The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Washington Wizards, 116-103, at the Moda Center on Thursday, improving their record to 45-24.
There's quite a bit of overlap between the lexicon that surrounds team defense in the NBA and the jewelry store advertisement scripts that find their way onto radio stations and television channels before the major "It's time to prove you actually love her" holidays. Non-stop: "chains" and "links" and "connected" and "together" and "heart." Portland's victory on Thursday was a clean example of how a break in a team's defensive chain doesn't necessarily occur at the point of contact, as the fracture can manifest clear on the other side of the bracelet.
Washington's best player is, undoubtedly, John Wall, a phenom point guard who has begun to live up to every bit of the hype afforded him as a high schooler. After their All-Star point guard, the Wizards' most indispensable player, according to the on/off numbers, has been center Marcin Gortat. Washington has posted a net rating of +4.0 when he's on the court and -8.1 when he's off the court this season, the widest swing on the team, save for Wall.
Gortat's importance to the Wizards has only increased in the wake of a knee-knee injury to Nene, a burly power forward that teamed with Gortat to provide a nice one-two interior defensive combination. To put it kindly, their other low-post options are lacking. To put it unkindly, coach Randy Wittman has had to unpack Drew Gooden from a two-year visit to a cryogenics laboratory.
Wittman asked Gooden and 24-year-old Kevin Seraphin to step in for Gortat, who was a late scratch due to a back injury on Thursday. Although Gortat isn't an All-Star, he's solid. He's taller, longer, more imposing and he's played far more minutes than either one of his replacements. He's more trusted by the rest of the Wizards, more respected by opponents and more familiar to referees. Removing him from the game weakens the defensive chain considerably.
This turned out not to be Robin Lopez's night, so Portland's attacking of the Gortat-less Wizards didn't end up being a "let's get straight to the lunch meat" approach. Instead, it involved continually pushing on the replacement interior pieces to create breaks in the chain virtually everywhere else on the court. It took awhile for the Blazers to gear up, but once that happened pieces of the Wizards' defensive chain were popping off like champagne corks in all directions and in quick succession.
Key to Portland's offensive execution was Damian Lillard, who shook off nightmare against the Milwaukee Bucks (20 points, 7-for-21 shooting, four assists, and five turnovers) on Tuesday to post 23 points (on 8-for-18 shooting), 10 assists and one turnover against Wall and the Wizards.
"[Wall] being one of the elite guards in the league, of course I have to raise my game against him," Lillard told Blazersedge. "I did what my team needed from me. I needed to turn the ball over less and assist more."
It was Lillard who put Washington's defense in positions to scramble by coming hard off of screen-and-rolls. It was Lillard who zipped passes to Nicolas Batum under the hoop, to Wesley Matthews wide open on the weakside, and to a rolling Robin Lopez, plays that forced the Wizards to pay extra attention to guarding the basket area. By late in the second quarter, Lillard's movements were attracting enough eyeballs and sagging help defenders that it was "bombs away" time. Dorell Wright feasted from the right corner on a nice ball reversal. Matthews cleared to the wing to set up an open jumper as his defender turned to take a peek at a Lillard drive.
The chain was pop, pop, popping and the three-pointers were raining, but Lillard understood that it was the initial action -- the drive part of the drive-and-kick -- which catalyzed the resulting perimeter success.
"The last two or three games, I was coming off and looking for the pocket pass to [Lopez] or looking for the skip pass before I even made the defense come to me," Lillard told Blazersedge. "I have to be aggressive to make them respect my drives, respect my pull-ups. I did that tonight. Once I did that, the plays were opening up. That's something I've got to stick to. Be aggressive, make teams adjust to what I'm doing, and then make those plays."
Of course it wasn't just Lillard. His 10 assists marked the most he's registered since February 7. But as a team, Portland dished out 32 assists, their highest total since January 2. The success of Portland's attack, when operating at peak efficiency, involves multiple drivers, smart kick-outs, well-timed skip passes, extra unselfish reads, and pure shooting. The Blazers had all of those things in this one, shooting 50.6 percent from the field, knocking down 14 three-pointers on the night and topping 30 points in each of the final three quarters.
"Assists and passing, that's more than just one person," Matthews told Blazersedge, after posting a game-high 28 points (on 8-for-16 shooting) and five assists. "It's a two-way street, just like communication. If Dame is supposed to pass [Nicolas Batum] the ball, Nic's got to get open and Dame's got to make a good pass. The screener has to set for Nic, Nic has to set the screen up. It's more complicated than just trying to pass the ball here. [The passing had us] playing with energy and a sense of purpose from four minutes left in the second quarter on to the end of the game."
Another key to the chain-breaking was Wright, who finished with 15 points (on 6-for-11 shooting and 3-for-6 three-point shooting) and seven rebounds one game after an 0-for-8 stinker against the Bucks.
"It couldn't get no worse," Wright said of his shooting on Tuesday. "All I had to do was go out there and play. Being 0-for-8, I don't think I've been that [bad] for a long time."
In fact, the 0-for-8 shooting night was the most misses without a make ever registered during Wright's 10-year career. Gortat's absence was a blessing for him, too, as it forced Washington into smaller-ball lineups, freeing Wright to play his game and take advantage of his comfort level in such an orientation. Throughout the final 30 minutes or so of this contest, Portland's spacing around the arc was something to behold. Rarely were two players bunched together, rarely was the ball being passed around the line without a next step in mind. Wright was a major beneficiary throughout, but particularly in the third quarter, when he had eight points.
"I'm in a great position because a lot of four men don't know how to play me as a three-point shooter," Wright told Blazersedge, before gesturing with his hands as he described the pick-your-poison proposition facing the defense. "Their instinct is to protect the paint and close out. They're going this way and then they have to come back that way. Then, with a wing [defender], their first instinct is to come to me, don't let me get open shots. [That means] when guys are driving the ball, Damian, Nico, Wes, all these guys are making plays and there's a lot of open shots [for them inside]."
Getting to the pretty passing and the pretty shooting requires a level of energy and desire that was simply lacking against the Bucks. If Portland wrote the Britannica of Bad Basketball against Milwaukee, they were back to their early season poetry in this one.
"It was a rough day at the offense on Tuesday," Matthews told Blazersedge. "We knew we had to play better. That's not the same kind of team. The Wizards are a fifth seed, a playoff team in the East. The Bucks aren't. Not a knock on the Bucks. ... We're not trying to play up to our competition or down to our competition, we're trying to play our basketball. That's what we did with 32 assists. We are our own competition, we are own enemies."
It did seem as if the Blazers were playing against themselves, or at least against invisible opponents, during a 19-2 run that spanned the end of the second quarter and the beginning of the third quarter. That push didn't break the Wizards, as Wall did well to keep them hanging on for awhile, but it did go a long way to ensuring that this game was sewn up cleanly before the fourth quarter even started.
"We're up 51-45 with 53 seconds [left in the second quarter] and they go on an 8-0 run in 53 seconds," Wittman lamented. "You cannot treat the game that way. ... The first couple minutes of the third quarter, we were still dragging from that. ... You work too hard in this league to get leads against good teams and to throw it away in 53 seconds hurts."
The only thing left to break after the chain is the heart.
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced at 19,571. Fair count.
- Here are the game highlights via YouTube user PortlandTrailBlazers.
- One of the highlights of every season is seeing the crowd of kids that attend Blazersedge Night and then coming home and read Dave's account of the evening. Pure joy all around.
- The Blazers were nice enough to list Blazersedge among the groups attending the game during the halftime JumboTron roll call and then they made an announcement about the event while flashing the site's logo on the big screen during the second half. There were a bunch of cheers around me when the total number of donated tickets (1,200) was announced. Very cool. Thank you to everyone that chipped in.
- It was great to finally meet Timmay! over a pre-game meal. One of the most dedicated and helpful people I've ever come across.
- Right before halftime, Lillard took a spill while trying to throw down a putback dunk. If you experienced deja vu, that's because Robin Lopez threw down a putback dunk right before halftime against the Bucks. This made me start to think if the Blazers might just be evolving to the next level of end-of-quarter strategy where they were intentionally missing jumpers to set up the buzzer-beating putback dunks. Obviusly, that was just my imagination running wild. The coincidence did bring to mind my intentional ricochet idea to get a new shot clock that I wrote about last March during a dreary game against the Detroit Pistons.
- Lillard said that he was trying to "tip smash it" on the play -- a phrase that sounds so much cooler than putback dunk. Try to work that into your vocabularies.
- Blazers guard Will Barton left the game briefly with a bruised elbow but he returned. Judging by his singing in the locker room afterwards, this won't be a lingering issue.
- Signs: "Lillard's the best Wizard," "Turn the Wizards into Lizards," "Stick to Quidditch," "What you know about us?" "Getting it done tonight," "Ironman 2: Heart and Hustle," "L-Train: Dinner on me," "I Love Robin," "Hey ref, does your wife know you're screwing us?" "Make the Wizards disappear," "D. Lillard 4 president," and "Banish the Wizards."
- All jokes aside, it's pretty remarkable what Drew Gooden (18 points and nine rebounds) is doing after being totally invisible over the last two years. Last week he even had to break out a Michael Jordan over Cliff Robinson shrug after a clutch shot.
- One of the craziest NBA stats: John Wall only made three three-pointers while starting all 66 games during the 2011-12 lockout season and playing big minutes (2,386 total). He made five three-pointers in this game and had three during a stretch of less than five minutes in the third quarter. Longtime readers know I've been a big Wall guy for five years now but I won't even begin to try to explain that one away.
- Lillard, by contrast, set a new franchise record for three-pointers made during a season (186), breaking his own record from last year.
- This was a very talkative locker room afterwards. Just as the team did a 180 from Tuesday on the court, they did a 180 in their comments too.
- Wesley Matthews on the evening as a whole: "It was a lot of fun to be out there. That's how we play, that's how we got on a roll, that's how we got to be one of the hottest teams. The ball was flying, we caused a problem in the pick-and-roll and isolation situations, where two [defenders] were looking at one [Blazers player]. We kicked that ball out, we were all moving tonight."
- Matthews ventured towards a little revisionist history when describing the team's confidence after this win as they head into another five-game road trip: "It was always high. We're just winning now. We won two straight, we feel good. We felt alright when we were losing, we were just irritated that we were losing. You can look back at those games. Dallas, we were supposed to win that. Houston, we were supposed to win that. Memphis -- nah, OK. San Antonio, crap shoot, the lull of the first three. New Orleans, we took care of business. Golden State we were supposed to win that game. A charge, a loose ball, a call, anything flips that to our favor and [then] we're one of the hottest teams in the league."
- Matthews on when LaMarcus Aldridge might be back: "He looks better every day. [The decision is] between him and the staff and his body. We're hoping for a recovery but we want him healthy 100 percent."
- Matthews also sounded excited about the playoffs: "We beat the best teams, we beat the elite teams. It's not going to be about Xs and Os anymore. Once you get into the playoffs, we know exactly who we are going to be playing against. It's not going to be about plays, it's about who wants it more."
- Dorell Wright hasn't always been a major impact player this season, causing him to be overlooked as a very quotable, insightful guy.
- Here's Wright on the team's resolve and make-up: "We still believe we're a great team. We're not no sleepers no more, we all know that. It's a long season. There's going to be different moves [in the standings] but this locker room stays together. You gotta commend guys for doing that. A lot of teams that I've been on, when stuff gets rough for us and you start losing games, you go the other way. We have a lot of young guys that have been on good teams in college and high school, they understand what it means to be together. That's what we've been doing. That's the reason we're able to be in good spirits, go out there and compete to win every night."
- Casey Holdahl of Blazers.com has a nice series of photos from a sneaker signing put on by Damian Lillard and John Wall on Wednesday night.
- Lillard was wearing the Portland socks after the game. They are pretty awesome in person.
- CSNNW's Jordan Kent posted this Instagram video of a pre-game trick shot by Matthews. Pretty impressive. Jason Quick of The Oregonian wrote about it.
- SportsGrid.com posted some hypothetical NBA jersey redesigns that mix and match teams with major brands (McDonald's, etc.). Portland got matched with Pendleton clothing. Image here.
- The Blazers announced a bunch of upgrades that are in the works for the Moda Center. Twitter user @Chris24C72 wants to know: Where are the family-friendly changes?
- Not only did the normally mild-mannered Victor Claver knock down a three-pointer but he even gave a little look to the Wizards bench. Seven points and six rebounds in 19 minutes for Claver, the most time he's seen since Brooklyn's disastrous performance in February.
- I wrote a column this week looking at the best NBA players who stayed four years in college, comparing them to the best one-and-done guys, preps-to-pros and international guys. Lillard and Matthews were both in the mix for the four-year guys and Batum was on the international squad.
- Because this has never happened before and because I barely follow college basketball outside of the top prospects, let me just note that "Thomas Robinson's Lunch Meat" is tied for first place with Corey and Craig in the Blazersedge NCAA Bracket, through one day of play. It's all downhill from here but I'm enjoying this beautiful view from the top. Hey Kevin Pelton, how do you like these apples?
- Prior to Portland's previous trip this month, my take was that a 2-3 record would have been enough to be considered successful. I'm of the same mind on this one, even if the competition is a little bit weaker. The four games in five nights thing will be rough with or without LaMarcus Aldridge, assuming we allow a grace period for him to get his timing and shot back when/if he is able to make a return.
- It's really starting to feel like forever since we saw the Aldridge that dominated the first three months of the season. With LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love and Dirk Nowitzki to consider, it's quite possible that Aldridge will be left off of the 2013-14 All-NBA teams completely if he is unable to swing momentum back his way soon.
- Nothing new on the Chalupa/McMuffins front, except that I wish I could have heard 1,200 kids screaming Cha-Lu-Pa instead of dead silence prior to the 100th point.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
I was really pleased with the way we played. The first quarter was a little slow. Offensively we were really moving the ball. A nice rhythm to it. Dorell Wright was terrific. I thought his two hustle plays really energized us in the second half. Especially the one he made a three and then goes back and makes a great play on the other end.
Victor Claver was very solid for us in the minutes that he played. [Wesley Matthews] kind of fought through a little contusion, continued to compete, make shots. It was a game we needed before this road trip and I liked the way we played.
The lineup was playing well, had good energy. He was playing well. The unit was clicking. It was an opportunity to get our guys rest who were on the bench. I try not to run up Nic's minutes and it's easy to because I play him the first and third quarter, and I want to keep the opportunity to rest him when I can.
Hot streak to start third quarter
Make shots. There really wasn't much to it. I thought the ball found our shooters. They shot it with confidence. It wasn't necessarily anything that we ran. The shooters were shooting with confidence. The thing that I was pleased about was that our spacing lineup is getting a rhythm, whether Mo [Williams] is in the game or not. Dorell, that's kind of working the way it should as far as opening up the court and three-point opportunities. We're still able to defend and rebound with that group.
Use small lineup when LaMarcus Aldridge comes back
When L.A. comes back, using Dorell as a four, whether we use LaMarcus as a five or not, that's to be seen. Certainly the confidence we've gained with this lineup over the course of the last few weeks, it's part of our team now.
I think when you make shots, everybody is involved, the ball has a tendency to move more. Part of it was the style of the game. Both teams were playing small. There were more opportunities to draw and kick. You want to do as much as you can but sometimes the game doesn't let you.
Third quarter defense
I said that during one of the timeouts: it was nice that we were making shots and threes, but like I said, the two plays that Dorell made, really kind of fed off of that. Our third quarter defense was as important as the shot-making.
Damian LIllard's bounceback
Damian, in a year and a half or nearly two years, he usually bounces back. You'd have to ask him about John Wall and the match-up. I'd only be speculating.
Momentum heading onto the road
The road is always tough. This three-game homestand, it would have been nice to get all three. Pulling out a tough one against Milwaukee, a tough, close win, was good for our confidence. Having a game like this will hopefully give us some momentum.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter