Rejoice once again, Portland Trail Blazer fans! For one night all is right with the world. LaMarcus Aldridge returned to Portland's starting lineup. The Blazers played with more energy than their opponent. Shooting percentages were good, a rebounding advantage secured, assists were high, turnovers were low, and the Blazers won 100-85 over the Atlanta Hawks.
Aldridge coming back changed the complexion of Portland's lineup well beyond his 25 points. He evidenced serious jumper-rust, shooting 9-21 to reach that total. But Portland's defensive rotations looked tighter, their rebounding stayed strong (Aldridge had 16 himself), and they were finally able to match an actual power forward against the opponent's, eliminating the chronic mismatch that had plagued them for the last 7 games. If Aldridge didn't quite look in early-season form, at least he appeared quicker and more energetic than in his post-All-Star run, hampered by a groin injury.
Aldridge's presence had the secondary effect of making the offense look right. Plays fraught with confusion suddenly smoothed out with a scorer in the extended post. Spacing cleaned up, lanes opened, weak-side jumpers became available, passes more frequent. 24 assists on 37 made buckets was a good ratio for Portland. 13 turnovers made the game far easier than nights when the Blazers pushed 20. Those turnovers came largely off of individual play--dribbles or travels or offensive fouls--instead of "pick six" passes for fast-break points. The Hawks scored 14 on the break, mostly in the second half when the game was under control. The Blazers never ran a serious deficit in this one, building a lead and maintaining through a complete game...a rarity.
Being honest, the Blazers also won because they finally ran into an opponent less interested in winning the game than they. The blitzing energy of the Bobcats and the excited, puppy-like quality of Orlando's play were nowhere in evidence tonight. Atlanta showed streaks of interest--directly coinciding with streaks of points--but they mostly ran plays by the number, slowly and without much chance of a breakthrough. Every Atlanta player caressed the ball like it was the Stanley Cup tonight, holding for 3-4 seconds in front of a defender before passing it on to the next guy. You can malign Portland's defense for several reasons but size and length are not among them. If you let the Blazers stand still in front of you, scoring will become a serious issue. The Blazers didn't need a ton of lateral movement or good decision-making to watch the Hawks tonight. All they had to do was watch. When the ball moved, they activated.
Seeing Portland's size and length prove out on the defensive end was entertaining, though. My personal favorite is their "Red Alert" collapse when an opponent gets the ball deep under the basket off a pass or offensive rebound. The poor guy stands there while Aldridge, Robin Lopez, and Nicolas Batum hear the klaxon call and surround him quickly. Those three have arms that reach to the moon. It's funny to see the guy pump fake twice, nobody moves, then he realizes that he can't get a shot up, can't get a pass out, can't dribble around them, and he's stuck waiting for a 3-second call. Results include traveling, offensive fouls, and simply losing the ball. And all this happens at the moment he thought he got good position.
Nevertheless when the Hawks did move the ball around the Blazers proved as pliable as ever. Atlanta scored off drives into the lane and off of screens. Lou Williams threatened to win the game all by himself but the Blazers played their "Williams" card as well, watching Mo put in one of his better games of the season. The entire bench functioned better now that they actually were a bench instead of playing converted starters minutes.
This wasn't a Renaissance game for the Blazers. All is not right in Blazer Land. But it was a win with 10 games remaining in the season and playoff position on the line. At this point that "W" becomes its own good. Anything that brings it, any way it comes, is a positive...the only positive that matters. Once again, after a streak of the worst wins and losses of the season, Blazer fans can finally say, "Well done!"
That's a nice feeling.
We've covered LaMarcus Aldridge already. Note that 5 of his rebounds were offensive...one of the signs Portland's offense is functioning as it should be.
Damian Lillard looked comfortable in his own skin for the first time in a long time. He shot 7-15, 4-9 from distance, for 21 points. He didn't draw 10 foul shots in this game because he didn't spend the whole game with the ball in his hands, burdened to score. He did hit 3-4. Though foul shots are usually a sign of health and smart offense, in this case I prefer the cleaner shooting. Lillard also had 6 rebounds and 4 assists. Those interested in his defense should note that it wasn't that much better in this game but the Blazers could absorb it much better with a full lineup. Lillard's defense hurts, puts an extra burden on his teammates, but it's not fatal if everything else is going right. It's one of those things you live with most nights, chalking up a few losses to as the season progresses. It mostly stands out when other things are going wrong and his teammates can't cover.
Nicolas Batum went back into efficiency mode after barfing up a long string of sloppy games. He shot 5-10, scored 12 and rebounded 7, dished 3 assists, blocked 2 shots, and committed only a single turnover. Like Lillard, he looked far more in place tonight...appropriate and effective.
Wesley Matthews had trouble defending quicker guards but did what was needful, hitting 3-6 triples and scoring 11 floor-stretching points. His 4 turnovers weren't stellar but they weren't momentum-changers either.
Robin Lopez looked relieved to have help defensively and on the boards. He scored 11 with 7 rebounds and 2 blocks...standard Robin. It's good to see that back.
Thomas Robinson's minutes (19) were limited more by his 4 fouls than his quality of play. He had one of his better game, playing in the flow and using his energy opportunistically instead of wildly. 4-4 shooting (dunks help), 10 points, 2 rebounds, and some nice defense (being able to stand and process what's going on helps).
Mo Williams had 11 assists tonight, turning the Hawks into pretzels. This performance helped the Blazers keep the lead that the starters built. He matched Matthews with 4 turnovers but when you're connecting for 11 assists you probably let that go.
Will Barton and Dorell Wright at least kept it together out there, though neither had a great evening. It was nice not to see Wright matched up against Paul Millsap, else Millsap's 3-15, 10-point line might have looked better. Actual Roster FTW.
The Blazers get no rest. Chicago comes up tomorrow, a much tougher task.
I wonder what Peachtree Hoops will make of this effort.
Your Jersey Contest scores and the form for tomorrow are HERE. Tonight's answers: 0 Blazers finished the game with a negative plus-minus rating, Portland committed 13 turnovers, Mo Williams committed the most turnovers per minute, and Someone Else (Aldridge) was the leading scorer in the game.