The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Denver Nuggets, 111-102, at the Rose Garden on Thursday night to improve to 3-0. The oddities in this one left a confounding vibe.
"I'm confused too," Blazers coach Nate McMillan said afterwards, shaking his head in response to a question that attempted to decipher one of the most unusual boxscores you will ever see. "Really," he added for emphasis as the room laughed.
The main cause for confusion: How does a team win when it commits 18 more turnovers than its opponent (25 to 7) and gives up 17 more fast break points (28 to 11)? The answer: it almost always does not win.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Blazers have not won a single regular season game since 1985-1986 with a turnover differential worse than -15. Not only was this the worst turnover differential in a win in franchise history but it was significantly worse than the nearest competition over the last 26 years.
What's more, Basketball-Reference.com reveals only seven wins by any NBA team that had a -18 turnover differential or worse since 1985-1986. So, in this one aspect, you can now impress your friends by telling them you watched one of the eight quirkiest wins of the last 26 seasons. Good times.
What produced this once-every-three(ish)-years win? More solid halfcourt defense plus excellent second-half shooting. Portland shot 21-for-34 (61.7 percent) in the second half, including 7-for-10 from deep. Rarely will you see three players all get hot in bang-bang-bang succession like Blazers guards Wesley Matthews, Jamal Crawford and Raymond Felton did on Thursday.
After missing all five of his three attempts on Tuesday and his first three bombs on Thursday, Matthews connected on five consecutive second-half threes that pushed him to a team-high 25 points.
"He carried us," forward LaMarcus Aldridge said. "He definitely carried us through a tough stretch."
A back tweak kept Matthews from crunch time minutes on Tuesday but he was back in down the stretch in a tight finish against the Nuggets. Matthews understands that he, like many Blazers, is playing for the right to play late in games. "I'm a liability if I don't [hit my shots]," Matthews admitted.
Crawford, too, looked like a liability for much of the game, scoring just 8 points on 3-for-12 shooting with four turnovers through three quarters. But he timed his burst well, scoring 14 fourth quarter points on 3-for-4 shooting and cashing in all seven of his fourth-quarter free throws to finish with 22 points off the bench.
That run set the table for Felton, whose late-game play against the team that traded him to the Blazers looked day-and-night from the slop he showed in Portland's first two games. It briefly appeared as if McMillan might simply ride Crawford; Instead, he returned to a smaller group, sending in Felton for center Marcus Camby at the three minute mark, with the Blazers up, 104-100.
"Well, [the Nuggets] were small," McMillan said, explaining his decision to use the Felton/Crawford/Matthews trio with forwards Gerald Wallace and Aldridge in the game's closing minutes. "We were rotating the three guard rotation all night. With Gerald [Wallace] and Nic [Batum], we could play those guys at the forward spot because they were basically playing four guards with Gallinari being out there. I felt like the pick-and-roll, we could take advantage of that. We were just trying to keep those guys fresh by substituting them. I gave Raymond a quick breather and he was able to relieve Crawford of handling the ball."
McMillan then paused before making clear his directive to Felton.
"Get to the basket."
Felton put the game away with seven straight points, knocking down a three-pointer when Denver dared him to shoot it and then getting to the bucket past Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson on back-to-back possessions to carry out his coach's demand.
"Wesley really carried us, Jamal went through a stretch where he carried us and I finished it off with some big shots," Felton said. "It felt good. It definitely felt good to see some shots falling."
The three, set up by a kick out pass from Aldridge, was a dagger.
"The shots were there, I took them," Felton said matter-of-factly. "It wasn't about taking over. [I] threw the ball into the post to L.A. Being a great player, you demand a double team. That's what happened. He kicked it out to me for the shot. I took the initiative and knocked it down."
McMillan said he saw a change in Felton on Thursday, evoking a compass to explain the difference.
"I thought he went North and South today and not East and West," McMillan said. "He got aggressive and attacked the basket. Made some big shots. I think that's going to come. Conditioning for all of our guys is going to get better. But it was good to see both he and all of our guards -- Felton, Wesley and Crawford -- start to knock down some of those perimeter shots."
Going East and West has seen the shorter Felton hung up on the perimeter, struggling to find the open man through longer bodies and occasionally picking up his dribbble to further complicate matters. He finished with 23 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds on Thursday, and confirmed that Portland's coaching staff has been stressing the importance of directionality.
"It's something they put in my ear before the game," he said. "I've just been trying to feel everybody out. Get guys involved, not necessarily attacking the rim like I'm used to doing off of screen and rolls. I did [attack] tonight. It kind of worked out for me, it worked out for us. [McMillan] really doesn't want me to do a lot of thinking. He just wants me to gradually get into it and play my game. That's what I did tonight."
Felton's direct approach and steadier hand -- at least after four first half turnovers -- produced the best of Portland's three victories during this young season. Camby saw the same development as McMillan and Felton, and he liked it.
"I think the first two games [Felton] was feeling everything out," Camby said. "Facilitating, trying to get everybody involved. Today he stepped up to the challenge. Especially when Ty Lawson was going at him. He stood up to the challenge and went back at him."
Random Game Notes
- The Rose Garden crowd gave a partial standing ovation to former starting point guard Andre Miller, who was traded to Denver in the deal that brought Felton to Portland. Miller finished 4-for-13 in 34 minutes off of the bench, adding eight assists and three rebounds. Miller had some interesting things to say about the trade.
- There was a mixed reception -- including some loud boos -- for former Blazers guard Rudy Fernandez. Fernandez finished with 7 points and zero assists on 2-for-8 shooting and his patented 1-for-5 from downtown.
- If you are one of the people who is now able to watch Blazers games because of the team's expanded online streaming option call or email them to let them know! Team employees were blown away to hear more than 150 comments were on here within hours. It was a long, painful process for everyone involved and they would certainly love to hear your feedback. (Positive reinforcement.)
- Nuggets guard Arron Afflalo signed a 5-year, $43 million contract during the preseason free agency period. During his extensive pre-game warm-up Afflalo was greeted by an old acquaintance who referred to him, lovingly, as "The richest man in Compton." Afflalo, one of the league's most respected students of the game, graduated from Compton's Centennial High before attending UCLA.
- Back to 20 minutes and the bench during crunch time for Nicolas Batum. He had a fritzy up-and-down game. He clearly looked to get involved early, deflecting a pass to create a turnover and then forcefully demanding the ball at the 3-point line on the ensuing offensive possession. He wants it. Four turnovers resulted. A case of unnaturally stomping on the accelerator.
- While Batum expressed a desire to play down the stretch following Tuesday's win, he sat and watched as McMillan went to Felton, Matthews and Crawford in the three-guard lineup. Batum said Tuesday he liked the longer lineup -- one that he was a part of -- but his replacement, Matthews, said he had no real preference, although he sees value in small ball. "It doesn't matter to me," Matthews said. "[Denver] went small. It kind of played into our hands because they play small ball too with an awkward lineup [but] we have the depth to be able to do that too."
- LaMarcus Aldridge, who finished with 13 points and 5 rebounds in 38 minutes, continues to bemoan his exhaustion. "Just heavy legs from the start. I don't know what it was. I'm going home, I'm resting, I'm cold tubbing, I'm getting massages. It's tough. I think a lot of guys are feeling like this right now. So I just have to keep fighting through it."
- Felton said beating the Nuggets after the trade wasn't anything special. "Everybody thinks it's some kind of battle and I want to go against Denver so bad. It's not that way. It's just another game."
- Camby wouldn't bite when asked if he's playing with a renewed energy this season. He certainly seems to be bouncier than the post-knee surgery stretch last year. Enjoying himself and interacting with the crowd more too. "Just trying to play all out," he said. "Only way I know how to play. Try to set the tone defensively and try to lead by example out there. We have great fans here. Feed off their energy. It's good to play here at the homecourt but we have to take our show on the road. That's going to really test us and where we are as a team."
- Camby replaced Wallace for one late possession after Wallace was helped off the floor during a timeout. He re-entered the game at the next dead ball. McMillan said Wallace was dealing with back tightness and will be fine.
- Scott Leedy, writing for Hardwood Paroxysm, made his debut as a credentialed writer at tonight's game. Check the site for a piece on Felton in the near future.
- Seth Johnston also made his credentialed writer debut for Portland Roundball Society. Here's his write-up.
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
We found a way to get a win. Denver is a very good team. They pose some match-up problems for you. A challenge defensively trying to guard their spread offense and their small unit but we found a way in the second half. We did a bad job of taking care of the ball. We didn't take care of the ball. 25 turnovers: you really don't win a lot of games with 25 turnovers in the ballgame. We were just too loose with the ball, too many guys trying to do too much with the ball. But when we needed to get stops I thought we made some plays.
I thought Camby anchored the defense for the most part all night long. Did a good job on Nene. We needed to make some shots. I thought Wesley got going, knocked down some threes which opened up and took some of the pressure off the perimeter shooting. And then Crawford and Raymond late were able to get a rhythm and knock down some shots. It was a lot of good individual performances. As a team we just got to do better with taking care of the ball.
Rebounds offset turnovers
I thought we were playing too fast tonight. We had too many guys trying to handle the ball and do too much. Sometimes you can get caught up in doing that, especially playing against a team that wants to run. All of a sudden they were playing their game. I thought in the first half we were playing more at their tempo, as opposed to -- we want to play fast but we don't want to be in a hurry. I thought we were in a hurry, too many guys trying to handle the ball. We didn't go inside to LaMarcus. Basically we got into a run and gun game which is not what we want to do.
So many turnovers and you still win?
I'm confused too. Really. You look at 40 percent but they had 28 fast break points. The fast break points came off of turnovers so you've got to take care of the ball. We made them miss some shots but confusing game in the sense of what the stat sheet looked like and what we did. The big thing was, we knew we didn't play well. We had to play better, we had to go inside to LaMarcus. I thought we did a better job of slowing down, being more calm the second half and playing from the inside out.
Raymond's best game
I thought he went North and South today and not East and West. He got aggressive and attacked the basket. Made some big shots. I think that's going to come. Conditioning for all of our guys is going to get better. But it was good to see both he and all of our guards, Felton, Wesley and Crawford start to knock down some of those perimeter shots.
Other guys stepped up on an off night for LaMarcus Aldridge
I thought the first half we just didn't go to him because we were turning the ball over. We got into a run and gun game. The second half we started to establish our offense and run some sets when we didn't have the break and play through LaMarcus in the post. We were able to get our rhythm back and guys knocked down some shots.
Thought process in going back to three-guard lineup
Well, they were small. We were rotating the three guard rotation all night. With Gerald and Nic, we could play those guys at the forward spot because they were basically playing four guards with Gallinari being out there. I felt like the pick-and-roll, we could take advantage of that, we were just trying to keep those guys fresh by substituting them. I gave Raymond a quick breather and he was able to relieve Crawford of handling the ball. But, get to the basket.
The tone Gerald sets
Sometimes teams talk about a glue guy. He is establishing how we want to play. He's playing tough. He's hustling. He's creating opportunities with hustle plays whether it's offensive rebounds, blocked shots, loose balls. He's pretty much doing everything to fill up the stat sheet. He has been the guy who has really kind of gotten us going. Whether it's a block shot, forcing a turnover, steal or an assist, he's just doing a lot on the floor. We kind of fed off of that.
Makes a difference when he's not out there
You can tell the difference. We are trying to give him a breather and get our rotations down but went back with him tonight. His back was a little tight but he was able to finish.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter