Before this one started, Blazers play-by-play man Mike Barrett announced that Friday was "Back to survival mode for Portland." He was mainly talking about this game specifically, as the Blazers were without LaMarcus Aldridge, Mo Williams and Joel Freeland due to injuries. Yet after dropping four games in a row to Western Conference foes -- all of whom are gaining steam during the ever-interesting playoff race -- the night started with the feeling that Portland was not only in survival mode Friday, but was simply trying salvage something from this treacherous road trip.
Fittingly, with the Blazers down five with just six minutes left in the game, they found a way to survive through a difficult last night on the road en route to an eight-point victory.
This game featured just about every option possible for the Blazers to seal the deal. To start, Robin Lopez was obviously the focal point of the offense, getting a number of touches at the rim during the pick-and-roll. However, Lopez quickly picked up two fouls and left for the bench after just six minutes. If you're no stranger to Dave's recaps, you know that Lopez getting in foul trouble is the Cardinal sin of the Blazer defense (pun absolutely intended). Portland hopped out to an early nine-point lead that quickly evaporated once Lopez sat down. The Blazers led by three after one quarter.
There were a couple notable developments in the second quarter, namely the aggressiveness of Wesley Matthews. It was obvious that Matthews wanted to attack the smaller Pelicans' guards, and he did so with authority. Wes ended up with a couple And-1 opportunities as well as quite a few free throws in general. While ending the game with 20 points and shooting 6-13 (3-8 from distance), it was the aggressiveness of Matthews early on that really set the tone for the Blazers.
Additionally, Dorell Wright made his presence known by launching a few threes (and making a couple). Though a starter, Wright was clearly echoing the Mo Williams role: a guy that is enough of a threat from the outside to cause defenders to pay attention. Playing the stretch four, Wright made Anthony Davis commit to defending the outside shot, allowing for driving lanes for Matthews, Batum and others. However, with Lopez in foul trouble and Portland relying on a bench unit of Meyers Leonard, Earl Watson and Will Barton, Portland trailed by two at halftime.
If any of you are members of League Pass and somehow missed this game, you need to watch the third quarter. No, it isn't to see the Blazers play that beautiful rotation basketball again. Rather, it's to watch what the Blazers are going to have to deal with for the next decade: The ‘Brow himself, Anthony Davis. While his entire game was impressive, the third quarter was remarkable. Davis was annihilating the Blazers from both the mid-range and the post, making any defender that went out to guard him look silly. He ended up with 12 points in the quarter, ten of which were on jump shots. Knowing how his athleticism can already wreak havoc in the post, that type of spacing was lethal for him and his teammates.
The third quarter also presented two eye opening stats. First, the fact that I didn't open up my checkbook prior to the game was simultaneously humorous and depressing given the Vegas over/under combined point total in the game was 201. The teams were just trading baskets with entirely lackluster defense, causing an up-and-down game that was certainly entertaining, but not so impressive defensively.
The other stat that started to become apparent was the point off turnovers differential: by the end of the game, New Orleans scored 23 points off of 16 Blazer turnovers. The Blazers only scored four off of ten Pelican missteps. That's quite a gap. Through it all, Portland -- and by Portland I mean Damian Lillard -- was able to summon a 5-0 run in the final 1:30 of the quarter to keep the Blazers within one.
If the theme of this game was survival, the fourth quarter was entirely about it. In short, Portland couldn't buy a shot at the start of it. Open threes from Matthews, Batum, Lillard, etc. weren't going down. With six minutes to go, though, Portland found the extra gear. Batum, whom we tragically haven't talked about until now, really came alive in the final quarter, coming up with some dramatic rebounds and a silky-smooth tip in to cap a late 9-0 Blazer run. Though it was fairly quiet until an emphatic end, Batum ended up with an incredible stat line of 22 points, 18 rebounds (tied for his career high) and five assists. Without Aldridge, it was obvious Batum knew that he needed to snatch some of the available rebounds. More importantly, 15 of those rebounds were on the defensive end, a place that hasn't been a bright spot for Portland recently.
So much talk this year has been about how Portland can play a few good minutes a night and come away with a victory. While there were various bright spots across the game, the final six minutes showed how the Blazers are a 43-win team and New Orleans is a 26-win team: the Pelicans looked too young to win this game, while Portland oozed poise in the waning minutes. It all started with a single Lillard layup, and then it was off to the races. Dame scored 16 (!!) points in the last six minutes of the game, including two clutch threes and a couple hard drives to the bucket. These were the plays that Mr. Fourth Quarter seems to find a way to make, sealing the Blazer victory.
Normally this would be the point where we can break down some key stats from the game or maybe some more X's and O's. But it really didn't seem like tonight was about that. Instead, regardless of how they got it, Portland just wanted a win. You could see that relief in Damian Lillard's postgame interview. He knew that in a perfect world it shouldn't take a heroic effort to win a game against a team that has no shot to win in the playoffs and is dealing with major injury issues of their own. Occasionally, it's easier to overlook all of that.
Sometimes the NBA feels like a "survive and advance" type of league; Portland won't get more than one day off between games until April. They're tired, bruised and beat down. Tonight wasn't about making a statement to the league. It was about making the statement to themselves that, even though this is a rough patch and they aren't 100%, they can survive. Knowing that, it'll be an easier flight back home.
A win was a win, and the Blazers will take it.
Portland gets one night off before they meet Golden State at the Moda Center. As a reminder, Portland only gets three games at home before they embark on another five-game east coast road swing.
The Bird Writes can probably get over a tough loss knowing they have a young superstar on their hands.