Well folks, another Blazer's Edge Night is in the books, as well as another home victory for your Portland Trail Blazers.
For those of you who have been living under a rock for the last four months, Blazer's Edge Night happens when readers of this site band together to send underprivileged children and their chaperons to a Blazers game they'd otherwise not be able to attend. This year we sent 1200 kids. That...is a lot.
For those of you who have been living under a rock for six months, the Trail Blazers are now 45-24, sitting pretty in the 5th spot in the Western Conference, 7 games out of 1st and 5.5 games out of 9th with 13 games remaining in the season.
Let's deal with the game first and then I'll clue you in on Blazer''s Edge Night.
Here are three sins you do not want to commit when playing the Washington Wizards. Do not let them have open three-pointers because all of them can shoot. Do not let them run because they like it. Do not turn over the ball.
Naturally Portland's starters came out doing all three. Portland didn't have a bad offensive first period but Washington's constant litany of "run out, dunk, screen, open three, tip pass, run out again, easy layup" kept Portland;s efforts from telling. Call it energy, effort, heart, continuity, or anything you want; the Blazers didn't have it. At least not on defense. Washington led 28-23 after one and the arena was near-silent.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Milwaukee, Part 2. (Referencing Portland's limp performance against the Bucks in their last game.) Portland's bench players decided to play basketball. They weren't perfect or anything close. All their familiar mistakes and bad habits showed up at one time or another. But the Blazer reserves injected a dose of energy into the game that the starters couldn't seem to muster. Victor Claver made strong defensive stands (a few of which he got whistled unfairly for). Mo Williams canned some of his patented "That's So Mo" jumpers. Thomas Robinson beasted on defense, dunking, and the boards. Will Barton brought the crowd to the edge of their seats with a "I'm dribbling one way, nope I went the other...fooled you! I JUST DUNKED!" breakaway. Like a spring thaw the second unit's energy cracked the ice of the starters' banal approach. When the first unit returned to the game the offense ran quicker, turnovers subsided, Washington's fast break points evaporated, and somehow screens didn't cause quite the level of mayhem they did before.
Playing mostly correctly--and with enough chutzpah to cover whatever was missing from "mostly"--the Blazers built a platform upon which their moments of brilliance could rest. Early in the game a Portland three-pointer was followed immediately by one from Washington for no net gain. As the game progressed Portland's threes actually bought them a lead that stuck, then expanded. The Wizards kept trying but their style required the Blazers to lapse in order to succeed. The Blazers never lapsed long enough. Portland took a 53-51 lead into halftime, came out blitzing and bombing in the third, expanded the margin to 13 by the end of the quarter, and never looked back. Aside from the first-quarter follies it was the kind of game we've come to expect from the Blazers but have not seen much of lately.
The Wizards did end up shooting an amazing 44% (12-27) from the arc in this game. Portland's guards will eventually have to learn how to deal with a pick without getting stuck on it like flies on flypaper. But the Blazers shot 40% themselves and actually hit 14 threes to only 12 from the Wizards, finishing the game with an advantage in the category despite allowing Washington free rein. Portland gave up 16 fast break points but it didn't end up hurting them, in part because they committed only 9 turnovers for the game. Going 27-46 from two-point range didn't hurt the Blazers any. The Wizards defend well at the arc but not as well inside it and Portland took full advantage. 32 assists on 41 made buckets tells you something was going right for Portland. Scoring +5 from the foul line was the icing on the cake. The Blazers did 1-2 things poorly for the whole game (3pt% allowed and offensive rebounds allowed) but compensated with heart, execution, and doing most other things well. It was a team win, with hero ball and isolation sets noticeably absent. That was nice to see.
Attending the game live didn't allow me to take down my usual meticulous observations on individual play so I'll just share impressions, which you can feel free to supplement in the comments.
Damian Lillard played more under control and more generously than we've seen him lately. His teammates were making plays and hitting shots so he got the ball to them. This is much better than them standing and watching him and/or missing open shots, causing Damian to take over, causing them to stand more and miss their rare opportunities, etc. This may not have been Lillard's most impressive statistical outing but credit for the style of play goes, in part, to him. The screen thing, though? Dame needs to work on that, or at least decide what he's going to do against picks. Going over OR under would be better than stopping dead. Washington's pattern tonight was to screen off Lillard or Matthews, watch Portland's other defenders collapse towards the screen to help, then hit a guy in the space they just vacated. It may not have worked every time but it worked lots.
Wesley Matthews had a really nice offensive night as well. When he hits the open three this whole team breathes a sigh of relief and starts playing normally.
Dorell Wright said, "I heard we're shooting three-pointers tonight!" and then proceeded to torch the nets, providing critical first-quarter offense to keep the Blazers in striking distances despite their poor overall performance in that period. This was one of Dorell's best games as a Blazer.
Nicolas Batum did plenty in this game. His chief contribution may have been knowing how to defend somebody. That sounds simple until you watch some of his teammates. He also grabbed a ton of rebounds, hit his shots, took care of the ball, and threaded one of the most amazing bounce passes I've ever seen in the third period. He curled around a defender and immediately threw the ball almost sidearm. It flew past two defenders and found a target (I want to say Thomas Robinson...can't remember) at the rim for the easy score. You don't throw bounce passes through the lane. You don't throw bounce passes past two defenders. You don't throw any passes that quickly at that angle with a guy on you. Batum did this...thing and somehow it was all good. Wow.
Robin Lopez doesn't register against what kind of opponent, children? If you said opponents with quick and/or outside-shooting centers, you pass. Absent Marcin Gortat, a late scratch from the game, Washington had nothing but. Their bigs didn't do too much damage but neither did Lopez.
It's not going to show statistically but Victor Claver should really be proud of this game. He was all over the place on defense, showed up when the Blazers needed him on offense, and his mistakes were either touchy reffing or teammates trying to do things with Claver that shouldn't be done with Claver. He played a really nice game and was rewarded with extra minutes.
Thomas Robinson also registered a positive impact. His defensive energy was way up and he helped inspire his teammates.
Mo Williams went up and down but he didn't take away from the offense nor try to force his own shot. He seemed to recognize his teammates were doing well and toned it down a bit. C.J. McCollum got a few minutes and had a couple of nice offensive strikes. Will Barton came out playing hard, if briefly.
Now let's update Blazer's Edge Night.
It was a little bit of a late-arriving and quiet bunch this year compared to many, at least in the sections I was around. With 1200 people we were spread throughout the upper deck, But I was sitting near a significant concentration of our folks, incognito-like.
At first it didn't seem like the kids quite knew what to do. Many of them seemed younger than usual, many more pre-teens by percentage when we're more used to teen-teens. It's good that the age range is expanding but those younger folks weren't as naturally boisterous, at least not in organized fashion. Portland's early play probably had something to do with it as well. The whole arena was flat and quiet for the first half hour.
But when the Blazers did go on a run I started hearing high-pitched noise to my left. It was the sound of hundreds of voices cheering three-pointers at once. All of a sudden signs began shaking, held high. When the cameras caught some of them, the jumping began. Then arms and fists flew into the air upon made buckets. All of a sudden the crowd was into it. We heard "De-FENSE" chants from below and joined in. Then the chants started coming from above, likely started by experienced fans but taken up and magnified by all those young voices. When I looked over again during a timeout I realized that...WHOA! Those sections were filling up now! For privacy reasons we can't publish pictures of individuals but here's what the sections looked like from a distance.
Those four sections on the upper deck nearest to the left are mostly our kids, plus there was a fifth, even fuller, section just to the left of those. Plus there was another section to our right. Those sections were too close to photograph without identifying faces but you get the idea. The crowd was significant. In fact one girl sitting next to me (who didn't know who I was) looked around and said, "There are a lot of people from [name of her organization] here." Then she looked around the other direction and said, "Oh my GOSH! A LOT OF PEOPLE!"
Once the Blazers got rolling the upper deck came alive and we were surrounded by a near-constant level of young noise. But all of that was a prelude to the third quarter when Blaze himself came to visit. He brought some goodies for a couple rows, which was nice. but pandemonium ensued...not because the kids wanted free stuff but because they wanted to hug, talk to, and get pictures with Blaze. He was a superstar! Check out the nice hug here:
And that was just the beginning. Within a minute a couple dozen kids surrounded him. It was crazy time. I tried to get a shot of all the kids gathered around him but I couldn't get Blaze in the shot anymore! It was just a big huddle with him somewhere in the middle there. I think some of the high-school cheerleaders that provided pre-game entertainment got into the scrum and he was just buried.
But even that couldn't compare to the noise when the Blazers made their final, fourth-quarter run. Once the decisive buckets were nigh our formerly-shy group was partying like they just won the Superbowl. It was loud. It was happy. It was everything you could have hoped. They took the energy the Blazers fed them and they fed it right back.
There is no sound in the world like happy kids. The readers of this site made over a thousand kids happy tonight.
I would like to personally thank each person who donated tickets so the children and their chaperons could go to this event. I'd also like to thank the two behind-the-scenes people without whom this event could not take place: Dan Son our ticket coordinator and Lisa Swan, the best customer service rep I've ever known. Dan had to organize and distribute 1200 tickets this year. You can imagine the work that goes into such an endeavor. And Lisa helps us out with everything we need and has worked hard to make the donation process as easy and seamless as possible.
We always get notes from participants--as if the giant signs and such around the arena tonight weren't enough--and I'll share what I can as they come in. But the simplest sentiments are often the clearest, so here's one in gratitude for all of you who made this happen:
Just wanna take time to thank you, u r doing an honorable work, I don't have word to express my gratitude behalf of [our organization, the kids] and all the community involved. ..Thank you
Thank you, Blazer's Edge. We did well.