The Blazers are now tied for first place in the Northwest Division. This sentence is a placeholder while I think of a way to explain that first sentence.
I didn't come up with anything so I just started a new paragraph. Deeper and deeper into his bench and deeper and deeper into his bag of tricks Nate McMillan goes. He had no choice tonight after losing LaMarcus Aldridge to injury. And yet McMillan continues to find combinations that work, to draw game-changing performances from the unlikeliest of corners, as the Blazers hung on for a 103-99 win over the talented but not-quite-all-there Los Angeles Clippers in the Rose Garden Wednesday night.
On Monday McMillan talked about manufacturing speed on offense; tonight, he manufactured confusion on defense. With Aldridge, arguably his best remaining defensive big man, going down with a left ankle injury just six minutes into the game, McMillan smartly spread out those extra minutes between Juwan Howard (37 minutes), Jeff Pendergraph (24 minutes) and Dante Cunningham (27 minutes). All three responded in a big time way. Howard nearly had a double double (10 and 9). Pendergraph had 8 points, a career-high 14 rebounds and 2 blocked shots, including a spectacular block to close the third quarter that had his teammates pumping fists like champs. (Brother Wendell Maxey could not be more excited for the Jeff Pendergraph Era. Maxey was gushing. Gushing!) Cunningham was just plain good in his 27 minutes, by far the most he's played over the last month. He shot confidently (4 of 8 for 8 points) and was active on defense, particularly when the Blazers switched into their zone packages.
After the game, McMillan gave credit to his zones for much of the team's defensive success. "We talked about having to mix up our defense, going from zoning to trapping to calling it off, and that requires guys to have their head in the game and make adjustments on the fly. And I thought it disrupted them tonight."
Indeed, the zone was effective in making Clippers center Chris Kaman work for each of his 25 points after he muscled through and around man-to-man coverage at the game's outset. The zone also succeeded in daring the Clippers to bomb away from the outside, where they shot just 7 of 20 from distance. Baron Davis was a major culprit, shooting 1-5 from deep (just 2 of 15 overall). And aside from a hot Rasual Butler (15 points), the Clippers bench contributed next-to-nothing on offense, getting outscored by the Blazers bench 40 to 20.
As McMillan has explained in the past, he views zone not as a be-all, end-all, but rather as a way to disrupt rhythm, slow runs, take the ball out of a strong player's hands and limit interior liabilities. Without question, the zone succeeded in accomplishing all of those goals against the Clippers.
Despite those successes, there's one guy who would be fine with playing less zone: Brandon Roy. "I prefer to play man," Roy told me after the game. "I just like to play man, I've always been a man-to-man [guy]. I think it's just a little more responsibility in man to man. In zone, it's like 'let's play an area.' Sometimes you can get caught up in playing an area instead of saying let me really focus on stopping these guys." Roy added, "When you have a lot of new guys, it's easier to communicate out of man than out of zone. Tonight I wanted to go a little more man but Coach was trying to save some legs. Zone is going to work for us right now but I would prefer to go man."
What's wrong with zone? "It's just tough to play zone in the NBA with the 3 second rule with bigs coming in and out of the paint," Roy explained. "Teams are smart and they try to space your defense out to get your bigs to come out and guard perimeter players. Sometimes you get into bad rotations."
Although it's not his preferred defensive look, Roy realizes its necessity with the Blazers so shorthanded up front. "For us we need [the zone] right now. We're going to just keep working at it."
The Blazers do need the zone and every other trick McMillan can conjure up. Its use epitomizes what is driving this Blazers team right now: communication, togetherness, focus, effort and surprise. On the good nights, contributions from every single player make the difference. Tonight, Steve Blake (10 points) hit two big 3s. Jerryd Bayless scored and moved the ball, taking over the offense at times (14 points and 8 assists). Martell Webster was the unsung hero, getting some offense early and finishing with 15 points and 4 rebounds.
And finally, Roy was Roy. Sure-fire all-star, borderline superstar: 25 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists and a steal in 37 minutes, all with a bum shoulder. And all while playing in a defensive system that's not his favorite.
Random Games Notes
- For a full update on LaMarcus Aldridge's ankle, see Nate McMIllan's comments below.
- Shavlik Randolph after the game: "Being back is like a great Christmas present." Good thing he plays basketball better than he writes similes. Randolph's next step? To learn the plays. McMillan mentions below that Randolph will use tomorrow re-learning the Blazers' sets. Randolph copped to needing to hit the books after the game.
- Given both the team's health and Randolph's demeanor, I would be very surprised if Randolph is not signed to at least one 10 day contract if waived prior to the January 10th deadline. I'm not sure Anthony Tolliver ever unpacked his suitcase; Randolph, on the other hand, carried himself like he will be here awhile.
- Randolph's friends and fans bought out the entire "Rip City Row" and waived signs welcoming him back. Here's a picture courtesy of master tweeter Sarah. You gotta love that.
- The Clippers were not the most enthusiastic team during pre-game warmups. They weren't even very, um, visible. Aside from Al Thornton and DeAndre Jordan, hardly any of the Clippers even made it out of the locker room, let alone broke a sweat. The rims are still shaking from Sebastian Telfair missing wild runaway warmup jumpers for no reason.
- Starting the season, would you have put money on Pendergraph, Cunningham, Bayless, Blake, Howard and Webster all playing more minutes and making bigger contributions during a close game than a healthy Andre Miller? Less than 20 minutes for Dre tonight. Too soon to negotiate a contract buyout? (Kidding)
- There are few people in the world who are greeted with huge smiles and warm hugs by both Blazers President Larry Miller and Portland Tribune writer Kerry Eggers. Longtime NBA coach and current Clippers assistant John Lucas is one of them. Lucas was doling out pre-game daps like Baron Davis dimes.
- Paul Allen's courtside seat was empty again tonight.
- A very pleasant surprise: Andrew Theen of OregonSportsLive.com was all up in the press box and locker room with his excellent, patented writing/audio hybrid coverage. Check it out.
- Coup from Rip City Project took some time out from writing a great game recap and enjoying the holidays with his family to swing by to say what's up. Sounds like BustaBucket.com was in the building tonight too. All told, I think we may have exceeded the Rose Garden's blogger capacity limits.
- KP2 has given a lot to this site. Give something back to him by voting here. Or vote for his competition and then mock him on twitter. Good times either way. PS... You can't go wrong with any of those five finalists.
Nate's Post-Game Comments
Winning the game despite losing another player to injury
This has gone past crazy. Bad luck or whatever, to continue to see our guys drop the way that we are. To walk in that locker room to see LaMarcus in a boot. Not just a swollen ankle -- but a boot. But credit to these guys -- we are right where we were last year record-wise and with all the adversity, all the adjustments we've had to make with this group, it's a credit to those players, to these guys, the guys who are healthy, who were in the rotation early, Brandon and Blake, Miller, they have to step up their play. They've done that. Then our guys who are getting the opportunity are stepping in and being very productive.
I thought Dante and Jeff were huge tonight. I hate to single out individuals because it was a team effort but we needed that from them. Pendergraph 14 boards tonight when LA goes down, guarding Kaman most of the game. DC, in and out of the rotation, stepped in, knocked down some shots, had some big boards. Bayless didn't drop anything last game, he comes out and makes big plays tonight. Credit to this group for hanging in there and continuing to work.
LaMarcus Aldridge Injury Status (In a boot?)
That's what it is. That's what Jay told me. I think he's just protecting it. We saw his ankle at halftime, he had some swelling there. I think he's just protecting it. I don't think it's anything more serious than that.
Any idea how long he'll be out?
What's more incredible: that you lost another player or that you're sitting here in first place in the division?
I think both. I just... I have never... I am afraid when our guys are on the floor. I really am. We have guys... they have tweaks. LaMarcus has had a sore ankle for a week or so. That's not the same ankle [he injured previously this season]. He's been close to having to play through -- he's had to play through it. We have other guys with some tweaks. Brandon with the shoulder, he's playing with it. So it's just nerve-wracking to... we certainly can't practice so we go through some things. But I think both. The fact that... I hate to say it but when a guy goes down we play... we're playing good basketball. I think we've been able to win these games. I think both are amazing. The fact that we lost as many guys as we have and we've been able to win these games.
Fourth quarter execution
The lineup is different. Bayless and Blake and Roy has been pretty much the same. But tonight it was DC and Howard and a little bit of Jeff and down the stretch we tried to slide Martell in there for a possession but it's been a different group except for those 3 guards. And now they are playing off of each other. We tried to get Brandon a breather, we were able to buy some time with him to start the fourth quarter. I thought that group, Martell, Bayless, Blake, Howard and DC was able to stretch that lead out and then we came in with Brandon to finish.
But defensively we had to get stops, the zone, we talked about having to mix up our defense, going from zoning to trapping to calling it off and that requires guys to have their head in the game and make adjustments on the fly. And I thought it disrupted them tonight.
How were you able to prevent Baron Davis from posting up?
I think the zone mixed in and we wanted to double team him and then late in the last minute or two we put Brandon on him because we knew they were going to go to him and we were trying to get more stops.
Plans for Shavlik Randolph
I want to first get him some practice and go through some sets tomorrow. Go through sets with our young guys, Jeff, Dante, Shavlik because they don't know all of our plays. I mean we're learning it but the number of plays we're able to call... and just really review a lot of the things with Dante, Shavlik, Jeff, these guys, Bayless. Bayless is running 2 or 3 plays and we need to get him more familiar with some other plays. We'll run through some sets tomorrow.
I think [Shavlik] can [help us]. Right now we need both he and Dante. I think there will be some nights where we'll look to slip him in there. We didn't just bring him in as a practice player. He's familiar with what we want to do. We liked him. I think offensively he can possibly do some things. Defensively he's big enough, he's been in the league long enough to be able to give us some minutes, if we need to buy some minutes like we're doing with some of our bigs now.
You know, again, it's a credit to our guys. They keep stepping up and playing. They keep getting challenged. They've been able to respond to that. It's a sick feeling right now. I know for me and for all of us to see another guy go down. To see LaMarcus go down and tweak that ankle and see his face and know that we have to go out -- I looked at the locker room and the locker room only had like 6 or 7 guys. I mean... we laughed, we really did. We laughed for a minute because we've lost so many guys and all of these empty seats. We have to go with who we have and they keep responding and we'll see what happens.
What have you seen from Pendergraph and Cunningham? Are they picking things up from Juwan Howard?
Juwan is helping them big time. You're exactly right. He's talking to them not only at practice but during the game, on the bench. Giving them scouting reports. He has been a tremendous help for Jeff and DC. Juwan is the MVP right now. He has stepped in... he played well tonight again and that made a huge difference.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter