Tonight's 108-98 home win over the Hawks was a kick-the-feet-up on the coffee table, interlace your fingers behind your head and nod in silent apprecation kind of victory for the Blazers. The offense was shampoo: clean, flowing, crisp. The Hawks couldn't keep up and were shake, shaken off somewhere during the 3rd quarter. It was never close after that.
It felt like a veteran team was taking care of business at home. That feels great.
The Hawks are a fun barometer because, like the Blazers, they are a young team led by an all-star wing enjoying a similar level of success. So comparing tonight's game to last year's last-second home win over the Hawks is almost unavoidable. That game, of course, was a Brandon Roy miracle that caused fans to make out in the stands because they were so blown away by his singular, fleeting magic. Tonight's game, in contrast, was an all-around butt-kicking that featured a great performance from Brandon but also solid performances from his teammates: Aldridge (24 and 11), Rudy (19 and 4 assists) and Blake (14, 5 assists and only 1 turnover).
I saw two things tonight. First, the Blazers are a significantly deeper team than the Hawks and were able to execute on both ends of the floor to fully express that depth advantage. That was a great sign going down the stretch given Oden's absence and the latest news about Martell. The entire team can and will build confidence from collective efforts like tonight.
Second, and perhaps more interesting, we learned that Brandon has taken a leap in the past year to the point that I feel comfortable saying that he is a significantly better, more complete player than Joe Johnson.
Johnson is a pleasure to watch, one of my personal favorite players in the league. Nate said that he was "all over the place" and his stat line (21, 8 and 7) certainly bears out his big time influence on tonight's game. Johnson possesses one clear advantage over Roy: his comfort with his back to the basket. His twin abilities to score and pass from the post make life significantly easier for his teammates and pose problems for any opponent, especially the Blazers who have struggled with perimeter defense.
But tonight Brandon rendered that advantage meaningless by displaying his deeper, refined arsenal of face-the-basket moves: stop-and-gos, head fakes, pull back dribbles, pull up jumpers, cross court passes, finishes at the rim, the whole enchilada. It was another complete performance (27, 7 and 5) and it looked very easy, very polished, very efficient.
Last year it was shocking and revelatory to see Brandon prevent Johnson from doing what he wanted to do at the end of the game. It was proof that Brandon belonged in the discussion with the elite wing players.
This year, if there was a shock it was the consistent ease with which Brandon did whatever he wanted to do, regardless of who was guarding him (too quick for Josh Smith, too tricky for Marvin Williams). Tonight, the revelation was that Brandon was clearly the best player on the floor from start to finish. He played like he knew it. His teammates, showing off confidence as they fit in around him. The Hawks played like they knew it too, exhibiting dismay as they just couldn't stop the onslaught.
Random Game Notes
- Someone in yesterday's chat (Sabonis4Ever, I think it was you...) asked about why the team was pushing the tempo after made baskets. That question got asked again tonight. Check Nate's response below.
- Since Blake's return, Jerryd Bayless has taken to dressing in record time and fleeing the locker room in advance of the media's arrival. As I left the arena, he could be seen chatting with his parents in the holding area.
- Had one of those "Pinch me, is this really happening moments?" tonight. As the media crowd thinned around Brandon, basketball legend Lenny Wilkens stopped by to offer a handshake and some warm wishes. Brandon stood up and said, "I didn't see you out there?" Lenny assured him that he was given good seats, right behind the Blazers bench. Brandon laughed and said (as if coming up with an excuse), "I didn't see you... because I was so focused on the game." They both laughed. It was a humbling moment to watch the brief exchange and see the mutual respect between a coach's coach and a player's player.
- Travis was sporting some new Adidas sneakers which prompted a question from your esteemed Blazers.com podcaster. "When are we going to see the signature Travis shoes?" Trout pondered a minute before pronouncing, "they said... about.... 2015" which caused everyone to laugh. LaMarcus chimed in from across the room, "Get me a pair of them T Laws. Save me a pair." The mood was noticeably looser tonight. Chalk it up to the combination of the trade deadline and the nature of the win.
- I entered the arena right behind Michael Ruffin and his family. The man has a swarm of kids, all who were excited to see Steve Blake. It was very much a first day of school for Ruffin, who had members of the organization with him before and after the game helping him get familiar with his new digs. From a personality standpoint, Ruffin was a little bit quiet but seemed surprisingly comfortable given the new situations and the uncertainty of his place with this team going forward. I guess that goes with him having been around the NBA block. Compared to Von Wafter last year it was like light and day. Poor Wafer had the deer in the headlights going on from day one. Ruffin was just perma-smiling and taking it all in stride.
- Of course Nate gave Stud Ruffin a nice "Welcome to Portland" moment, substituting him in for LaMarcus with 17 seconds left and a double-digit lead. At that point, I was really getting anxious. Glad to see Nate get his starters some cheers and the new guy an introduction but I thought he maybe pulled Roy and Aldridge too early. Instead, maybe a better move would have been to call a timeout with 4 seconds left. Just to be on the safe side. I don't like to see Nate get that risky.
- Someone needs to start charting the percentage of Sergio's passes that go to Rudy. It felt like 55 to 60 percent tonight. Especially when he found himself in trouble tonight, his head would come up, his eyes would check for options and then he almost inevitably settled on Rudy, no matter where both players were on the court.
- Nic Batum. Wow wa wee wah. Does anyone else picture him alone in an empty gym, practing his runs at the rim and pretending to block shots at full speed? How else except through solo practice (muscle memory) could he so consistently execute those transition blocked shots? That's an awesome mental image. If he doesn't practice them, he should start.
- Now that I think about it, I can see Batum, Tayshaun Prince and Josh Smith holding a Long Armed Defenders Clinic where the kids are instructed to run back and forth full court pretending to block shots at full speed, then turning around and doing it again on the other hoop, in cycles for 2 minutes on, then 2 minutes rest, then 2 minutes on, etc. Who wouldn't send their kids to that camp?
- Thinking bigger, this could turn into a New Age fitness craze. Instead of getting one of those giant rubber balls to do crunches, you could just do the Nic Batum Flying Defender Workout Program. 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week. Running up and back on the court pretending to block shots. It combines cardio and calf workouts and doesn't require any expensive machines! Look, if Tae Bo caught on, this could catch on. I'm telling you.
- One of you gym rats should start doing this prior to your next pickup game. Can you imagine the response when your fellow rats ask you what the hell you're doing and you respond defiantly, "The Flying Frenchman Warmup, obvi, what are you doing? Just standing there?" Try it out and let me know.
Nate's Postgame Comments
Nate on the result: "You think we played sharp tonight? I agree. I thought it was a good game. I thought we played a solid game. Real good job of taking care of the ball. We had a turnover in the last few seconds of the game, but 8 turnovers [total] and we continue to pass the ball. Teams will take away certain things and we have our spacing and we move the ball, which we've been doing, we can knock down some shots and score some points. I like our ball movement, I like the tempo we're playing at tonight, we get 92 attempts at the basket and we beat a good team. I think that's a very good team out there, they force you to make some adjustments as far as how you play them. A little different than most teams because Bibby can score, they come off the bench with Flip, Joe Johnson is all over the place and they're fast. I thought our guys did a nice job of adjusting tonight."
Nate on the quality play against a good team: "It's good to get any win regardless of the team. This was a good team, it wasn't off a back-to-back, they were coming in here, our records are very close, our style of play very similar, it was a challenge for us. I thought our guys did a nice job for 48 minutes."
Nate on whether passing the deadline helped the players relax: "Who knows? I hope it's just the focus on the game in front of us. I thought both groups, the first group as well as the second group, came out and played very solid with a lot of energy. Aggressive play. Pretty sharp."
Nate on whether there was a concerted effort to push the tempo: "Yeah, well we've been trying to play that way, especially without Greg. LaMarcus will get his touches we want to take advantage of him running the floor and getting deep post position. Without Greg in that lineup, we go to trying to establish the lowpost and also our pick and roll sets a lot more with Joel screening and LaMarcus being able to screen, Frye coming in off the bench. We want to take advantage of being able to spread the floor with those shooteres that we can put on the floor. Yes, the tempo we certainly wanted to pick it up."
Nate on going with a smaller lineup at times: "Joel was doing a good job. When he was on the floor we were playing well. So we tried to get him out the first half with about 5 minutes to go with only 2 fouls and then he picked up his fourth foul I think in the 3rd quarter or early fourth so we tried to buy some more time and that lineup was working for us so we just stayed with it."
Nate on why the smaller lineup was effective: "It worked. Travis could match up with Smith if we wanted to go to that lineup with LaMarcus at the five. Again, we can spread the floor, run our pick and roll sets and make them have to adjust to us. Defensively, it was just a matter of LaMarcus guarding the paint and inbounding the ball."
Nate on the Rose Garden crowd: "I just think it's important that we continue to play at home. I think our crowd is certainly an advantage for us. When the crowd gets into the game our guys have responded to that and we know how tough the road is. We gotta make it a special place by what we do on the floor. The crowd has definitely helped us throughout the season when the game has been close or we have been down in the second half or the fourth quarter, getting that momentum when the crowd gets into the game, and then being able to ride that energy the rest of the game. I think that has helped us."
Nate on using Bayless: "I was looking at a matchup of Murray and Bibby scoring on our guards, so I wanted to look at Rudy who was getting a little tired, in the last 3 minutes of the quarter I wanted to see what Bayless would look like against Ronald or Bibby, with Blake in the game. So basically just taking advantage of our guys and trying to take advantage of what they can do. For 3 minutes I wanted to look at that."
Nate on the perimeter defense: "I thought we did a good job. They are a tough team to guard because they spread the floor, they've got 3 point shooters, Bibby, Evans and Ronald Murray, he's scoring, they put Joe in the post, that's like putting a point guard in the post, he can quarterback from that position, that's a tough guard for us to make a decision whether to double team or play him straight up. I thought we were pretty good."
Nate on continuing to improve: "We continue to do what we've been doing. We show film. We cover it during practice. I think every team in the league would say they want to improve their defense, improve their offense. It's a continuing thing that you have to do. What's tough about it is that you play different teams. In the NBA people can score."
Nate on attacking the basket more in the second half: "One thing that I was looking at that we didn't have that I would have liked to have seen was getting to the free throw line. I thought we were shooting a lot of jumpshots and not attacking them. We only had 5 free throws in the first half and 3 of them came in the last second of the quarter. We had 2 free throws going into the last seconds, I would have liked to see us get to the free throw line more."
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One of the Hawks subs.
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