Observers of the Portland Trail Blazers could be forgiven for taking last night's victory over the Atlanta Hawks with a grain of salt. After all the Blazers met an unmotivated team with a losing record on the fringe of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket. The win still left Portland 1-3 on their current road trip, teetering precariously above the Western Conference seeding boneyard. How much stock could you really put in the performance?
Tonight the Blazers looked everybody square in the eye and said, "Enough of that noise." Execution, energy, skill, and teamwork converged in a 91-74 thumping of the Chicago Bulls, one of the better teams in the East and a more-than-respectable opponent. Portland turned the tables on the Bulls defensively, smothering every player that mattered, making mid-game adjustments to cover weaknesses, and watching Chicago bomb their way into futility. Meanwhile the Blazers played smart, upped the tempo on the vaunted "D" of the Bulls, and walked away with the win like it was their birthright.
The first quarter featured a mess of Bulls-style offense: slow, isolated, with plenty of shots going awry. Chicago knew their job: keep Portland plodding, force them into individual plays, cover shooters, rebound the ball. They did all these things. The only beneficiary from Portland's side was Damian Lillard. He figured if the Bulls were going to force him into iso sets, he might as well show Kirk Hinrich that Kirk's chance to stop him defensively expired three years ago. Lillard shot over and ducked under the defense for 5 points, which sounds insignificant until you consider the Blazers scored only 19 in the quarter.
The Bulls also knew their stuff on offense. They worked over Robin Lopez, sending Carlos Boozer to the top of the key for straight-away jumpers, forcing Portland's center to come out to cover or stay home and watch the ball swish through the hoop. A late-quarter rally by Wesley Matthews put the Blazers ahead 19-16 but you knew that was a Chicago score. If nothing changed the Bulls would eventually prevail in this kind of game.
Fortunately a few things changed.
The Blazers got significant bench help from Mo Williams and Thomas Robinson. Their passing, rebounding, and diving helped Portland pick up the pace, getting shots to the rim before the Bulls' defense got set. The Blazers found success running past, passing around, and shooting over the outstretched arms of the Bulls. Threes started to drop. Portland's score started to creep up.
The Bulls, meanwhile, continued their slow-down style. Only preserving in on offense left them in a pickle. Their own score looked Chicago-esque. Portland's? Not so much. The Bulls ended up defending themselves via tempo. They aided the Blazers by not being able to hit a shot beyond 15 feet to save their lives. As jumper after jumper missed badly, Portland's defense crammed tighter and tighter towards the interior. The Bulls kept trying; the Bulls kept missing. Whenever Boozer attempted a repeat of his face-up scoring trick Portland sent a now-much-closer-to-the-key wing to disrupt him, leaving Lopez happily camped for the rebound. Lopez, Robinson, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Nicolas Batum proved more than capable of keeping the Bulls off the boards (or at least bothering them inside when they did get the rebound).
After a certain point it seemed like every triple Portland hit on the offensive end required six possessions for the Bulls to equal. Chicago didn't exactly give up but it was close. The Blazers held the Bulls to 36 points at the half, 58 at the end of three. Chicago would have needed another full period of play in which Portland scored nothing to make up the difference. That wasn't happening and the Blazers finished 17 ahead at the final horn.
If this game had gone the opposite direction cries would rise that Tom Thibodeau out-coached Terry Stotts, making mid-game adjustments that were never answered. Again we'll add the asterisk that the Bulls' utter lack of jump shooting (and we mean barely grazing the cylinder on a lot of those attempts) made the adjustments semi-obvious and semi-easy, but the Blazers still made them and executed to advantage. Full credit to coach and team for turning around a game that was just as the opponent wanted it after one period.
For the second night in a row Portland's three-point shooting flourished. The Blazers shot 10-22, 46% against a defense that customarily allows 36%. The Blazers kept everything nice and even on the boards, in the paint, and on the break, plus they committed only 9 turnovers...squashing a bugaboo that has plagued them during this entire trip.
Most importantly Portland redeemed their poor performance during the early part of this road trip, demonstrating that they still know how to play properly, earning a respectable 2-3 mark for the journey. Needing to avoid losses like the plague in the final 10 games of the season, the Blazers are now 2-0...20% of the way home. They will remain in 5th position in the conference regardless of the outcome of tonight's Golden State-Memphis game. (In progress as this is being written.) That's a relief to fans and a confidence-builder for the team.
One of the best things about this outing was its seemingly-ordinary nature. The Blazers did little celebrating, showed little demonstrable emotion during the proceedings. They shared a few high-fives, some pointed-finger "thank-you's", and put mustard on a dunk or two...comparative calm for a much-needed victory, a blowout to boot. It was as if they were saying, "No surprise. This is how we do it." Feeling sure about that again, even if for one night, was worth the price of admission.
LaMarcus Aldridge didn't even come close to repeating his 25-point outburst in Atlanta. He shot 2-10, scoring only 5. But he commanded enough attention from that vaunted Bulls defense that plenty of teammates got free on the other side. "You want to do it that way? We can do it that way. Now stamp our parking validation so we can go home." Aldridge contributed plenty to Portland's own defense, including 13 defensive rebounds and 4 steals.
Damian Lillard was the twirling stick providing enough friction to get the fire going tonight. He scored only 16 but that was the second-highest total of the evening. He kept focus, playing within the offense and defense all night. When those Bulls guards couldn't score it was like a free pass and he waltzed all the way down the hall with it.
Nicolas Batum also had a strong outing with 4-7 three-pointers hit, 14 points scored, plus 7 rebounds, 4 assists, and only 2 turnovers. He got to play around on defense tonight, staying in to help against lane shots then darting out whenever it became apparent a jumper was coming. In that situation length and that nose for the opponent's shot serve Nic well.
Wesley Matthews had a rough night, shooting only 1-5 from distance and scoring 11 on 4-12 attempts.
Robin Lopez got happy about staying in the lane and rewarded his team with 5 blocks to go along with 9 rebounds and 13 points. When you have two options you can okey-doke Robin but when you're going with only one (say, because anyone you pass it to will miss) then he'll send you packing and insist you get a note from your mom before you come in that lane again.
Talk about free passes...Mo Williams was like a kid in a candy shop tonight. He hit 7-12, for a game-high 18 points in part because Chicago likes the opponent to shoot Mo-esque shots. He was all, "Yo! You better recognize! They named this shot after me!" Chicago never admitted any familiarity. Mo's assist passes got held by teammates or intercepted by foes so he only notched 2, but that was more than made up for by the lack of need for defense. It was a pure and perfect Mo game. That makes two fine outings in a row. Good timing since the Blazers need a Mo Renaissance heading into the playoffs.
Thomas Robinson went up and down with 3 personal fouls and 4 rebounds in 12 minutes, but his energy led to an incredible 10 points in that span. Chicago didn't know what to do with his darting. They wanted to play slow and he refused. Well done.
So at this point we can all sing, "Ding Dong! The trip is dead!" as the Blazers return home intact from their last extended road swing of the season. The bad news: the Wicked Witch of the West is still alive. Even though the Blazers only play 2 more road games all year--and those against the comparatively weak Lakers and Jazz--Memphis, Phoenix, Golden State, and the Clippers will all come knocking on Portland's door before the curtain falls. Sunday's tilt against the Grizzlies starts off the final run, and frankly I can think of 28-ish other teams I'd rather come home to. But maybe the Blazers can bottle this energy and confidence and return the drubbing the Grizz have given them this year. Portland doesn't need every win, but even 1-2 less-expected ones could make a huge difference.
Blog a Bull cannot have liked this game. It may be NSFW over there for a while.
Your Jersey Contest scores and the form for Sunday are HERE. Tonight's Answers: Joakim Noah had 10 rebounds and 11 points. LaMarcus Aldridge had 13 rebounds and 5 points.