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Media Row Report: Blazers 97, Pacers 92

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One of these nights the slow starts will catch up with the Portland Trail Blazers, but it wasn't Saturday night, as the Blazers steadily rallied before taking command of the fourth quarter on both ends, putting away the Indiana Pacers, 97-92.

The Pacers, unlike the Clippers earlier this week, aren't a team that is going to blow you away. Actually, they're kind of boring. Their statistical consultant is the most interesting thing the franchise has going for it and that's mainly because he lives with 47 cats all named after University of Washington football players from their short-lived early 1990s glory days. "Come here, Billy Meow Hobert," Kevin Pelton is known to say, "Come help Daddy fine-tune SCHOENE." That old ugly feline will dutifully bounce into his lap, slapping the keyboard with its curlicue tail until Kevin Love winds up as a super-productive future Hall-of-Famer and lock for the All-Star game.

The Pacers can bore out some victories, though, able to catch you napping and then counter-attack with speed on the ball with Darren Collison and some big, athletic players on the wings. That storyline was starting to slowly emerge, as the Blazers initially struggled with Collison, but, by the end of the night, this one was tucked away fairly safely, like Hobart in his catpack when the two go to 7-11 to stock up on all-fat milk. Both teams played as if Indiana's 16 point lead wasn't as big as it was: the Blazers came from behind without any tightness and the Pacers struggled to execute what had worked earlier down the stretch.

The cause for Portland's early deficit was obvious: starting point guard Andre Miller checked himself out of the game less than three minutes into the first quarter due to illness. Blazers coach Nate McMillan proceeded down the depth chart, turning first to Patty Mills, who got burned on defense and was forcing his offense, and then to Armon Johnson, who looked rusty and a bit overwhelmed by the unexpected opportunity.

McMillan, to his credit, kept calling audibles without hesitation, arriving at Plan D in fairly short order, turning over the offense initiation keys to Rudy Fernandez, which is always enough to get the pulse going and increase the stress level. Fernandez responded extremely well, in part because he wasn't pressured on the ball nearly as much as his shaky open court handle warrants. He was both patient and assertive in the halfcourt, showing solid adeptness at getting into plays early in the shot clock and using his vision and timing to hit guys on the run. Later in the game, Fernandez also made the extra pass from the top of the key a number of times, switching the attack and making the Pacers expend more energy on the defensive end than they were prepared to. The end result was 11 points, six rebounds, eight assists, two steals and just two turnovers. This would qualify as an excellent night for any Blazers point guard this season; that it was Portland's fourth option at the one made it that much sweeter.

Similarly, Wesley Matthews also got the rock early and was asked to get Portland into some plays on offense. The concern with Matthews in that role is his tendency to call his own number and look to get to the basket rather than serve as a true playmaker and leader of the team offense. Tonight, Matthews forced a few shots going to the hoop but then settled into a more level pace. He joined Fernandez in finding Nicolas Batum on the perimeter (Batum finisehd with 23 points and 5-8 on three-pointers, including four in the fourth quarter), as well as playing setup man for LaMarcus Aldridge, who turned it on after a slow first quarter (25 points and 12 points on the night). By the end of the night, Matthews finished with 19 points, three rebounds and a career-high nine assists, a testament to how hot his teammates got but also to his ability to adapt within the course of the game, honing in on what was working and avoiding what wasn't .

"Adapt" was really the theme tonight. The Blazers first made due without Miller after the initial hiccup and then played lights out shutdown team defense in the fourth quarter again. The key adaptation there was switching Batum onto Collison -- it's always a favorite adjustment of mine when Batum gets to guard point guards -- and then using an interchangeable lineup to keep Collison from getting into the paint and forcing a general stand-around stagnation from his teammates. "They did a pretty good job in the first quarter, you have to give them credit," Batum told me after the game. "Then we started to step up, started to disturb [Collison]. They didn't move like they did in the first two quarters. With the lineup we had at the end of the game, with Wes, Rudy, DC, LA and me, we can switch every screen. That disturbed him a little bit and we did a good job."

Nobody was hitting outside shots for Indiana to loosen things up, so it turned out to be a pretty straightforward method for Portland to defeat an opponent. Solid free throw shooting in the game's closing minutes closed the door on Portland's fifth straight win (the league's second-longest current winning streak).

Random Game Notes

  • Brandon Roy was on the bench tonight and was shown on the jumbotron. He received extended applause from the audience and acknowledged with a wave and a smile, which drew more applause. Roy made some pre-game comments. Read them here.
  • Dante Cunningham's Elbow is now wanted by police in two states in connection with a pair of homicide investigations. Tyler Hansbrough got knocked the ....... out. Obligatory NSFW link to "Friday" clip
  • Cunningham took a career-high 14 shots tonight, the best being a swinging two-handed dunk that was one of the cooler throw-downs he's had in Red and Black.
  • The halftime entertainment was 100+ Zumba dance instructors in matching outfits showing off one of their fitness routines. Turns out, Zumba is a Spanish word that translates to "unflatteringly tight red shirt."    
  • Arguably the biggest momentum changer, for the second game in a row, was an open court play by Fernandez, in which he pilfered the ball from Collison near midcourt, robbing Indiana of an easy 2-on-1 fastbreak. He pushed the ball back up quickly to Patty Mills, who drained his only made shot of the game, a roll-around three-pointer. 
  • Nicolas Batum hit FOUR three-pointers in the first FOUR minutes and FORTY FOUR seconds of the FOURTH quarter. The last of which he shot before he even seemed to catch it, a crazy quick flick that would win him a million three-point contests or make him a pop-a-shot champion if he could consistently replicate it. After the game, Batum was laughing out loud at the shot, saying he knew it was in before he even caught the pass. "The zone" is evidently a fun place to be. I'm not sure how this play applies to the endless "hot hand theory" debate except that perhaps Batum just proved that someone can have hot fingertips.
  • Nate McMillan expressed a deep appreciation for Boyz II Men's generation-defining classic "Motown Philly" during one of the jumbotron music segments.
  • The Sean Marks highlight of the night... boy, not much to choose from in his 1:39 of action. It wasn't really his fault, but on a high pick-and-roll with Armon Johnson, he rolled hard to the hoop while the pass was thrown as if he was popping, so the ball went whizzing roughly eight feet behind him. Marks pulled out a little Matrix-style gadget-arm action, trying to reach all the way back in slow motion to prevent the ball from going out of bounds, to absolutely no avail. 

Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments

Initial thoughts

Gutty. You're talking about a team that, as I told them at halftime, when we knew Andre was struggling before the game, we've been here before. We've just got to pull together, stay connected, have each other's back. We made some adjustments tonight that we had to play 46 minutes without our point guard, which was tough early. Rudy, we went with him at the point and then we just mixed it up with he and Wesley, trying to get Collison off the ball. At first we struggled a little bit, but that group was a good group. We were able to do a lot of switching defensively because we had a lot of size. Offensively, we had 17 assists with those guys, between the two of them, solid game by the unit. By the entire unit. You talk about making plays down the stretch, Wesley came up with big steals, Rudy came up with a big assist, Dante blocks a big shot, and those are things you've got to do to win games. Incredible effort by these guys.

Resilient

Tonight you just shake your head. Andre was struggling before the game. I think they gave him two bags of fluid before the game. He wasn't in the locker room during the pre-game and basically just wanted to try to go out there and play. After a couple of minutes he couldn't do it. We just had to make adjustments. Go with our point guards. I thought the speed of Collison forced those guys to play a little too fast. Rudy and Wesley decided to go with them. They did a good job of settling us down, getting us into our stuff. 

Did you decide to take Andre out of the game?

No, he basically gave me a hand signal that he needed to get off the floor.

Are you guys turning it on against bad teams?

What we talk about is: what can you do? Andre was ill today, worked all day to try to get to the game and play the game and a couple minutes into the game he can't go. So now, you've just got to play. Guys have to step up, we know what we need to do. They did a good job of adapting. 

You don't think they're flipping a switch against bad teams?

Well, I think we're showing we're hungry. We're working and we're not giving in or giving up to the adversity that we've been faced with. Whether it's guys going down or being down in the fourth quarter, I thought our defense was great the second half. We held them to 39 points. We tightened up defensively. All the things we didn't do early, we've been doing late. Which is making plays, getting stops and scoring. We can shoot the ball -- Nic had big threes, knocked down big shots tonight. Those are the things that they're doing.

Rudy's strong night

I think he's been aggressive -- one. We've been at home, we've talked about him being a homer. I just like the fact that he's being aggressive, attacking, looking for his shot, looking to make plays. And he's knocking down the shots. He's a good passer, he's very unselfish, sometimes he's too unselfish. He's been aggressive, attacking the basket and making the reads.

Message to team after win

They did what they needed to do. They came together. They didn't give in, they didn't quit, they kept playing. It took us 48 minutes to get it done but that team was playing well, they had 53 or 54 in the first half and we finally started to execute the gameplan. We got physical defensively, started to switch, our switches were good, we did a good job on Granger, Collison was hurting us. We adjusted, we put Nic on Collison, got some length there, our switches were working.

Do you think Andre still thinks his games streak is going and that's why he gave it an effort tonight?

I don't think that. I think the thing was he was feeling bad but he was going to play. They gave him a couple bags of fluid early before the game. After going out there, Collison went by him 2-3 times, but hey, even if he did, I like the effort. I like the effort. You try it. He couldn't go so he pulled himself.

Outworking the Pacers

You've got to earn it. I like the fact that we are -- our effort has been good. We've outworked these teams. These have been some clubs below .500 records. We've had to make some adjustments. I like the fact that we are working, 29 assists tonight, they are playing good basketball, they are playing unselfish, they're playing together, we're making plays. I like the fact that we outworked them. We outworked this team tonight.

Best ball movement of the season?

It was good. 29 assists, I think we've been around that before a couple of times. But without your point guard. I think that makes it even more special that you've done that without your point guard. Your 2s were handling most of your sets tonight and they did a good job of not only scoring and setting people up but defending. Playing a solid game.

Mills and Johnson struggled

Yeah, they basically went at that match-up. He was very aggressive early, scoring. I wanted to get some length on him. I thought our point guards, the speed of Collison sped us up and we were not able to get into our offense or get into a flow. We had a few turnovers. We didn't have a rhythm and we weren't controlling the ball. I thought Wesley and Rudy did a better job of settling us down.

They looked to exploit Collison on the backups

Collison is fast. He's playing well, played well last year, that team is playing better basketball because of him. So yeah that was a factor.

-- Ben Golliver | benjamin.golliver@gmail.com | Twitter