Long Story Short: The Blazers play inspired, energetic defense for 48 minutes and Portland's second-unit finally provides some scoring punch allowing a relatively easy and fun romp over the athletic-but-frustrated Bobcats.
Portland continued its string of strong first-quarter starts in this game, a trend which has led to good things on multiple occasions. Tonight was no exception. From the opening moments the Bobcats were firing from the perimeter while Portland was working the ball inside off pass and dribble. The Blazers cleaned up several misses with offensive rebounds. When the early smoke cleared Portland had converted a couple of layups, a handful of free throws, a short Aldridge jumper, and a Bayless three-pointer into 12 points while Charlotte had managed only two layups for 4. Though the Bobcats did make an effort (semi-successful) to get the ball inside more they turned the ball over frequently in the process, leading to quick, easy points for the Blazers. Portland followed where opportunity led, running the ball down the court, firing quickly and confidently, spending relatively little time holding onto the rock. Firmly in the zone offensively, the Blazers passed fearlessly and everyone who had decent looks converted. On the other end the footwork was agile, the rebounding solid, and hands were busy. Dante Cunningham added some late-quarter help defense shutting off what few drives the ‘Cats were getting. After the first Portland led 29-19.
The second quarter saw even more hustle as Portland beat Charlotte to every loose ball. Rudy Fernandez and Nicolas Batum took full advantage, zinging the nets separately and finding some chemistry together. Offensive rebounding remained strong. The tempo remained brisk. It was apparent this would be a fun game throughout. The Bobcats had a late-quarter flurry but Jerryd Bayless responded with a couple of his many unstoppable drives and Portland went into the half up 8.
The third period saw LaMarcus Aldridge get into the flow early as the Blazers went with their traditional matchup-exploiting sets. LMA made the jumpers smooth and easy and even had a nice hook reminiscent of the great Andre Miller. Portland got a little sloppy with the ball in the quarter but, as they had done the whole night and would continue to do, they got back quickly in transition and refused to let Charlotte benefit from miscues. Near the end of the period Charlotte went with some matchup-exploiting offense of their own, running sets for Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson, trying to take advantage of size and height. It worked quite well but in the closing minutes Cunningham got busy in the lane again, Batum "D'ed up", and Rudy Fernandez leapt into the passing lanes. Under increased pressure and quick rotations the Bobcats retreated into mediocrity. Behind late scores by Miller and Batum Portland rolled the Charlotte margin in the period down to 1, entering the fourth up 7.
It was apparent that the Bobcats would need an early surge in the fourth to put the game in doubt when it had been largely controlled by the Blazers to this point. When Flip Murray drew a slapping foul on Rudy Fernandez 11-seconds into the period--a foul committed beyond the three-point arc which he followed with the obligatory late shot attempt, drawing and hitting the ensuing trio of free throws--it appeared they might get it. The lead was down to a scant 4 points. But the ‘Cats never got closer. With Charlotte watching the big threats closely the Blazers snuck through buckets from Juwan Howard, Steve Blake, and Dante Cunningham. By the 9-minute mark the lead was back to 9. When Fernandez hit a three 90 seconds later to push it to 12 the fun was back on. Batum went into full-defensive mode, he and Aldridge cleaned up the boards until there were none left, and the Bobcats barely got a decent look for the better part of 9 minutes. Meanwhile Batum started cutting like crazy on the offensive end and everyone was finding him. He finished all three of the Blazers' final field goal makes and the Blazers ended up waltzing to the 19-point victory.
The Bobcats wanted to bull over the Blazers tonight but couldn't manage it. Stephen Jackson did end up with a nice total of 23 but he didn't get anyone else involved. Gerald Wallace had 17 but was limited to 10 shots. Meanwhile the Blazers made like a swarm of stinging bees, playing great team defense, rebounding all over, and putting 6 guys in double figures. Portland zipped down the court and made for the rim more often than we've seen in a while. The unselfconscious shooting from recent games was back in full force. Add it all up and you had a game where there seemed to be no worries on Portland's side. When you think of the near-constant angst and struggle which have accompanied most of the Blazers' successes this year, let alone their failures, this kind of game was a welcome sight.
How good was that defense? The Bobcats shot just 40.6% overall, went 6-23 from distance, scored just 4 fast break points (Yoinks!), and had only 32 points in the paint. Meanwhile the Blazers shot 53.3% overall, 7-20 from the arc, scored 12 fast break points, and had 48 points in the paint. You could drink a shot for every fast break point and point in the paint the Blazers held over their opponents since the centers went down and still be able to roller skate on a tightrope after most games. Tonight you'd be on the ground (maybe under it) before you laced up the skates. Portland outrebounded the Bobcats too. Cheers.
Nicolas Batum had another sweeeeeeeeet outing, combining defense, offense, rebounding, running, slashing, jump-shooting. 7-10 shooting, 15 points, 9 rebounds, and some great synergy with his teammates. Unless you see the games you can't really appreciate what Nic is doing. When you do see it, it's unmistakable. He doesn't beat down the door like Arnold Schwartzenegger or blow things up like Bruce Willis. He's got a license to kill like James Bond and he's every bit as versatile, suave, and effective.
Jerryd Bayless also had an awesome night, especially on offense. Forget the 4 turnovers...aggression and speed have their price. He destroyed the Bobcats off the dribble whenever the Blazers needed a bucket. It was like they weren't even there. 6-10 shooting, 15 points.
LaMarcus Aldridge looked pretty confident out there. His repertoire wasn't necessarily more varied but he got into his moves quicker and made them stronger. He looked like he was scoring instead of hoping when he released his shot. Part of that may have been the couple inch advantage he had on the defender. Part of it may have been the lower pressure in this game overall. Also the Bobcats couldn't spare extra men for him with everybody else in white scoring. Whatever the cause, he looked good. 8-13, a team-high 17 points, 8 rebounds, and some nice late-game defense.
Rudy Fernandez was into this game. It seemed to suit his style. He wasn't the best individual defender out there but he played the passing lanes well and came up with 3 steals. He shot 4-9 for 11 points but also added 4 rebounds and 5 assists including some pretty passes down the lane. I love it when Rudy can just play.
Dante Cunningham stayed out of foul trouble and got 31 minutes because of some crazy good help defense combined with the usual energy bursts. He looked a little Kersey-esque out there on the defensive end...the young Jerome who used to intimidate people. Now all he needs are a couple of thunderous putback dunks flying straight down the lane. The 2-block, 4-rebound line doesn't do justice to his efforts out there. He scored 10 points on 5-8 shooting.
Martell Webster looked better in this game than he did in the last couple. The free-and-easy vibe makes his release look better. He went 2-6 from distance, 3-8 overall for 10 points in 23 minutes. He added 5 rebounds. His defense wasn't bad but Batum so overshadows him in that department that it's hard to dwell on it.
Juwan Howard played 23 quiet minutes. We didn't need the Geezer Patrol much tonight as the pace was dialed up into youngin' territory. Nazr Mohammed had only 4 rebounds on the night. This is a quiet way Juwan contributes when matched up against non-dominating centers. Even if he doesn't blow you away he won't let you blow his team away either. 3 points, 3 rebounds.
Andre Miller looked content to set other people up tonight, letting Bayless and Batum handle the majority of the driving. When ‘Dre did go on offense he succeeded, shooting 4-6 for 8 points. His 10 assists, including several passes that just sliced the defense wide open, tell the tale of his night.
Steve Blake played 17 minutes, hit a three, and had a great alley-oop pass of his own en route to 5 points and 4 assists.
Jeff Pendergraph hit 4 free throws in the closing moments of the game for his 4 points. He had a rebound and 2 fouls in 5 minutes.
Paddy Mills got 2 minutes of garbage time and was credited with a turnover.
This kind of win inspires confidence. Hopefully that spirit will remain intact through Wednesday's game in Utah, win or lose. It was important for the Blazers to win this one and it's a promising sign that they won it so well. They looked like a playoff team and this victory points them in the right direction. Being in the Rose Garden tonight should have been a ton of fun.
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