Was anyone worried when the Blazers entered the final period down six? Neither was I. As a wounded John Wayne said to pretty little Michele Carey in El Dorado, "Next time you shoot somebody, don't go near 'em till you're sure they're dead!" They hoped they had us. They didn't. A much-needed victory for the Blazers in their continuing playoff chase.
Aside from a few memorable dunks, missed dunks, and enough blocked shots to fill a wheelbarrow the first three quarters of this contest were eminently forgettable from the Blazer point of view.
The Blazers weren't flat. They were actually moving pretty well. Nicolas Batum had some nice interior slices for slams off of the dribble or pass. Lamarcus Aldridge was running the floor early. Joel Przybilla had another 5-capper, his second straight. The interior defense overall was pretty good.
The big problem early was Brandon Roy not hitting anything but free throws. Though he attempted a ton of them (17 overall for the game) that was only about half the production we're used to seeing from him. With Roy's jumper not falling the Nets felt free to sag off a little which meant the lane got sticky for anyone who wanted to drive, post, or offensive rebound. They weren't exactly airtight inside but they looked a lot better than a team with Brook Lopez as their only intimidator should have. LaMarcus Aldridge kept us alive from the foul line while Nicolas Batum and Steve Blake did their job in the field, but we couldn't mount any sustained runs without Brandon. It was the team equivalent of trying to make shots with your off-hand. You can do it but it takes more concentration and will always be more shaky.
In the meantime Portland made just enough mistakes on defense to let the Nets stay comfortable. It wasn't a horrible effort by any means. But we had a few too many people going under screens on jump shooters, a couple times where people rotating inside didn't get back out to cover the distance bombers...that kind of thing. The Nets pretty much picked whichever defender was weakest and used his man to set screens for their guards, baiting us into switches or weak recoveries. They never extended their lead to a truly uncomfortable level but they didn't look threatened either.
Then came the fourth quarter.
Brandon had already started tuning up the band in the third by hitting a couple of driving layups in the halfcourt. The baton raised for the whole orchestra in the fourth. He hit jumpers, spinning layups, dipsy-doodles, step-backs, and some more free throws. All of a sudden that New Jersey defense didn't look so competent anymore. The floor opened up for everybody else. Now Outlaw's in the act. Now Batum and Blake are hitting threes. Now Nets Coach Lawrence Frank is getting frustrated and calling timeouts and subbing in bench players who can't make much of a difference. "Jarvis Hayes! Brandon Roy is on a roll! Go guard him!" Yeah. That's the equivalent of saying, "My cement mixer is rolling down that hill. Please go fetch it!"
The Blazers also tightened down the "D" in the fourth. They started swarming the main Jersey guys like 45-year olds after Bon Jovi's hotel key. They lived with Keyon Dooling, Bobby Simmons, Hayes, and even Brook Lopez taking shots single-covered (or barely covered). The odds were with them. They made Carter and Harris work for everything they got.
Portland also got control of the boards on both ends late. That was the icing on the cake.
It took a couple runs but in the end this offense-defense combination brought the Blazers home. It wasn't a textbook win but it was plenty good enough.
In many ways this game was a carbon copy of the one played in New Jersey, which the Blazers also won. The Nets outshot Portland. They connected on 4 more field goals and 2 more threes. They didn't turn the ball over. But Portland ended up winning the rebounding battle and the Blazers absolutely creamed them at the free throw line. New Jersey ended up 20-23 on foul shots for the evening while Portland was 39-45. Even discounting the last-minute-catch-up free throws the Blazers still had an enormous advantage. Part of this was Portland's aggression and New Jersey's relatively soft interior. Another part was Portland simply not letting the Nets, outside of Lopez, penetrate far enough inside to draw fouls. Either way, it saved the Blazers' bacon.
I should comment here, too, that for those who argue that refs have bad games sometimes, this one was your proof. I don't believe they completely unbalanced the game nor do I believe they were more unfair to New Jersey than Portland. But they were committing all kinds of classic ref mistakes out there. They were anticipating calls instead of seeing them. Their definition of a viable infraction varied widely. They got confused on out-of-bounds decisions. It was pretty brutal. I imagine they'll be huddled in a little room explaining themselves to somebody tonight.
--Brandon Roy scored 31 to lead all scorers but it was a dirty 31. He only shot 8-21 from the field, not connecting on a single shot in the first half. The plane got off the runway in the second half though and eventually he shot the opponent down. Nevertheless this will not go down as one of his great overall games. I've seen him play far better scoring 18. The sterling part of his evening was the 15-17 free throw stat. He had 2 rebounds and 3 assists.
--LaMarcus Aldridge had a couple of aggressive moves, a passel of free throws (11-12), and was plucking offensive rebounds like they were low-hanging peaches on a lazy afternoon (7 for the game). But his jumper was off--sometimes way off--and that's always an uncomfortable time for the team. He did run the floor well in the opening stanza. Every time he gets down the court ahead of his man it's a great thing for the Blazers. 19 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists.
--Bonjour! Je m'appelle Nicolas Batum. Le slam! Le block! Un, deux, TROIS! Encore, s'il vous plait! Un, deux, TROIS! Où est ton père? C'est moi!!! HA HA HA!!! (That would be French for "I just kicked your butt! Now show me where to sign my autograph.") From the get-go tonight Nicolas Batum refused to be satisfied with the corner-jumper hang-around. He found the seams in the defense, caught the ball, and tried to dunk hard enough to make the rim say, "Ouch!" His inside game gave him confidence in his jumper and all of a sudden he was a madman, sparking the team by hitting from anywhere he got the ball. Plus he played the usual active defense and got 4 boards, a steal, and 2 blocks. He ended up 7-8 overall, perfect from the three-point arc and the foul line, for 20 points in 32 minutes. Nate could not leave him out tonight. Way to go, Monsieur Batum!
--Joel Przybilla had his hands full tonight not only guarding Brook Lopez but playing free safety against New Jersey's guards. As mentioned above he had 5 blocks. It's somewhat understandable that he only got 3 boards to go along with them. Getting 5 blocks against this team means you're chasing people, not boxing out.
--OK...so here's my theory. In that Indiana game Jarrett Jack sneezed on Steve Blake, expelling a puff of germs which imbued the usually-steady Blake with a serious case of Critical Turnoveritis. For the second game in a row Steve was chucking that ball away like a losing race ticket in the fourth quarter. He almost made me say a bad word at my TV and Steve Blake never makes me say bad words. He ended the night with 5 assists (including a couple beauties to cutters) but 4 turnovers. He did hit some critical threes and ended up with 15 points.
--Travis Outlaw's main contribution tonight was extra energy on the boards. He finished with 10, 8 defensive. He didn't have the semi-predicted huge offensive night against the Nets even though he spent much of his time at his native power forward position. Like LaMarcus, his shot wasn't falling. He was 4-10 overall, 4-6 from the line, for 13 points. He had some good defensive moments and some bad ones...averaging out to somewhat better than normal. But then again he wasn't tested sorely.
--Channing Frye took 8 shots in 8 minutes and combined with the guards to get on the wrong side of some picks, ensuring that he didn't get much of a look despite Joel Przybilla only playing 28 minutes tonight. He went 3-8 with 3 rebounds, a block, and 6 points.
--Jerryd Bayless got Sergio's spot in the first quarter, perhaps because of his one-man destruction of the Nets in the previous game in New Jersey. There was no repeat performance tonight. He had a couple of good defensive stands but that was about it. 11 minutes, 2 assists, 1 rebound, no points.
--Sergio Rodriguez got 5 minutes with 2 assists, 1 rebound, and 2 points. It wasn't that great of a run from him either.
41-24 is a 63% winning clip. Compared to anything we've experienced in the past few years that's astonishing. The best part is, it hasn't looked unusual for the Blazers. They've just gone out there and won that much. If they keep up this pace they'll be around 51-52 wins. I have a hunch that'll be hard to accomplish. But they really have set themselves up well. Right now the Phoenix Suns, in 9th place in the West, stand at 34-31. They'd have to win 13 of their last 17 to make it to 47 wins total. You know the deal with chickens and hatching and such, but if you squint a little you can begin to see a glimmer at the end of the tunnel about now.
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