The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves, 108-97, at the Moda Center on Sunday night, improving their record to 38-18.
You don't see too many sky-scraping, at-the-rim blocks begin with two guys playing footsie on the floor 90 feet away.
Telling the story of Thomas Robinson's transition demolition of Corey Brewer requires a quick rewinding of the tape. After trailing by as many as 18 points in the second quarter, the Blazers handily won the third quarter to take a four-point lead into the fourth. A Damian Lillard layup a few minutes into the period extended Portland's advantage to seven points, and it upped the desperation factor for a short-handed Minnesota team playing without starters Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin on the second night of a back-to-back.
That desperation coagulated into the type of polarizing play that has kept Brewer cashing paychecks for years. Timberwolves fans might see it as heady gamesmanship; Blazers fans might see it as cheap bull. As Lillard fell to the floor after hitting his basket, he found himself entangled with Brewer. As if personifying a horrible shoelace knot, Lillard couldn't free himself after one shake, and a second shake didn't produce any progress either. Brewer initially appeared stuck as well, although he seemed perhaps less inclined to free himself as his teammates proceeded with a four-on-four situation going the other way.
"After I laid the ball up, [Brewer] kind of fell on top of me," Lillard recalled. "Once I fell to the ground, I felt like he dropped on me on purpose. He fell on me on purpose. I was going to let it slide, then when he got up, he tightened both of his legs around my legs, so I couldn't move. I was going to let that slide too. When I got up, he kept doing it."
Enough was enough by that point, but Lillard faced a no-win scenario. The layup had given him a game-high 29 points but he also had four fouls. Reacting would cost him a fifth foul and send him to the bench; not reacting could be seen as backing down, an approach that could potentially open up a slippery slope for further shenanigans down the stretch. Brewer was goading him, Lillard seemed fully aware that he was being goaded, but sometimes pride kicks in.
"It got to the point where I was like, 'Come on, man, get off me'," Lillard continued. "I'm not going to let nobody just play with me like that. He had to get off me."
Lillard shoved Brewer and the two players predictably drew double fouls, sending Lillard immediately out of the game. Brewer proceeded to take up position in the right corner on Minnesota's next possession, chirping with the Blazers' bench for an extended sequence. Lillard's refusal to be punked forced him to watch from the sidelines for the next four minutes, but it also clearly put Brewer's head on the chopping block. Exception had been taken -- by Lillard, by his teammates and by the home crowd -- and Brewer was now the bleeping dot on the center of the building's collective radar.
Less than a minute later, Brewer found himself with the ball in the open court, even with Robinson, the last defender hustling back in transition. In theory, he had choices: he could pull the ball up, he could attack the hoop in search of a pump-fake basket or a foul, he could try to draw defenders and dump it back to a trailer, he could finesse up a twisting layup, or he could go for broke. Having just been involved in the game of testosterone tug-of-war, though, Brewer only had one choice in reality: go for broke. What other choice was there following his tangle with Lillard and the subsequent yapping? It was time to put up.
Brewer picked up his dribble just inside the free-throw line on the left wing in preparation for a right-handed slam; Robinson raced back, angling so that he could make a play on the ball without sending the skinny Brewer flying with in-air contact to the body. To the naked eye in real time, Brewer's dunk attempt looked dead on arrival, as Robinson had simply timed things perfectly and achieved superior lift. In slow motion, and with the benefit of multiple angles, Brewer's dunk attempt was deader than a doornail, and the detectives from "Grimm" came out during the next stoppage in play to affix yellow crime scene tape around the key.
"I seen [Brewer] on the break, sized him up, and went to go get it," Robinson said. "It was a rush. I don't know how to explain it. Adrenaline shot through me. I was hype. I probably said a bunch of stuff I don't remember."
Perhaps, then, this should be remembered as Robinson's blackout block.
Just as Brewer approached the front of the rim, Robinson spiked the attempt cleanly back from whence it came, the ball bouncing harmlessly to the court near the free-throw line as Robinson screamed and Portland's bench erupted. Lillard appeared to flex, Robin Lopez bounced up and down so hard that his wig almost fell off, and the crowd immediately jumped to its feet.
"So you want to punk Lillard?" the block seemed to be saying to Brewer. "Punk this."
The play was only half done, though, as Victor Claver retrieved the ricochet and passed forward to Wesley Matthews, who pushed the ball back against a stunned Timberwolves defense. Sucking in the final defender, Matthews tossed a high lob to Will Barton, who was cruising down the left wing all by himself. Barton left no mistake with a two-handed catch, a one-handed finish, and a one-footed court stomp for emphasis.
"That's just a big momentum swing," Barton said. "They had numbers, Brewer went up, he gets up pretty high. T-Rob met him at the rim, blocked it. I looked up, took off and Wes found me."
That basket led immediately to a technical foul on Robinson, who clearly didn't know how to process what had just happened in anything approaching a civil or orderly manner.
"I went crazier after that," Robinson said of Barton's dunk. "I was already snapping. After that, it just made the play ever better."
Minnesota's late-game struggles have been well-chronicled: They are just 5-17 (.227) in games that were within three points either way in the final three minutes, and they fell apart in the final period against the Blazers in Portland back in January. A Timberwolves team that folds under the force of a birthday candle blow-out stood no chance against Robinson's hurricane block and Barton's tornado slam.
"It was big time," Lillard said of Robinson's block. "That lit something up under us. A little bit of tension out there, some attitude, some frustration. [Brewer] goes and tries to dunk on T-Rob and T-Rob sent it back the other way. It went straight into a lob. It was another energy play, him hustling back to get that block."
The sequence put away the game and capped Robinson's best performance with the Blazers: He finished with 14 points (on 6-for-13 shooting), a career-high 18 rebounds, two assists and two blocks.
Kevin Love got going early as LaMarcus Aldridge remained out with a groin injury, forcing Blazers coach Terry Stotts to scrap the smaller Dorell Wright in favor of Robinson and Victor Claver, who scored five points (his first points of the year) while logging a season-high 24 minutes. Robinson, in particular, seemed to relish the match-up with an All-Star, peskily pressuring Love near mid-court, forcing him into a traveling call along the baseline, getting his hands on multiple deflections, and battling for boards possession after possession.
"We were joking when we got back in the locker room, calling him Thomas Aldridge," said Lillard, after finishing with a game-high 32 points (on 11-for-17 shooting) and five assists. "He got a lot of rebounds that were outside of his box, he got a lot of them. Had tough finishes, ran the floor, protected the paint, big-time plays that we needed. It came at the perfect time."
This was a hyperactive performance from Robinson in the best sense, and a lottery pick who has consistently struggled to make a mark over the course of his two-year career finished with a game-high +19 in a career-high 33 minutes.
"It looked like he was back at Kansas," said Wesley Matthews, who finished with 17 points (on 4-for-14 shooting) and two assists.
Indeed, at one point Robinson was tugging his shorts up his thighs as he approached a defensive assignment on the perimeter. Had the game gone into overtime, he surely would have been smacking the hardwood with both palms while applying full-court pressure. Afterwards, Robinson called this "one of [the] best performances" of his career, even though he was the first to admit that Love, who finished with a team-high 31 points (on 11-for-21 shooting) and 10 rebounds, was only slowed and not stopped by his effort and energy.
"You can't let up when you've got someone like Kevin Love," Robinson said. "Even a couple of plays when he did score on me, I gave him an inch and he scored off of it. I knew I had to be in tune, stay down and ready, you never know what he's got in his bag. ... Coach told me to stay solid with [Love]. I can't cheat or gamble with him, because anything you slip up on, he scores off. I was being really solid, being physical with him, letting him know I was there. He still went for 30-plus. I tried my best though."
While this wasn't total domination from Robinson, it was timely domination. Portland's defense was insanely porous early and Robinson stepped in to help break up Minnesota's rhythm. Portland had to contend with one of the league's elite rebounders in Love, and Robinson had nearly doubled Love's output on the boards by the end of the night. Portland needed to hold Minnesota at bay while Lillard sat with foul trouble, and Robinson instead lowered the boom. Perhaps most importantly, Portland needed to show that it could handle tense moments in Aldridge's absence, and Robinson ... well... Robinson rampaged.
When you watch SportsCenter's No. 1 highlight of the night back another 100 or 200 times, just remember that the play actually began with Lillard in a leg lock, and not when Brewer unwisely decided to lift off. Starting the tape too late makes Robinson's block look like an outstanding individual effort; in the fuller context, it was the ultimate "I've got your back" team play. Letting the tape run a little longer afterwards only furthers that point: Robinson got the technical for screaming, but he had a bench full of guys shrieking right along with him.
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced at 19.458 (not a sellout). Fair.
- Here are the game highlights via YouTube user NBAshowtimeHD8.
- Here's audio of Brian Wheeler's call of Thomas Robinson's block. He was excited, as you can probably imagine.
- Here's a good look at the moment of impact on the block via Jamie Francis of The Oregonian. A full gallery of images from the play can be found here.
- Old buddy @CJZero has a GIF of one of Robin Lopez's excited bench reactions.
- Blazers coach Terry Stotts was also amped up by one defensive sequence that saw both Wesley Matthews and Damian Lillard go sliding head first after a loose ball. The two Blazers guards definitely took home the gold medal in synchronized belly-flopping. Here's a GIF of that play, again via @CJZero.
- Stotts' reaction to the play: "It's been a long time since I've seen two guys dive on a ball in the backcourt. That really impressed me. There were a lot of impressive energy plays. I thought Wes diving, then Dame diving, kind of typified what we did in the second half."
- Lillard on that play: "[[Matthews] almost had the strip, he dove for the ball, I was already running towards the play so I felt like I had a chance to track it down and tip it back into play. I wasn't able to get to it."
- Robinson on his career-high rebounding night: "Just me going after the boards, continuous effort, attacking the glass. We're small with the bigs and short with a couple of bigs [out] so I've got to help Robin out. That's all that was."
- I asked Robinson if there is a trick to finding a way to tap into this type of energy level and impact play on a night-to-night basis: "I don't think it's a trick. [Just] forgetting this game happened. It's over. I have to move on to the next game no matter what the role is."
- Asked whether the coaches get on him about his inconsistency, Robinson replied: "Not at all. I don't play 30 minutes every night so you have to put that into a factor."
- Told of the "Thomas Aldridge" talk, Robinson said: "Let's not get too wild."
- Robinson let us in on what sounded like a talking point from the coaching staff. When asked about how Portland was making due without LaMarcus Aldridge, he said that the Blazers are comparing themselves to the Spurs, Bulls and Clippers, among other teams who have been forced to deal with injuries to key players this season. "They all had a player missing and they all had a winning record when their player was gone," Robinson said. "If we want to be up in that category, we have to be able to do everything in every scenario."
- Robin Lopez on Robinson: "His energy was huge. That's just fun basketball to watch. I was on the sideline the whole fourth [quarter] and I couldn't have been happier. I was having a great time watching that."
- Will Barton on Portland's reserves making the most of their opportunity for playing time this week: "We all work hard in practice but there's nothing like game simulation. You need that game time experience to help you down the road. We're a team that's trying to make a playoff push, we're going to need our bench [when we are] getting into the playoffs to win some games."
- You aren't going to win many games with Shabazz Muhammad and Robbie Hummel playing crunch time minutes.
- Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman on his team's second-half collapse: "I thought we got tired in the third quarter. Playing a back-to-back and [an] early game today, it's just one of those things you have to live with in this league."
- Finally, someone scouted Portland's sideline inbounds lob play. The Blazers looked for Wesley Matthews and came up empty.
- The halftime show featured a dance-off between a bunch of mascots and the BlazerDancers and concluded with the Spurs' mascot taking off of his "clothes" (not his actual mascot suit) and running after the BlazerDancers, who scurried in "fear." As ridiculous as that sounds, it was surprisingly popular. Who knew disrobing mascots would draw such a popular response?
- Signs: "Sink the Love boat," "Ridgefield loves the Blazers," "Beyond Ordinary" (with a silhouette of Nicolas Batum's long arms), "Rock 'em Robin," "The Great French Eagle," "The people behind me can't see," "I wanna be like Batum," "Leonard, you rolled your ankle falling for us" (two young women hel this sign), "Ironman 2: Heart and Hustle," "No love for the T-Wolves," "My O My," "Can't blow down this house" (with a Wolf picture), "0 is our hero," and "Minnesota: land of 10,000 bricks."
- One young lady had the sign of the night: "Dame is my Bae." Here's your UrbanDictionary.com definition if you need to step your slang game up.
- Will Barton's totally unnecessary no-look pass to Victor Claver for a dunk was fun.
- Another underrated hustle play from the fourth quarter: Claver staying with the play after Matthews threw a botched alley-oop pass, digging out the ball and setting up Matthews for a second-chance three-pointer on the kick out. Claver had some rough moments throughout but that was nice.
- Lost in the bench craziness and Lillard's big scoring night was a solid overall bounce-back game from Nicolas Batum (22 points on 9-for-15 shooting), 10 rebounds and four assists). Erik Gundersen of The Columbian had a few good quotes from Batum.
- Jason Quick of The Oregonian writes that Wesley Matthews recently lost his father figure.
- Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com reports that Damian Lillard will opt out of his contract with Adidas next summer and that Nike is among the companies that might compete for his services.
- Congrats to Henry Abbott, who has been promoted to deputy editor of ESPN.com's NBA coverage. Started from the bloggin' now he's here.
- Dane Carbaugh did a great job following up on the Blazers' defensive struggles against the San Antonio Spurs last week. This video brings to life their post-game self-criticisms.
- Minnesota beat Portland by two on the glass but the Blazers are still collectively out-rebounding their opponents during LaMarcus Aldridge's absence. They caught three breaks in a row with no Tim Duncan, Derrick Favors or Nikola Pekovic, but still.
- Nets center Jason Collins became the first openly gay NBA player to take the court when he played 11 minutes against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday. Collins and the Nets will be in Portland on Wednesday. Remember, the Blazers became the first NBA team to come out in favor of same-sex marriage back in October.
- Nothing new on Chalupas/McMuffins.
- There was never a question that Joe Swide's game recap at Portland Roundball Society would be written in all capital letters: "THOMAS ROBINSON TONIGHT WAS SO AWESOME AND EXCITING IT WAS LIKE EATING SPICY CHEETOS WHILE LISTENING TO ALL OF THOSE EARLY MILLENIUM ROC-A-FELLA BANGERS WITH LOTS OF BEANIE SIGEL EVERYWHERE..."
- "I sit alone in my four-cornered room staring at hammers, ready to go bananas!"
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
The second half was really exciting. I loved the energy that we played with. Defensively, it was a very good defensive second half. Obviously the play of Thomas Robinson made a difference for us. Our attitude, demeanor after halftime is what made the difference.
This game make you more comfortable mixing and matching lineups?
No. That's the short answer. No, it was another night where we weren't undersized, the match-ups actually worked out really well for us. We were able to compete. We got off to a poor start with our communication and our mindset was not what it needed to be in the first half. We turned that around. Nothing is set in stone as far as things are going. The guys who were out there did what we needed them to do.
A little bit of everything. His toughness with Kevin Love. I thought it started in the first half, we were down whatever we were down with two or three minutes left in the first half, we made a nice run. I thought his physicalness in the paint was important for us. It's easy to look at the stats -- he was getting rebounds in a crowd, but I thought the way we finished the first half really set the table for the second half, and Thomas had a lot to do with that.
Finding consistency from Thomas Robinson
Look, everybody is human. Everybody has good days and bad days. It's not about bottling it up. That's how we need him to play and he knows that.
I thought he had a good all-around game. I thought he was aggressive going to the basket, glad he made some threes. He's worked hard the last few days, getting threes up and shooting them with confidence. He did a little bit of everything. It was good to see him shoot the ball well.
Will Barton and Victor Claver
They were playing small, we were playing small. I thought Victor and Thomas complemented each other well. Victor is a smart player and sees the game well on both ends of the court. His size helped us. Will -- he gives us energy. He loves being out there and you can feel his energy when he's on the court.
Wesley Matthews and Damian Lillard double belly-flop
It's been a long time since I've seen two guys dive on a ball in the backcourt. That really impressed me. There were a lot of impressive energy plays. I thought Wes diving, then Dame diving, kind of typified what we did in the second half.
Well, in the first half, about our communication and our mindset or attitude, whatever you want to call it. Build on how we finished the half defensively.
Damian Lillard stepping up offensively
He scores 32 points on 17 shots -- they are going to be games where he might take 25 shots, and games where he might take 17. I liked how efficient he was, looked like he was in a really good rhythm with his perimeter shot. He knows it's important, he'll get his shots, he had a good overall floor game. Fighting foul trouble, it's easy to be taken out of your rhythm and I don't think he ever lost his rhythm.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter