Now that was a playoff-intensity game.
You could feel it in the air. You could see it on the court. You heard it with every whistle, every blocked shot, every rebound. Every possession seemed critically important, every shot lofted life or death.
Anyone who thinks the L*kers didn't want this game has a screw loose. They wanted it like Tyra Banks wants attention, like Willie Nelson wants tax amnesty, like M.C. Hammer wants 1990 back. One look at Lamar Odom's play and Kobe Bryant's facial expressions was all you needed to understand. They wanted that can't-win-in-Portland monkey off of their backs badly. The Blazers nailed it there and then super-glued its lips to their behinds.
This game was so intense and I took so many notes that organizing them into a coherent story is going to be hell. Bear with me.
The first quarter was more of a slog-fest than a slug-fest for both teams. The score wasn't awful--24 for Portland, 23 for L.A.--but the teams were obviously feeling each other out. The Blazers missed perimeter shots early and had a hard time getting the offense to run coherently. The ball stayed on one side of the court and Portland ran a lot of isolation sets, which not only misses their strengths, it plays into L.A.'s. LaMarcus Aldridge started the game as frigid as a nun in a meat locker. Shadowed by multiple L*kers, Brandon Roy had trouble getting off too. It fell to guys like Przybilla, Batum, Blake, Fernandez, and Oden to keep Portland in the game. Or rather those guys scoring meant that the ball was moving, which was the only way to foil the L*kers' defense. After the secondary scorers started putting the ball in, including a dunk from Przybilla and threes from Batum and Blake, the floor started loosening up. Brandon had a freer hand. Driving lanes opened up and the Blazers started drawing fouls...a theme which would last throughout the evening. Still the Blazers never seemed to put together more than two minutes of pretty play offensively. It was stop and start the whole period.
On the other end Nicolas Batum played wonderful defense on Kobe Bryant. Kobe scored, of course, but he had to work for it. Batum had a block on a near-dunk by Kobe that was as beautiful as anything Joel Przybilla has ever done. It also seemed to ignite the team a little. Portland started the game rebounding well but soon succumbed to Lamar Odom on the offensive boards...another theme that was to last much of the evening.
The second quarter consisted of even more intermittent offense from the Blazers. Brandon Roy was more into scoring mode but the rest of the offense was catch as catch can. Much of it was from the perimeter. Meanwhile the L*kers started getting the ball inside with Bynum and Odom. Kobe Bryant got fouled every time he sneezed (and apparently he inhaled a pepper-covered chicken.) The L*kers were still nabbing offensive rebounds as well. The tempo of the game started out in the Blazers' favor early in the quarter but between the constant trips to the line and the offensive boards given up things ground down through the middle parts of the quarter, forcing the Blazers to work even harder to generate offense.
Worst of all, Portland got outhustled in the second period. The L*kers were first to the ball no matter where it was. The Blazers didn't look sharp setting picks. Rotations were late or non-existent. The generally weak play sent even more whistles over to the L*ker camp and the Blazers looked like they could be in trouble.
Then with a little over two minutes left in the period the Blazers felt the fire under them and started moving. They pushed tempo, drove inside, and moved their feet on defense. Joel Przybilla got a dunk, LaMarcus Aldridge a 10-footer. Then Steve Blake hit a three followed by Brandon Roy getting fouled and sent to the line. In less than two minutes Portland ran off 9 straight points and got back in the game. Only down four, the Blazers had dodged a bullet.
The Blazers came to play in the third period. They shut off the rebounding leak, penetrated and got their jumpers off of the pass, got the ball to post players inside, and translated all of that paint work into trips to the line, reclaiming the all-important free-throw advantage that they had lost in the second quarter. LaMarcus Aldridge found his game again and Joel Przybilla fought for inside points early in the quarter followed by Greg Oden later. The Blazers were so focused on the inside game that Brandon Roy did not score in the quarter, attempting only four shots. Yet the Blazers put up 32 in the period. The L*kers, meanwhile, looked off. They were scoring but without continuity. They also let the whistles get to them something fierce. They displayed the kind of theatrics we used to see around here in the Rasheed era. I had forgotten how unattractive it is. They reminded me.
The L*kers toyed with some inside-out play early in the fourth, featuring Andrew Bynum and reserve Shannon Brown as the shooter. It worked, but everyone knew it was only the prelude to Kobe time. The Blazers kept rebounding hard and working the ball around, keeping pace with L.A. and not relinquishing the lead no matter how hard the L*kers pushed.
When Kobe-time came things got hairy for a little bit. It looked like he might go on one of those runs. He and Brandon started guarding each other and the sparks were all but visible. After Kobe had hoisted a couple shots Brandon decided that a little Roy-time was in order as well. Bryant scored 9 in the period. Brandon notched 6 himself. Neither man would score a point in the final two minutes, however. Kobe's final possessions looked like this:
- Missed jumper
- Missed jumper
- Missed three
- Pass for a turnover
- Foul Travis Outlaw
- Missed three
- Go home angry
Brandon Roy, on the other hand, had an assist to Steve Blake and then watched his teammates sink 1 of 2 free throws on several trips to the line. The Blazers kept the ball away from the L*kers by grabbing a bunch of offensive rebounds themselves down the stretch, and after spending most of the period nursing a lead ranging from 0-3 points they walked away with an 8-point victory.
The biggest stat of the game was Portland shooting 27-37 from the foul line while the L*kers only hit 15-20. The Blazers eventual aggression paid off but this was also more fouls than we're used to seeing called against the L*kers. This doesn't happen in L.A. no matter what kind of games the two teams play respectively. Portland also ended up tied with L.A. in offensive rebounds after spotting them a significant lead early on. Portland won the overall rebounding battle 44-39. The Blazers committed only 6 turnovers, which also helped.
This was not a pretty game for the Blazers. It was not an easy game. It was an effective game and it was a win. That's all that matters.
--Brandon Roy ended up with 24 points and he had to earn every one of them. We saw several things tonight that we're going to see again in the post-season and the L*kers hawking Brandon mercilessly is Exhibit 1A. He responded well with his shot selection. He responded even better by dishing 8 assists. His teammates hitting helped him out immensely. Brandon's defense early on was spotty but in the fourth quarter with the game on the line he stepped up big time.
--LaMarcus Aldridge struggled out of the gate, as described. He tried to get his jumper going but it wasn't cooperating no matter how hard he cranked the ignition. His game blossomed in the second period when he started playing off of teammates more and cutting inside. He devastated the L*kers with a couple of swing moves across the lane and then spent the rest of the game scoring from 10 feet and in. He ended up 6-18 for 16 points with 8 rebounds.
--Steve Blake played a fantastic game. His offense wasn't prolific as much as it was timely and smart. He knew when the team needed him to score. He knew when to shoot the three and when to look for a better opportunity. He was a great outlet when his higher-profile compatriots got into trouble. He finished with 16 points and 6 assists. Also of note: neither Derek Fisher nor Jordan Farmar did anything offensively tonight. Steve was part of that.
--Nicolas Batum played some "Mwah! Mwah!" WONDERFUL defense on Kobe tonight. He only played 20 minutes while Kobe played 36. But he helped force Kobe into some hard shots in those possessions. Bryant did garner a bunch of foul shots but when Batum gets a couple more years and a reputation under his belt that won't be the same story. Bryant led all scorers with 32 tonight but it was on 9-24 shooting. He was never open when Nic had him. C'est bon.
--Joel Przybilla had 13 rebounds in 24 minutes and helped keep the middle contained. He also hit 3-4 point-blank shots to keep L.A. honest about keeping a body on him. Add in 2 blocks and you couldn't ask for a better game.
--Rudy Fernandez was on tonight. He makes such a big difference in Portland's bench production, not only through the points he scores but through the space he frees up for everyone else with his shooting and cutting. He did not take a single bad shot tonight. He ended up 5-8 from the field, 2-4 from distance, 3-4 from the line for 15 points and 5 rebounds. His defense wasn't bad, though the L*kers did run at him and push him around a little. He was one of the guys Nate opted to keep in late when the game was on the line. He played almost the entire fourth quarter.
--If the L*kers ran a little at Rudy, they ran a ton at Travis. Travis did draw Kobe when Nic and Brandon didn't have him, so you have to give a little leeway. You are going to see this in the playoffs big time, though. Outlaw is going to be tested one-on-one at that end of the court, as will Fernandez be. They need to be prepared. Travis' offensive night wasn't much better. His shot was off. He finished the game 2-8 for 10 points and would have gotten fewer had it not been for the catch-up free throws at the end. Worse he didn't get a single rebound until the closing minutes on a night when the Blazers were hunting hard for them. Part of it was guarding Kobe, as we said, but just one would have been nice. Travis did redeem himself by hitting those free throws and grabbing 3 rebounds late however, so all's well that ends well.
--Greg Oden gave the Blazers some great minutes tonight, including a bull-over move against Pau Gasol and a beautiful up-and-under for a dunk that left Andrew Bynum shaking his head. Oden made life tough on drivers and on post players both on the defensive end. When he ended up outside defensively, however, he couldn't recover and nobody helped him, leaving the middle all but bare. Fortunately those times were infrequent. Greg had 5 fouls but they were well-earned, not lapses. Oden carried us through and did us proud tonight. 3-5 shooting, 10 points, 6 rebounds in 23 minutes.
--Another guy who did us proud was Sergio Rodriguez. I don't think I've ever seen a more complete outing for him. I saw only one defensive lapse. I didn't see any offensively. He steered us, distributed the ball, and played with confidence. I don't believe I've ever uttered these words before, but we would not have won this game had Sergio not played as well as he did. It was razor-thin and his contributions more than accounted for the difference. 2 points, 4 assists in 11 minutes.
This was a great win in an important game...at least in the Blazer universe. There will be greater ones in the future, but for a team looking to prove it belongs in the post-season and battling to keep up in the seeding race this was about as good as it gets. Everybody should be proud. Well, except maybe Phil Jackson. Can anyone imagine Nate staying home from a one-game trip in a situation this crucial for anything short of decapitation? L.A. looked a bit chaotic out there too and perhaps let some Portland runs go on too long. Not good.
Check out the Jersey Contest playoff scores here. And hey, folks, can we JUST HAVE THE PLAYOFF PEOPLE enter these games? I don't know how many times I've said that and there are more extra entries creeping in there, not less.
Seeding implication post and tomorrow's game preview coming up next. Enjoy the party in the meantime!