The dominant question before tonight's game: "Will Brandon Roy play?" Mixed signals were everywhere. Roy was listed as a probable starter in the stats sheet and his number was included on the Rose Garden scoreboard in the starting lineup yet he was nowhere to be found during pre-game warmups. As word started to get out that his ailing right hamstring would keep Roy from playing in a nationally-televised game right as Dwight Howard -- part man, part superhuman -- took the court to warm-up, there was some anxiety and resignation in the air. Those feelings lasted for no more than 12 minutes as the Blazers sprinted out to a 24-14 first quarter lead and never looked back, thumping the Orlando Magic 102-87 in the Rose Garden.
Some unexpected wins are the result of complicated gimmicks, mixed-and-matched defenses, unpredictable rotations, lucky execution or kind officiating. Tonight's win for the Blazers couldn't have been simpler. They brought energy and focus (6 steals and 6 turnovers); the Magic didn't (3 steals, 12 turnovers). They were hot from deep (11 of 21 on threes); the Magic weren't (7 of 30 on threes). And, most importantly, they crashed the glass early, often, on time and late, overcoming the absence of their two best centers and doing a more-than-reasonable job containing Howard, the league's premier pivot man.
Tonight's game pitted two of the league's top six rebounding teams (by rebound rate) and it included Howard, who ranks second in the league in that category individually. While Howard led the Magic with 11 boards, the Blazers diligently sealed him off of the offensive glass and made him work for everything he got on the defensive glass too. It was a comical scene at times, as Howard looked to be outnumbered 5 to 1 as he battled for rebounds while his teammates jogged back downcourt. "They did send a lot of bodies at me," Howard told me after the game. "Their job is to frustrate me. I can't allow that to affect the way I play. When I do allow it to affect me, we don't play good."
All the extra attention clearly affected Howard. He was plagued with early foul trouble which was compounded by a double technical that he was assessed for getting tangled up with Blazers guard Steve Blake right as the first half ended. Blake appeared to grab and hold Howard's jersey as they jockeyed for position in the paint. "He just bearhugged me," Howard told me with a shake of his head. "He had me wrapped up. I tried to just get him off and tried look at the ref. But the ref thinks, 'oh, you're bigger than everybody and stronger.' But if somebody is holding you, there's only one way to get them off, it's with force." Blake responded to the shove from Howard with an obscenity and a take-no-prisoners glare that brought chuckles from media members during the game and reflected the overall intensity the Blazers displayed from start to finish.
Nate McMillan praised virtually every aspect of his team's performance tonight and agreed that the overall effort on the defensive boards was a difference-maker. "Without our centers being in the lineup, we're going to need everybody to come to the board because we're small," McMillan told me. "The games where we've lost, I think it's been due to teams just pounding us in the paint."
Indeed, in Blazers victory this season they are outrebounding their opponents by an average of 42-38. In Blazers losses, they are being outrebounded by their opponents 40 to 36.
Tonight McMillan listed off half the active roster in singling guys out for their board work. "Our guys are doing a great job, Martell, DC, Howard, Jeff, LaMarcus, our guards coming back and rebounding the ball." LaMarcus Aldridge led the way with 14 rebounds and Martell Webster tacked on 9 rebounds, including 8 on the defensive end.
After the game, Webster said the team's rebounding success is a product of player-to-player motivation as much as it is a message from the coaching staff. "It's more of a crew thing," Webster smiled. "We [as players] talk about it. We know we have to get in there and rebound. Not only does Coach emphasize getting in there and getting rebounds but we do on the court [too]. If we get five guys in there it gives us an advantage because they usually have two of their guards back. If we get five guys in there rebounding, we're probably going to come out with most of them."
So who is leading this crew? "I'm trying," Webster admitted, smiling again. "But LA is leading it. I'm trying to get in there and battle. It's a little team competition [for rebounds] but it's all for the good." That statement is surely music to Nate McMillan's (and just about every coach at every level of basketball's) ears. When talented players buy into a system, put forth maximum effort and self-motivate the energy level, really good things can happen.
Like beating a top 5 team in the league without your team captain and best player.
- Will Brandon Roy play on Monday against the Washington Wizards? Nate McMillan: "I don't know. We'll have to see."
- All 19 players that saw game action scored at least 1 point tonight. Pretty cool.
- Magic forward Matt Barnes could not have been more disgusted with his team's lack of effort and intensity, spewing profanities without care in the locker room post-game and repeating that it was on every individual Magic player to bring his best effort every night. "We're loaded," Barnes quipped, "We should be undefeated on paper." And then later, "Talk is cheap. We gotta knock people down like they're knocking Dwight down."
- True to his word in this recent Blazers.com video, Rudy Fernandez flashed his 3 finger sign after connecting from downtown and then pointed to Travis Outlaw on the bench.
- Jerryd Bayless minutes watch: 20 minutes, 0-6 shooting, 1 point, 1 rebound, 3 assists, 1 turnover. Two early fouls limited his impact on the game's opening minutes as he got his second career start in Roy's absence. The time for Bayless to step up was yesterday.
- Steve Blake, on the other hand, was as active on both ends and as accurate from the field as he's been all year, fearlessly knocking down 4 three pointers and tying his season-high with 18 points. Blake and Andre Miller combined for 15 of the team's 23 assists (on 41 field goals). Great pace to the ball movement all night long.
- I asked Dante Cunningham after the game what it was like to guard Dwight Howard one-on-one. "I get that question a lot from my friends back home. They're always like 'you're going up against LeBron, you're going up against Kobe and Dwight.' Coming into the NBA it was kind of like, 'wow, those are superstars.' But now that we're playing, I'm in the mix with them, I'm banging with them, it's almost like they are another player to me. And that's how you honestly have to treat it.
- What was his strategy against Howard tonight? Cunningham said, "Just use my quickness on him. Staying low. If I had to give a foul give it to him. What did he shoot from the line? [3 for 10] I mean that was a good gamble. When he did get at me I made him work hard for it."
- In terms of charisma with the media: Dwight Howard > Kobe Bryant >>>>>>>> LeBron James. His bowtie might be a little bit unnecessary but his smile is as genuine as it gets, his self-assessments were thoughtful and honest, and his answers were patient and well-delivered. A polished guy in every sense of the word.
- Blazers Owner Paul Allen was once again at the game tonight, surely loving every minute of it.
Nate McMillan's Post Game Comments
Again great basketball by our guys. They just keep stepping up and rising to the occasion. I was asked earlier how a re we winning, is it 1 or 2 players that's making the difference in this stretch where we've won games without players? It's not. It's been a collective effort. Not only the players but also my coaching staff. We just keep stepping up and tonight it was everybody again. I thought the first unit did a great job of establishing themselves, the second unit got their rhythm in the second half and beat a very good team.
This game represents your season?
We're playing good basketball. We're playing the game the right way. We're playing the game together. I think that must happen regardless of who you have. Whether we have all of our guys together because I've seen it go the other way. Where you're not playing together and you're worried about different things and all of a sudden it blows up. This group is coming out, they're playing hard, they're playing together and they beat the Magic tonight. Executing, defensively we were aggressive, offensively we got 87 attempts so we were attacking and we had a lot of energy tonight.
Are you used to playing without guys?
It's not a shocker to us any more, to these guys. To have to be called on to step up and play or fill in for a guy. It's still a challenge. The month of December, that was difficult to handle. When you were losing guys for the season and tonight Brandon we found out, most of these guys found out right before the game that he wasn't playing. But they just keep having themselves ready and they're productive when they get their opportunity.
Forwards limited Dwight Howard to 11 and 11.
Howard. It starts with Howard. Jeff. LaMarcus. DC saw some time on him. We tried to mix up our defense on him. They did a good job of just making him work, beating him to his spots. I thought our guards did a good job of mixing up their defense, double-teaming, faking the double team, rotating out to their shooters. We had to defend the 3 ball and we did a good job of defending the 3 also. So that's a tough team to defend when you have a guy like Howard in the post who can score. But that 3 point threat and being able to cover both. Our guys did a great job of rotating out and then getting back and rebounding. We controlled the boards tonight.
What's been the difference for Martell recently?
I think he's getting comfortable with the League. That position as far as what we are asking him to do. Knowing where his shots are coming from. He's knocking them down. We felt if he can continue to be consistent like that that's what he's in there for. We feel like he has the ability to defend, he's strong, he's quick, he can rebound and he also can shoot the ball and he's doing those three things for us. Which, Greg and Brandon and those guys are out there that would open up that paint a lot more. He's knocking those shots down so we need him to continue to do that.
I thought he was good. I thought he was really good. Nice floor game, his plus minus is off the charts especially for this game. He's just making things happen. He's taking advantage of situations, we're putting both he and Brandon in the post a lot more and they've been able to make good decisions.
23 assists and only 6 turnovers
Well, moving the ball, we wanted to speed up the tempo. I liked the fact that we got 87 attempts at the basket and we feel like if we get movement that we're going to knock down some shots. They moved the ball. We're getting it to the guards, they're creating and we're moving the ball.
Team defensive rebounding
Well we're going to need that. Without our centers being in the lineup, we're going to need everybody to come to the board because we're small. The games where we've lost I think it's been due to teams just pounding us in the paint. Our guys are doing a great job, Martell, DC, Howard, Jeff, LaMarcus, our guards coming back and rebounding the ball.
Blake and Rudy are back
It's good to knock down some shots and we struggled early tonight. We were what 52 percent from the 3. When Blake and Rudy and Martell, we had guys that can shoot the ball, they're knocking down their shots, we tend to play better defensively. They like to see the ball go in. Defensively they bring a lot of energy. So we can shoot it we just gotta move it.
Do you feel like you're starting to get over the hump with injuries?
This will be for the season. We're at the halfway point right now. We're doing some good things but we still don't have Travis, we stil ldon't have Greg, we still don't have Joel and Nicolas and a couple of those guys won't be back so this will be a challenge, a fight for the rest of the season to stay in this race and to give ourselves a chance to get to the playoffs.
I thought his last two games we fed off of his energy. He's done some great work in the post, great work on the defensive end of the floor and he's playing really good basketball and we're going to need that because we're going to play off both he and Brandon.
Do you expect Brandon to play Monday?
I don't know. We'll have to see.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter