The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Utah Jazz, 102-94, at the Moda Center on Friday, improving their record to 37-18.
Remember that whole "bracing for the worst" without LaMarcus Aldridge concept I mentioned on Wednesday night? Hopefully you were dutifully watching this game from the fetal position underneath the couch in your bomb shelter within your protective bubble geodome because this one was really brutal for a solid three quarters.
If the basketball was mostly grotesque at least it was rough in the "I just spilled tomato sauce on my white shirt, oh well, it's over with, there's nothing I can do now" manner rather than the "this stand-up comic is dying and his set doesn't end for another 15 minutes" prolonged type of way. The officials seemed content to blow the absolute bare minimum number of whistles, especially in the early going, and that seemed just fine to everyone in attendance. No one would blame you if you spent halftime trying to decide how many of the players who saw game action will still be in the NBA in three years.
Those fans who stayed awake managed to see a really, really bad airball (Richard Jefferson), an accidentally banked-in three-pointer (Trey Burke) and a three-pointer that hit only the backboard and no rim (Wesley Matthews). From this desolate hoops wasteland rose a slumber-snapping 360 dunk from Will Barton, who was called into service for the first time in three-plus weeks because Nicolas Batum was feeling ill.
Who is Barton as a player? Who is he as a person? "He once electrified the crowd with a 360 dunk just seven minutes into his first shift in nearly a month" does a pretty decent job of summing it up.
"It just happened," Barton explained. "I wasn't thinking, 'Once I get in the game, I'll try a 360 dunk.' I just caught the ball, saw no one was around and figured I'd do something creative."
Most NBA players wouldn't have the nerve (let alone the leaping ability) to attempt such an audacious bit of high-flying in a close game without seriously considering the consequences if it backfired. Barton, though, is nothing if not fearless and unconcerned with failure.
"I probably would have came out," Barton said, when asked what would have happened if he had missed the dunk. "I don't think like that. My confidence is too high. I don't think like that."
Blazers coach Terry Stotts, for the record, had no problem with the added degree-of-difficulty from a deep reserve during a one-point game.
"I loved it," Stotts said of the dunk, after praising Barton's energy.
Compared to many teams around the league, the Blazers have been a fairly dunk-deficient squad over the last few years. Barton's slam ranks right up there among the best in recent memory, and his almost casual approach as he executed it made it all the more memorable. Afterwards, he refused to give the slam a nickname, saying there was no point because it was a simple 360.
"I've got so many dunks I do," he told Blazersedge. "That's one of the bottoms."
Hopefully one day we get to see the tops. Asked if perhaps he will follow in Damian Lillard's Slam Dunk Contest footsteps, Barton smiled: "If that's what the people want. Put me on there. I'll go do it."
On this night, The people in the Moda Center simply wanted a win, particularly in light of Portland's three-game losing streak and then even more particularly after the Jazz built a nine-point lead in the third quarter. There were moments of deflated panic in that period for the home crowd, as the Blazers struggled to defend once Robin Lopez picked up his third and fourth fouls in quick succession. Utah isn't exactly an offensive juggernaut -- ranked No. 23 in the league in offensive efficiency -- but they scored 23 points in the 6:48 between when Lopez was forced to the sidelines and the end of the period.
Choose your own personal mental wounds -- last year's Summer League, April 2013, April 2012, or go back even further if you like -- and they were ripped open during that stretch.
The bleak ball vanished in the fourth quarter, thankfully, as Stotts turned quickly to a starter-heavy lineup that quickly applied a 10-0 run as a band-aid. Lopez played the entire fourth quarter, finishing with 12 points (on 5-for-8 shooting) and a career-high 18 rebounds, and the Blazers conceded just 21 points in the final period.
"Robin Lopez was terrific all night," Stotts said, singling his center out for praise without being prompted. "Foul trouble probably helped us, in that he was able to play fresh in the fourth quarter."
The seven-footer finished the game with a flourish, dunking in transition as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
"I think I was running on fumes, that was the adrenaline," he said. "I felt [Enes] Kanter chasing me down, I knew the only way I would get away from him was to get way up in the air."
Portland won the fourth quarter going away, forcing five Utah turnovers and getting to the foul line 13 times in the period. After scoring 13 fourth-quarter points against the Spurs, Lillard scored 14 of his game-high 28 points (on 11-for-28 shooting) in the final period. For the second game in a row, Lillard attacked the paint with regularity, going to the pull-ups and layups without his pick-and-pop partner to lean on.
"We're playing a small lineup so there's a lot of floor out there," he told Blazersedge. "When there's that much space, I feel like I can get into the paint and make plays. That's been the case the last two games. Without [Aldridge] being there, of course I'll step up. I'm going to take it upon myself, as the other All-Star on the team to step up when the team needs it. ... I definitely feel like there's times when I need to assert myself a little bit more with the absence of L.A."
Lillard's finishing around the hoop left something to be desired -- as it often does -- but his aggressive mentality was needed, not only because the game was dragging but also because Portland's outside shots weren't falling and because an ill Batum was a non-factor offensively. Someone needed to scramble Utah's defense and create opportunities, and Lillard's ability to do that without turning over the ball helped key a 38-point fourth quarter that essentially came out of nowhere.
"He did a nice job mixing up his mid-range floaters and getting to the basket," Stotts said. "The whole idea of playing a shooting or spacing lineup allows more room to operate for a ball screen. He was able to take advantage of that."
Portland caught a break when Derrick Favors, Utah's starting power forward, sat with a hip injury, leaving the Jazz unable to pound the Blazers' smaller lineups inside. Facing a sub-.500 Jazz that has only seven road wins this season is technically a break in and of itself, and it was a welcome one as Portland continues to count the minutes and seconds until Aldridge's return.
Stotts went so far as to say the Blazers "desperately needed" this victory, and the unspectacular win will go in the books as a prototypical "slumpbuster" -- for lack of a better or less crude descriptor.
"When you're going through a rough stretch it's hard to get back on track sometimes," Lillard told Blazersedge. "This win is that win that will get us back on track. I wouldn't say [it will be] smooth sailing but we got that win and it's time to get it going back north now."
Random Game Notes
- This game was announced as a sellout (19,998). Lots of no-shows. Didn't president Chris McGowan just tell the media that he wouldn't call a game a sellout if it didn't also look like a sellout?
- Here are the game highlights via YouTube user portlandtrailblazers.
- Blazers coach Terry Stotts' 1970s era plaid jacket was the talk of the building as I'm sure it was on the television broadcast as well. Very cool way for him to pay homage to former Blazers coach Jack Ramsay, the man who coached the 1977 title team, on his 89th birthday. Stotts said that his wife helped him buy the jacket on "Amazon or eBay" and that he had been thinking of a way to honor Ramsay for some time.
- Blazers PR man Jim Taylor welcomed Stotts to the post-game press conference room by playing "Stayin' Alive" on his cell phone.
- Robin Lopez on Stotts' jacket: "I'm not much of a fashionista but I think he was able to pull it off."
- Damian Lillard on Stotts' jacket: "Our whole team respected it. We understood it. He was showing respect to a past Trail Blazers coach, the only coach who has won a championship. It was kind of fun with that relaxed look. To see him do something like that, I think it was cool."
- If you somehow missed it, Casey Holdahl of Blazers.com had a nice shot of the jacket on Instagram.
- Let's not forget that Stotts also dressed up in old school attire during his days coaching the Atlanta Hawks, earning the nickname "Slick."
- Three boisterous Jazz fans wearing old-school John Stockton jerseys and short shorts made their collective presence felt throughout the game, going down by Utah's bench to cheer the players during introductions and then dancing throughout many of the timeouts. Photo here.
- The Stockton guys had the best signs of the night. One read: "This is the best Jazz team ever" with an asterisk next to "ever" and accompanying fine print that listed every single year since 1979, when the franchise relocated to Utah. Another sign read: "The dream of the 1790s is alive in Utah."
- Other signs: "91 and I still love the Blazers," "94 1/2 and I still love the Blazers," "Lightning Lillard," "No time for Jazz, we're taking care of business," "Bust a Bucket for my birthday," "Lillard and McCollum equals lottery magic," "Nobody likes Jazz," "Rolo" (on a Rolo candy bar), "Play out the Jazz," "Jazz sing the blues in P town," and "Rip CIty Downtown" (with silhouettes of various Portland buildings).
- I asked Lillard whether Barton's 360 was Slam Dunk Contest material. His illuminating response, which referenced his own recent Dunk Contest participation: " I did a 360 windmill and I didn't get no credit for that so I ain't sure he would have got a great score off doing a 360. But it was a great game dunk for sure."
- The "Rip City Slammers" -- the trampoline dunking squad -- is usually pretty forgettable but it's clear they spent some time over the All-Star break perfecting new moves. Their grand finale involved one of the slammers launching off the trampoline, kicking the ball up to himself and then throwing it home cleanly. Not bad, not bad. He was super excited about it too and eventually did a back flip to celebrate. These are the things you notice during FanFest quality regular season games.
- Another captivating sequence occurred when Dorell Wright blocked a shot and chased the ball into the courtside seats, where he plowed over a woman who was holding her drink, spilling it everywhere. Wright apologized, the woman could be seen mouthing "It's OK" and then Damian Lillard stole the show by using his jersey to wipe off the woman's face. Finally, Wesley Matthews came over to fix her hair. She looked thrilled, as anyone would be. Later in the game, Wright hit a three-pointer in the left corner and pointed to the same group of fans afterwards. Nice work all around.
- Portland's small lineup (Wright in for Aldridge) again held a lead when it came time for the first subs.
- Lillard's go-ahead three-pointer in the fourth quarter -- the one he knocked down after looking off a Lopez screen and taking an extra moment to size up Jeremy Evans -- was oozing with All-Star vibes.
- Lillard finished a pretty two-handed dunk off of the lob play that is still fooling teams in late February.
- Lopez on the team's rebounding effort (Portland finished +5 on the glass): "The aggressiveness on defense, the gang rebounding, that's something we were doing earlier in the season, it was something we needed to get back into. ... My teammates did a good job of helping me, we were a little thin inside. Defensively, most of the game, we were focused on packing the paint and gang rebounding."
- Lopez on his foul trouble being a blessing in disguise: "I definitely felt a little better in the fourth. I'm not going to lie."
- Lopez was asked for his assessment of Jazz center Enes Kanter, who put up 25 points (on 12-for-20 shooting), 10 rebounds and four assists. Lopez replied: "Eddie Cantor? I'm a huge fan of Eddie Cantor. I'm a huge fan of him." He then went on to praise Enes, too.
- Here's your bio of Eddie Cantor, early-20th century performer, comedian and singer. Lopez's range of references never fails to impress.
- Will Barton was glad to hear that Stotts approved of his dunk. "If he liked it, I loved it," Barton said, similing.
- John Canzano of The Oregonian noted in a recent column that the Blazers felt "tight" and wrote that Terry Stotts "sounds fed up with some of the questions he's been asked lately, even ones asked by the team's own website reporter."
- Stotts -- who did come across stressed out on Wednesday -- looked to make a point when he took a question from said writer on Friday, beginning his response with: "I want to make sure I answer your question with all due respect. I'll give you a follow-up if you want."
- Nothing new on the Chalupa/McMuffin front. The Blazers cracked 100 in the game's closing seconds and it was pretty much a non-event.
- It wasn't long after this game ended before the media room was already speculating on what kind of video game numbers Kevin Love might be able to put up on Sunday.
- If you're interested, here's a link to my trade deadline winners and losers column.
- Pretty cool that former Blazers guard Brandon Roy is going into the Pac-12 Basketball Hall of Fame in recognition of his standout career at the University of Washington.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
It was a win that we desperately needed. We found a way, it was another game that we won shooting under 44 percent. I think we need to take a lot of pride in that, we got back into the game with our defense. Robin Lopez was terrific all night. Foul trouble probably helped us, in that he was able to play fresh in the fourth quarter. I thought our bench -- everybody kind of contributed, Will [Barton], Allen [Crabbe], Thomas [Robinson], Victor [Claver]. Nic [Batum] was under the weather so we had a lot of guys step up. We found a way to get a win.
We didn't miss any. I don't know, we were aggressive. Those things happen. Kind of the ebb and flow of a game.
Fourth quarter defense
We definitely got back into it with the defense. We were down nine. Nic got aggressive, Will was aggressive. Mo got into the ball. It changed the complexion of the game.
Damian Lillard -- assertive offense late
The way they were playing the pick-and-roll, they were playing off a little bit, I thought he did a nice job mixing up his mid-range floaters and getting to the basket. The whole idea of playing a shooting or spacing lineup allows more room to operate for a ball screen. He was able to take advantage of that.
Robin was huge. He took a lot of responsibility. He had a tough match-up with [Enes] Kanter and at the same time, rebound the ball, protect the paint, doing everything he needed to do. He doesn't stop playing. He got his third foul, he doesn't stop playing, unfortunately he picked up his fourth but he only knows one way to play. I think our guys feed off his energy.
I liked his energy. Will loves to ball. He comes out and makes plays, he maybe made a defensive mistake here or there but he played within the framework of the team, took advantage of the opportunities. When you can feel a guy's presence on the court, that's a good sign, you could definitely feel his presence.
Where did you get your jacket?
My wife got it -- either Amazon or eBay. I wanted to do a tribute sometime to Coach [Jack] Ramsay. I didn't know when it would be.
Will Barton's 360 dunk
I loved it.
I want to make sure I answer your question with all due respect. I'll give you a follow-up if you want. The energy -- we need to play with that type of energy. L.A. out of the game. Everybody who gets in there, Will, Victor and Thomas, I thought all of them gave energy. That's the style especially now that we need to have.
Nicolas Batum coming back after being sick
Just having his length on the court was important. You never know how a guy is going to come back, being under the weather, hadn't played, hadn't warmed up. Then he comes and hits a three. Like I said earlier, his defense on [Jeremy] Evans -- even though Evans isn't necessarily an offensive player, he was pressuring him, he didn't back down, he got an offensive foul, I thought he came back in with a very good mindset.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter