The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Toronto Raptors, 106-103, at the Moda Center on Saturday night, improving their record to 34-13.
Wesley Matthews was strutting towards center court after a final stop and DeMar DeRozan was burying his head in his jersey after a rare second-half miscue, but the two-sided drama of that moment -- the redemption and the frustration -- was put on hold because of a whistle. Perfect. With 0.1 seconds remaining, referee Derek Richardson had called the 54th foul of a game that produced 60 free throws, the fitting (and pointless) conclusion to a contest that was chopped and screwed by the officials almost from start to finish.
In the second quarter, Matthews was issued a technical for tossing his mouthguard in the air, and that "enough, already" vibe towards the stripes was this game's lasting sensation. Deep into the second half, Portland had more made free throws than field goals, and the Blazers went more than seven minutes in the third quarter with their only offensive sustenance coming at the charity stripe. Aside from LaMarcus Aldridge's strong start, this was an "apply toothpicks to face to prop open eyes" affair, at least until a Toronto fourth-quarter comeback set up a tense final sequence.
Those who slogged through 47 minutes of sludge were rewarded with last-minute, end-to-end dramatics. A furious Raptors rally saw increasingly improbable shots from DeRozan, Patrick Patterson (13 points, 9 rebounds) and Kyle Lowry (23 points, 8 assists, 5 rebounds) go in one after another. Toronto clawed back from a 19-point deficit by shooting better than 50 percent in the final period, and they reeled off an 11-0 run take their only lead of the game with 25 seconds remaining.
"First half, we came out with a typical back-to-back approach," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said, after Toronto beat the Nuggets in Denver on Friday night. "I thought we were just, like, punch drunk in the first half and we picked it up in the second half."
Toronto's go-ahead points came on a pair of DeRozan free throws, as he juked Matthews into the air with a vicious pull-up, pump-fake combination that forced a foul at the top of the key. You could see the disaster developing early on that one: DeRozan was feeling it, Matthews will always err on the side of over-aggressiveness, and the Raptors were riding an extended stretch of good fortune.
"That's unlike me to be undisciplined and jump at that, but he had it going," Matthews told Blazersedge. "It felt like if it was going to leave his hands, it was going to go in. But when I did jump, I made sure he wasn't going to get that [shot] to the rim."
DeRozan sank both free throws to finish with a game-high 36 points (on 14-for-29 shooting), 12 assists and 4 rebounds. The recently-selected, first-time All-Star scored 30 points and shot 12-for-21 in the second half, but Toronto needed one more defensive stop for him to leave as the hero.
"He played the right way -- 12 assists, making the right passes, the right reads," Matthews said of DeRozan. "There wasn't a tendency that we could put him on [to stop him]. We went under the screen and he made a play, we went over the screen and he made a play, we tried to juke around [and] through the screen and he made a play. There's going to be nights like that."
Portland entered its last (real) possession with nearly five minutes worth of empty trips in their immediate rearview mirror. Aldridge, who had 12 points and 11 rebounds in the first quarter, was just 2-for-8 from the field in the second half. He couldn't buy a basket down the stretch, and he finished with a team-high 27 points (on 8-for-22 shooting) and 15 rebounds, with 11 of his points coming from the line. There were moments of futility for practically everyone. The Moda Center groaned after one errant Nicolas Batum jumper late; Damian Lillard couldn't hit from the baseline with just under two minutes to play, ramping up the building's anxiety.
The endgame plan, Stotts said, was to put the ball in Lillard's hands, even though he was scoreless up to that point during the fourth quarter. That plan was momentarily interrupted by a well-used foul to give by Toronto, forcing Portland to contemplate its options again. The plan didn't change.
With 17 seconds remaining, Lillard used a high screen from Robin Lopez to lose Lowry. He then worked his way around a showing Patterson to turn the corner, attacking the paint from the right wing. Chuck Hayes, who had done well defending Aldridge, slid over to cut off Lillard's path to the basket, leaving a runner over the top as the best available option.
"Basically, we ran the same play twice," Stotts explained. "They fouled the first time. [Lillard] made a good read, they jumped him, blitzed him both times. He made a good read on the second one, kept his dribble, was able to attack the big after he released. It was a good read on his part."
A little less than a month ago, Lillard had found himself in a similar position, but his late running lay-up had rimmed off during a home loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. This time, he kissed in his floater perfectly with 11 seconds left to give Portland a 104-103 lead.
"I came up off a down screen, we went right into a mid pick-and-roll," said Lillard, who finished with 21 points (on 8-for-15 shooting), 7 assists and 6 rebounds. "My first thought was to just try to turn the corner and attack as fast as I could so we could try to see if I could score, or if we would have to foul to get another possession. I was able to get a pretty good look and make the floater."
Such a shot often delivers a palpable relief to the home crowd, but this one did not have that effect. Perhaps the spirit of Monta Ellis has yet to be eradicated from the Moda Center, or perhaps DeRozan's scoring outburst and/or the Raptors' run had simply earned them a level of fearful respect.
Either way, Toronto set up its final possession in a tight environment, hoping to spring DeRozan for one final shot. His first try ended with a held ball jump ball, as Matthews came over from the weakside to tie him up in the paint. His second try, set up off a sideline inbounds play following a timeout, saw DeRozan receive a dribble hand-off at the top of the key as the game's closing seconds ticked off. The deja vu really started to pump as DeRozan approached the location of Ellis's game-winner, but Matthews did well to slide with him, denying an attacking angle. Realizing that he wasn't going to turn the corner, and staring at three Portland defenders, DeRozan hesitated, and all was lost.
"He's a strong right driver," said Matthews, who tallied 21 points (on 7-for-11 shooting) and 3 assists. "I didn't want to go at him first and potentially they call a hand check or body check. As soon as he came into my body, I wanted to make sure we would be attached the whole way. I was just sliding, I was able to tip the ball, and he lost it."
The ball bounced out of DeRozan's grasp before he could loft a potential game-winner, and Matthews' stonewalling of the play ensured that his earlier foul wouldn't be a headlining gaffe.
"It was over and done with, you can't do much about it," Matthews told Blazersedge, when asked what was going through his head as the final possessions unfolded after his foul. "My mentality was 'I owe us one.' I had to get [a stop]. I felt I owed it [to] get us one back."
That stand secured a win, even if it wasn't a victory of the order-restoring variety. Many of the same recent trouble spots were back again. An ineffective bench, called into extra action because of foul trouble to multiple Blazers, was single-handedly outscored by Patterson. Portland's offense hit some extended speed bumps, and often settled for less than ideal looks. The Blazers' defense looked far more effective and focused in the game's closing few minutes than it did while conceding 63 points in the second half.
Portland's recent losses led a number of players to admit they were feeling the first real "adversity" of the season this week, and two slow offensive performances drew a "keep trusting the system" message from Stotts on Tuesday. Losing might require a refocusing process, or a redoubling of efforts, but it can also be a reminder that victories shouldn't be taken for granted. The Blazers, as a whole, seemed to at least be re-inflated, even if they weren't overly thrilled, afterwards.
"It's good to get a win after losing a couple, it's a win we needed to get," Stotts said. "I don't want to have that last quarter take away from what I thought was a pretty good game for us."
Whether a "pretty good" effort translates into any real momentum as the Blazers embark on a four-game road trip is an open question.
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announce as 19,996 (a sellout). A fair number of open seats.
- Here are the video highlights via YouTube user PortlandTrailBlazers.
Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com reported earlier this week that Lillard is "considering participating" in the Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star Weekend. Asked post-game Saturday whether his participation is a possibility, Lillard said: "No comment. I don't know nothing about it." The Slam Dunk Contest field will be announced on Thursday so we'll find out then whether he's simply being coy.
- Lillard had the highlight of the night with a strong dunk down the middle during the second quarter. Video via YouTube user PortlandTrailBlazers.
- As you have probably heard, the NBA began using game balls that bear the signature of new commissioner Adam Silver on Saturday, coinciding with the official transfer of power to Silver from outgoing (outgone) commissioner David Stern. Here's a look at the new game ball, which should soon be on store shelves, if you're interested.
- I watched closely during the "Game Ball Delivery" -- a pre-game feature in which the ball is passed through the crowd from the upper reaches of the 300 level down to the court -- and the ball used in that feature indeed bore Silver's signature.
- Both LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard had their recent All-Star selections incorporated into their pre-game player introductions. The Moda Center JumboTron also had a "congrats" graphic that had images of both players flanking the 2014 All-Star Game logo.
- Lillard took a microphone to halfcourt to address the crowd before the game: "On behalf of myself and my teammates, we wanted to thank you for your continued support this season." He added: "Your energy... has made it a lot more fun for us as players [this season]. ... [Aldridge and I] can't wait to represent the state of Oregon in New Orleans."
- Blazers forward Dorell Wright, forced into his first non-garbage time action in nearly a month because of Portland's foul trouble, registered a six trillion. Yes, I prefer the "trillion" definition used by Sixers statistician Harvey Pollack, which doesn't take into account personal fouls (as noted by Justin Kubatko at The New York Times right here).
- Two great shots of Lillard's game winner: Opposite baseline by Jamie Rafe Francis of The Oregonian (here), and a look from directly behind him that was shared the Blazers (here).
Atlanta rapper Bloody Jay memorably discussed his Blazers-influenced "Black Portland" mixtape earlier this week. Danny Chau of Grantland.com interviewed Lillard about his musical preferences here. Lillard said that he hadn't listened to the mixtape yet (but he had heard about it) and said that Drake remains king in Portland's locker room.
Terry Stotts opened the game using Nicolas Batum on Kyle Lowry, who was arguably the league's biggest All-Star snub this year. We've heard Batum say many times that he enjoys the challenge of guarding point guards, and he's had a good degree of success in that role. Both Stotts and Batum said afterwards that the Blazers will go to that type of cross match-up early in games more often going forward. Previously, this had been a second half only type of thing.
Here's Lillard's response when asked about switching off of opposing point guards: "I'll do whatever works for the team. I like taking that challenge of being in the post, guarding bigger guards sometimes. It helps our team when you have [Batum], a 6-foot-9 guy with 7-foot-whatever wingspan and the ability to move like him, guarding the pick-and-roll and contesting their shots. Especially with how much pick-and-roll people run now. I understand it. If that's what's going to help our team, then I'm all for it."
Lillard added that using Batum on point guards is particularly helpful when teams want to put their point guards and top wing scorers into pick-and-roll situations together. When Batum is in those situations he can switch, and potentially switch back, with Wesley Matthews, whereas Lillard might find himself stuck in a mismatch: "A lot of teams run the pick-and-roll with the three and the one and we want to be able to switch that. So we'll have Wes and Nic guarding the three and the one so they can switch it. His length and his size and his ability to bother a guy my size really helps our team."
Both Matthews and Batum noted (without prompting) that the Wizards, Portland's first road trip opponent, defeated the Thunder on Saturday night. Matthews on the trip: "This road trip isn't going to be easy, by any means. Washington just knocked off OKC, that's always a tough place to play, they're talented. We go to New York, who has a scoring machine in [Carmelo Anthony], and it doesn't get any easier from there."
Lillard was glad to get a win before hitting the road: "It gives us momentum going into that. Now we don't have a three-game losing streak, going into this tough road trip thinking about these last three games."
Lillard on why the Blazers are hitting rough patches with their offense: "My best guess would be that we shot the ball so well all year, now it's kind of slowing down. We still have great confidence in this team shooting the ball."
Aldridge said he was simply "feeling fresh" in the first quarter. He thought both teams were dealing with the same issues when it came to the referees, but said that Portland "definitely could have finished it out better."
Aldridge on Matthews' defense: "He's big time. That's what he can do for us. He took it personal down the stretch. He fouled [DeRozan] on that one shot. I thought after that, he was locked in. He came through for us big time down the stretch and got those two big steals for us."
Matthews wondered whether Portland "laid off the gas" during the second half and said that his foul trouble got into his head a little bit: "The early foul trouble kind of set me back. Took away some of my physical play. I was kind of holding on to that. At that point, I just said forget it, if I foul out, I foul out. We stepped up."
Former Blazers forward/center Jared Jeffries (now a scout for the Nuggets) has a new television show entitled "Modern Fishing" on the Outdoor Channel. The show's website is here. Corbin Smith of Portland Roundball Society had an entertaining review of the show, which notes that Jeffries ate a live sardine on camera.
The show brings to mind Jeffries' memorable Media Day quotes from last year: "I don't mount animals. That's weird. I don't want my daughter walking around with dead animals on the wall. She'll be like, 'What's that?' I'll be like, 'I killed that with my bare hands.' ... My buffalo hunt [last summer] was awesome. South Dakota. It was awesome, dude. It was on an Indian reservation. We hung out on the reservation, met everybody, walked in, stalked it, it was cool. it was 583 pounds of meat. We might never eat it all."
Jason Quick of The Oregonian writes that Terry Stotts says that he doesn't want to "cater" to "pointed" questions from the media that might be addressing negative aspects of Portland's recent play.
Signs: "I see All-Stars," "Unanimously Proud," "Wes is the Best," "Trap the Raptors," "We could not be any prouder," "LaMarcus: 3-time All-Star, future MVP," "Lightning Lillard," "Rip City Uprise," "Rise With Us," "Robin Lopez Sends Raptors To Extinction," "Aldridge is our All-Star," "Yo, Mo, steal the show," "Rip the Raptors," and "Dame's got All-Star Game."
Coach Nick of BballBreakdown has a video interview with CJ McCollum in which he discusses the pick-and-roll.
In addition to Matthews' technical, Stotts also got a technical in the second quarter for arguing calls.
The Blazers set up a bunch of Super Bowl rivalry-themed in-game skits featuring a Broncos fan versus a Seahawks fan. You can guess which person drew cheers from the crowd.
Lillard picked the Seahawks to win the Super Bowl because of fellow Oakland native Marshawn Lynch: "I'm rolling with Beast Mode. Town business."
Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News got in a little dig at the expense of Raptors guard Terrence Ross in discussing the rule changes that have favored NBA offenses in recent years: "But it's also a league now where the night after Carmelo Anthony scores 62 points, someone named Terrence Ross of the Toronto Raptors goes for 51."
Someone named Terrence Ross of the Toronto Raptors finished with 8 points (on 3-for-12 shooting) against the Blazers. Mike Richman of OregonLive.com did a nice job catching up with someone named Terrence Ross of the Toronto Raptors and his fans at Jefferson High School, where he won a 5A state title.
Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas had 18 points and 4 rebounds before running into foul trouble. I wrote a longer piece about him from 2013 Summer League that talked about his next-level pump-faking and how opposing coaches are constantly yelling at their big men to "stay down." I heard that same command directed towards Robin Lopez during the first half, as Valanciunas went to his patented move. Love Valanciunas's game and potential.
No Chalupa/McMuffin updates. One of these months.
Toronto did a nice job breaking up what could have been a very cool play design to end the first half. The Blazers were trying to find Lillard flaring out to the right wing after looping around a sneaky back screen. The goal was to get a clean look at a three-pointer off of a bang-bang baseball pass. A less attentive team would have surrendered an open look, but the ball never got to Lillard and the half ended without incident.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
It's good to get a win after losing a couple. It's a win we needed to get. Toronto played very well to get back in the game and obviously take the lead. [DeMar] DeRozan got hot, we fouled him a couple of times, he still made the shot, he got it going. I don't want to have that last quarter take away from what I thought was a pretty good game for us.
Wesley Matthews defense
Those last two possessions, he really -- to get the jump ball, he stayed after it. The last possession, he kept his left arm up, I thought he did a nice job of staying in front of him without fouling. I think he was disappointed that DeRozan had gotten going. He stepped up when we needed him.
Damian Lillard's go-ahead shot
Basically we ran the same play twice. They fouled the first time. He made a good read, they jumped him, blitzed him both times. He made a good read on the second one, kept his dribble, was able to attack the big after he released. It was a good read on his part.
Putting Nicolas Batum on Kyle Lowry
We're going to do that more often to start the game. We've done that many times. Nic is very good at guarding point guards. Even though Lowry has a good line, I thought Nic did a good job on him. We won't be able to do it every game depending on match-ups. But you look back at the Denver game, him guarding Lawson, we've done that many times, we've just waited until the second half or the fourth quarter. When the match-ups allow us to do that, we're going to do it more often in the first half.
Did early fouls break up rhythm?
Toronto was kind of battling foul trouble too. RoLo getting his, Wes getting his, Mo getting his, all of them got in some kind of foul trouble at some point in the game. It obviously wasn't the regular rotation; having to take guys out and plugging guys in.
The one thing is -- when you don't get stops, it takes a little bit of the flow out of the game. We're better when we're able to mix in our halfcourt offense and just kind of flowing, but you have to get stops to do that. Toronto plays good defense. I'd have to look at the film to see, necessarily. There really wasn't too much that I was disappointed with, with the offense.
He almost single-handedly got them back into it. I know other guys made shots. He made tough shots. He made some jumpers where he got fouled. I think they were 6-for-12, he made his two threes in the second half. He was voted an All-Star for a reason. He's capable of getting hot and carrying a team.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter