And Thomas obviously shows that he brings something. It could be situational. It's a luxury to have those guys.
With CJ [McCollum] coming back, we've got a lot of players. Dorell [Wright] provided a lot of good moments for us. He's a valuable player, it could be situational. We'll see how it goes. If you ask me what I'm going to do in the future, I'm not sure right now. It's going to depend on the games and the match-ups and how things are going.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter