The Portland Trail Blazers came to life just a little bit to close their preseason schedule tonight, defeating an injury-riddled but competitive Denver Nuggets team 90-83 in the Rose Garden. The Blazers improved to 3-4 on the preseason; the Nuggets dropped to 4-3.
This was not a dominating nor a thrilling win for Portland, but it was reassuring, a put-it-in-your-pocket-and-smile victory that should rightfully calm some nerves, both within the organization and throughout the fanbase. To the right, you can see the team's motivational T-shirt for the season. It reads: "Focus, Heart, Grit, Determination, Together, Ready, NOW, Rise With Us." Tonight, especially after a rocky first quarter, the Blazers displayed most of those traits.
After the game, Nate McMillan played the "we flipped a switch" card and, sometime during the second quarter, it did appear that the Blazers upped their level of seriousness. This game turned on a couple key factors.
First, Brandon Roy, who struggled through 0-5 shooting and gave a lackadaisical defensive effort during the first quarter, got assertive and crafty off the dribble during the second quarter. It was a slow ramp up but the final product -- 9 of 10 from the foul line for the game -- provided the winning difference.
Second, Marcus Camby returned to the court in a big way: 8 points, 17 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 2 blocks, a very hard foul on Arron Afflalo in transition and a number of dives to the floor for loose balls. He played 33 minutes and showed no ill effects of the 46 different injuries he's had during camp. After the game, Camby recounted getting a phone call from Nate McMillan that big men Raymond Sykes and Steven Hill had been waived so his contributions would be needed. He delivered.
Finally, Andre Miller showed some flashes of game dominance, especially during the second quarter. Miller set up in a number of different spots -- on the perimeter, in the pinch post, on the wing -- and he passed effectively and moved the ball quickly from all angles. He finished with 12 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists and just 1 turnover in 35 minutes, a line and performance Nate McMillan would take from Miller 82 nights a year. With Miller set up off to the side during the second quarter, the Blazers showed quite a bit more off-ball activity -- curls, pindowns and the like -- than we have seen previously during the preseason and the Denver defense looked confused, losing their marks on a number of occasions.
This is a big point to emphasize here so stick with me through some numbers. The Blazers shot 8 of 20 during the second quarter. 1 for 7 on three-pointers. 7 for 13 on two-pointers. 9-11 on free throws. I've written on a number of occasions this preseason that this team has looked like it will live and die with its outside shooting. Tonight's second quarter proved that doesn't have to be the case, and I would expect the coaching staff to use tape from this stretch to illustrate the value of ball movement and off-ball movement. 7 for 13 on two-pointers and 9-11 on free throws is about as efficient as you can reasonably expect, and that's a product of good looks and situations where Denver was forced to foul to prevent free baskets. It wasn't a particularly fast-paced quarter but the execution was promising.
Good times. Let's go through brief evaluations of each Blazer.
Through one quarter, I was afraid we were looking at another lackluster Roy preseason performance, but he turned it on, especially during the second half. He finished an unsightly 6-20 from the field but a good number were open looks that he simply didn't knock down. Roy's balance seemed just a touch off tonight and we didn't see his full top end speed, so it was encouraging to see his ability to draw fouls in volume and keep his defenders off-balance, even without going 100%. Roy said afterwards that his off night from the floor wasn't concerning to him. "Just Missing shots. Have to give your opponents some credit. Just some misses. I missed some layups at the hoop and I'll correct that."
A number of media members picked up on this and it was certainly worth the attention: Nate McMillan used Roy as the primary defender on Carmelo Anthony throughout the entire game. Afterwards, McMillan said he just wanted a look at the match-up, but other explanations include saving Nicolas Batum for the regular season or trying to motivate Roy. Whatever the reason, Roy did a nice job against a flat Anthony, who went 6-23 from the post and wasn't his dominant self. Camby provided some great backside help against Anthony too, making Roy's life easier.
Roy finished with 23 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 steal. Still not the all-around game he delivered in years past but a vast improvement over previous preseason outings.
LaMarcus Aldridge tallied 16 points and 9 rebounds, like clockwork this guy, and he disappeared for stretches, although it's less of a concern because his effort has been solid throughout the preseason. The Blazers again threw two lobs to Aldridge for alley-oop slams, one coming from a Camby pass that originated near the three-point line. He's finishing them with authority and clearly enjoying that particular play call.
Most of what needs to be said about Marcus Camby was said above, but his impact, especially against a depleted Denver front line that didn't have Chris Anderson, Al Harrington, Kenyon Martin and lost Nene Hilario to injury early in the game, was enormous. He's a vacuum for rebounds, especially when there are no legitimate challengers. Camby's return meant Luke Babbitt returned to spot play and Dante Cunningham saw only 21 minutes off the bench. The difference between the Aldridge/Camby/Cunningham rotation as constituted tonight and any combination we saw previously that didn't involve Camby is enormous. He remains the most important Blazer over the next 2 months or so.
Andre Miller: new haircut (buzz) and rejuvenated flow. Some of the blacktop energy was back tonight as he looked to initiate contact going to the hoop, pound Denver's smaller guards in the post and set up Portland's offense while keeping guys involved. He played alongside Roy for long stretches and it was the best chemistry between the two that we've seen so far in the preseason, although it wasn't excellent. Certainly improved.
The best part, really, was the 7 assists to 1 turnover in 35 minutes. In these kinds of games -- grind it out, win it at the free throw line, overcome poor shooting nights with rebounds and solid defense -- Miller's ability to limit turnovers, and thereby save possessions, is crucial for team success and his own playing time.
Nicolas Batum was very careless with the basketball on offense early, committing a number of turnovers and looking generally confused. He eventually left the game with a neck injury and was kept out for precautionary reasons, but it's said not to be serious.
Batum made the play of the night chasing after a loose ball with Chauncey Billups into the Denver backcourt. Billups tried to save the ball from going out of bounds and Batum picked it off, coasting in for a smooth slam dunk. The basket gave the Blazers a 10 point lead in the third quarter, prompted Denver coach George Karl to take a timeout and led to a Nate McMillan fist pump, which are always fun. The Blazers never looked back.
Dante Cunningham's impact is so much more noticeable when he comes off the bench rather than the few times he has started. His instant energy on the offensive glass, tracking down loose balls and helping weakside on defense is so much more pronounced when it comes halfway through the first quarter rather than at the opening tip, when everyone else is geared up to go too. Just as guys are waiting to get that second wind, Cunningham enters the game and changes it in some way. He did it again tonight, swooping in for an offensive rebounds that he tapped to himself.
This wasn't Cunningham's best night -- he missed a few shots he could have hit -- but solid as always: 7 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks and 0 turnovers in 21 minutes. Given how frequently he touches the ball in the high post, his ability to protect possession continues to impress.
Tonight felt like a big opportunity lost for Jerryd Bayless. In 20 minutes he went 2 for 7 from the field, just 1 of 4 from deep, no free throw attempts, 5 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 1 turnover and 5 fouls. After the game he looked ticked off at himself. He couldn't get anything going, from anywhere on the court, and really looked off-kilter. The entire preseason, really, has been one to forget for Bayless, who said on Media Day he wasn't sure what his role would be.
Tonight was a frustrating evening on a number of counts for Bayless. The biggest: with Wesley Matthews sitting due to injury and Nicolas Batum exiting the game early due to injury, Bayless saw some extended court time and even played down the stretch during the fourth quarter. Unfortunately he was mostly a non-factor, and his turnover was ugly, as he carelessly stepped on the end line while trying to inbound the ball after a made basket against soft pressure, with Portland trying to protect a fourth-quarter lead. It was the kind of play that would get him yanked during the regular season, or the preseason, for that matter, if McMillan had anyone else to turn to.
Bayless is making progress on trying to find the open man rather than beeline to the rim over and over but the location of his passes is often poor. Many times this preseason, and multiple times again tonight, a spotting-up shooter has had to lean down, reach up, or step to the side to receive a kickout pass that should have and could have been sent directly to his shooting pocket. Roy missed a three to close one of the quarters after being forced to deal with a low kickout from Bayless. His assist rate would skyrocket if he's able to make the proper adjustments. This feels correctable through mass repetition, but it could also be a by-product of a lack of chemistry and familiarity with his role and teammates. Time will tell.
The man Bayless played over down the stretch was Rudy Fernandez, which was an interesting decision on McMillan's part given Fernandez's stellar play throughout the preseason to this point. This wasn't a great night from Rudy -- 3 for 9 overall, 1 of 6 from deep -- but he continues to make intelligent defensive plays, including a steal that saved a possession early in the fourth quarter and prevented a momentum swing during transition.
Armon Johnson barely sniffed the court tonight, playing just five minutes and not really distinguishing himself. It was clear Denver Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson reads his scouting report, because he sagged off Johnson as far as J.R. Smith sags his shorts off his rear end, roughly 18 feet at one point. No respect at all for Johnson's jumper.
Luke Babbitt's burn was a casualty of Marcus Camby's return. He played one minute and registered nothing on the stat line.
I took one step into the Denver locker room after the game and the Nuggets hit me with, "What's up, Luke Babbitt?" I kid you not. In fact, I wish I was kidding.
Patty Mills and Elliot Williams
DNP-CDs. After the game, I asked Patty Mills whether he had heard anything about his status with the team and he said he hadn't. He also repeated his desire to find a spot somewhere that he can see some playing time.
The team of guys that played tonight looked like a 48 win playoff team. Not a particularly exciting team, but a get-the-job-done-enough-of-the-time team. All things considered, it could be a lot worse.
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
Pleased with the performance?
Yeah. I thought we played basketball tonight. The first unit, those guys flipped the switch, which was something that we were waiting for. Defensively we were really good tonight, we didn't shoot the ball well. We showed that if we defend, you can keep yourself in games. Better job of taking care of the ball. Our last game against Golden State we had over 20 turnovers. Tonight at the half we only had four. We started to get loose with it, with our execution in the fourth quarter. But it was much better. And then being the aggressors. Winning the free throw line, attacking the basket, getting to the line.
Batum's injury and status?
Nic, I think some stiffness in his neck. He should be ok.
Brandon Roy defending Carmelo Anthony?
We just wanted to look at that match-up. I thought he did a nice job. You don't stop guys like Carmelo. You just try to make it tough and he tried to stay in front of him. Did a good job of just forcing him to shoot contested j's and keeping him off the free throw line.
Intensity like a regular season atmosphere in the fourth quarter?
We wanted to play that style. I told guys before the game that we were going to try to get as close to the rotation as possible. Tonight the starters knew they were going to play minutes and we just wanted them to, whatever minutes they played, to work to play their game tempo.
Marcus Camby's game
He did a nice job. Conditioning, but he did a nice job coming in and being big. Communicating with the guys. Rebounding the ball. Blocking shots. Doing all the things Camby can do. That was big for us tonight. It was good to see this group together and be able to do the things we want to do defensively. Work on that, at least for a game. And then offensively we still need some work on our execution. I thought they did a good job of running the sets.
What did you like about the defense?
We just made them shoot contested j's. We didn't give up. With Denver, they're good, they're good in transition, they shoot the three-ball. So we were able to guard the basket as well as the three-point line. For most of the game they were shooting 35% or 37%. If you can hold Denver to shooting 35% for the game, that's pretty good.
NIc's injury is separate from his surgically-repaired area?
Yeah. Yeah. It's the neck, not the shoulder.
How would you sum up the preseason as a whole?
It's over. [Laughter] I was happy to get a chance to get our guys together tonight. Especially that starting group. I wish Wesley would have been available to play tonight so that we can get chemistry, but that wasn't the case. You have to make adjustments and we did. I thought tonight those guys responded. I thought Dre was better. He'd been turning the ball over and kind of just playing himself into shape and rhythm. Brandon got involved not only defensively but offensively tonight. It felt more like a regular season game. For the most part I think we get out of the game without any major injuries. We should get Wesley back for opening night. Now the real game starts.
Wesley Matthews's Health
He's feeling better but he's still sore.
Roy went 6-20. What do you make of that?
He was just missing shots. Whenever he was close to a double team, that's why we don't run a lot of pick-and-rolls for him. People complain or talk about us iso-ing him. All isos do is bring a trap to Brandon. I thought his shots, he just missed. I don't think it was so much what they were doing.
George Karl looked good.
He did. He's feeling good. It was good to see him.
When did the switch flip? Right from the start or during the game?
I thought it was better throughout the game. I thought we played better from start to finish tonight. We looked more like we were getting ready and playing a regular season game. It felt that way. Denver played their guys, they were running their sets and trying to take advantage of match-ups and we were doing the same thing. I thought our guys did a nice job tonight.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter