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Media Row Report: Blazers 104, Mavericks 101

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In a tense, dramatic game between two teams that could potentially face off in the first round of the playoffs, the Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Dallas Mavericks, 104-101, at the Rose Garden on Tuesday night.

Where to begin? So much going on in this one.

The Blazers rolled out a new starting lineup, an undersized group that shifted LaMarcus Aldridge to the middle with Gerald Wallace finally getting his shot. The results, on offense, were solid, as Aldridge got off to a quick start, guard Wesley Matthews hit three first quarter three-pointers and Wallace was as active as always, particularly on the boards.

Unfortunately for Portland, Dallas couldn't miss, literally, as they opened the game making their first 11 field goal attempts. How responsible was Portland's new starting lineup for Dallas's early success? I would argue not all that much. Eight of the 11 field goals were jumpers or three-pointers and Mavericks point guard Jason Kidd assisted on five of the buckets. Roddy Beaubois came out sizzling and Dirk Nowitzki is Dirk Nowitzki. In sum, this wasn't so much about missing Marcus Camby as it was about developing new-unit cohesion amidst all the mixing and matching.

More important than the new-look starters were the new-look closers, as Blazers coach Nate McMillan opted to go with Brandon Roy, Rudy Fernandez, Gerald Wallace, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marcus Camby during crunch time. One of the more perplexing lineup explorations this season was McMillan's recent discussion surrounding Patty Mills, and how he thought both Roy and Fernandez were better when playing alongside Mills. I thought tonight was a fairly solid counterexample and much more indicative of what we're likely to see come playoff time, regardless of the opponent. Mills saw some time in the first half but was neglected from there on out.

The cost/benefit of playing Mills is fairly simple. He provides the ability to avoid the occasional defensive match-up issue (when Fernandez isn't able to check smaller guards that Mills might be able to) and represents a supercharged pace-generator. Sitting him for Fernandez (or Matthews), you gain experience, steadiness, better decision-making plus more offense initation opportunities for Roy. Also, the team generally exhibits better offensive spacing as defenses respect Roy and Fernandez more than they do Mills. Sitting Mills come playoff time just seems like a no-brainer, especially when the team's overall defensive energy is as high as it was tonight. 

The closing lineup worked against Dallas because Roy's second half was clearly special. He scored in a variety of ways, beat his defender to the rim multiple times, exploited switches on more than one occasion, hit a third-quarter buzzer-beater and had his teammates jumping for joy as he poured in 10 fourth quarter points. There was a definite back to the future effect as he finished the evening with 21 points and appeared to regain a bit of the late-game invulnerability we haven't seen in who knows how long.

Still, it took 17 shots for Roy to score 21 points and we shouldn't forget that he went 2-7 in the first half, that he was often a liability on defense and that the late-game offense ran through LaMarcus Aldridge as much as it did Roy.

That paragraph is not meant to diminish Roy's night but to dig a little past the easy "Roy is back!" angle. It was a measured -- not an exuberant -- Roy afterwards, a player who was happy with his performance but wasn't prepared to stake this as a personal turning point.

"It's just a process," Roy told reporters. "I try to always stay even keeled with everything that's going on. Even tonight, being able to play well was great, it felt good to be back out there on the top of the key, having the ball, creating some offense. It's just good to be back in a moment like that. The biggest thing is just trying to continue to build. Next game could be different." 

McMillan struck a similar message, expressing happiness for Roy that he was able to play well but also being careful not to heap expectations on Roy's shoulders. "I think that gives him confidence, it gives us some confidence to run some things for him. I think the biggest thing is to continue to manage his minutes and don't go crazy."

Roy said his performance against the Mavericks was an extension of improvement that he has felt building since last week's road trip. "Body's feeling good, just wanted to be aggressive and I feel like I'm getting a little more bounce back, create some space, keep the defense guessing on whether I go to the hole or shoot the ball. It was just a good night for me ... I feel good, I felt good on that road trip. I told coach, 'I feel better on the [second half of the] back-to-back than I did on the first game.' It's good that I'm feeling better. Still keeping the minutes around 25 and hopefully I can just continue to feel good. When I feel good, I think I can be a factor out there."

Better than Roy's individual impact was that it didn't come at the expense of Aldridge, who had another sterling effort, dumping in 30 points and eight rebounds and accepting the challenge on both ends against Dirk Nowitzki. Aldridge played more than 40 minutes and didn't commit a single turnover while still managing to get to the line seven times. He was both aggressive and careful, avoiding foul trouble, impacting the game on the glass and bending and stretching Dallas's defense in numerous ways. 

"It's the third game where he's really hurt us," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "We used different coverages on him, different guys, his ability to score inside and pop out and hit shots makes it really tough." 

Past Roy and Aldridge -- and past the fact that they combined for 51 points -- this game was won with fourth-quarter defense, as the Blazers mixed up their doubles and traps against Nowitzki to great effect, forcing four Dallas turnovers in the final period and interrupting the rhythm that has made the Mavericks one of the league's best offensive teams for years. 

While the win left the Rose Garden crowd ecstatic there lingered a sense that a lot went right for the Blazers, perhaps too much to feel any real confidence if these teams were to meet in the playoffs. Portland's adjustments caught Dallas off-guard, their unconventional late-game lineup was particularly successful, Jason Kidd attempted just one shot during the entire game, Jason Terry didn't go off (like is capable of doing), both Rudy Fernandez and Wesley Matthews were hot from distance on the same night. 

This was a golden night, but it did feel just a touch like fool's gold. Perhaps that's because there wasn't any joyous excitement in the locker room. Perhaps that's because of the two recent road losses and how ugly this team can look when things go wrong. Perhaps it's because Roy's words -- "Next game could be different" -- continue to hang over everything until his post-surgery body of work builds up to the point where his performances can be enjoyed fret-free.  

Worries, doubts, fears, concerns, whatever. It's sure nice to watch Roy hit his jumper. And that's the lasting image from tonight.

Random Game Notes:

  • Join the Blazersedge Readers 2011 NCAA bracket competition. Do it!
  • Last March, just a week or two short of a year ago, I gushed over Dallas guard Roddy Beaubois and he didn't even play, his warm-up session was just that impressive. Amazing what a difference a year makes even when most of that year has been spent rehabbing. On the list of "guys you wouldn't want to be responsible for guarding" Beaubois has got to be high on the list. 16 points in 22 minutes on 8 shots. He showed out. 
  • The Blazers honored Andre Miller with a scoreboard message for reaching No. 15 on the NBA's all-time assists list.
  • Just as halftime ended, the Blazers held a trophy presentation to honor LaMarcus Aldridge for winning Western Conference Player of the Month for February. Kia sponsored the award but did not bring Baron Davis to alleyoop the trophy to Aldridge.
  • As noted on Monday, the Blazers signed big man Chris Johnson for the rest of the season and also signed him to a contract that allows the team to hold his rights heading into next year. The move was made, according to management, because the Blazers are high on Johnson's work ethic, personality, length and skillset. The timing of Marcus Camby's return from injury prevented Johnson from being able to be signed to a second 10-day contract earlier this spring and the team had hoped they would get another shot at him once two roster spots opened up with the Gerald Wallace trade. The move is being painted as a flexibility play: get a look at Johnson during a summer league and/or training camp -- if they happen -- and see where the roster stands at that point. Last year, the Golden State Warriors made a similar move in calling up and then signing wing Reggie Williams to a multi-year deal, ensuring that they retained his rights rather than allow him to become a free agent. That Greg Oden's status for next year is still up in the air and that Portland has had a lot of trouble finding end-of-the-bench bigs over the last few years makes the signing even more logical.
  • Roy on closing alongside Fernandez in the backcourt: "Never had that look. Me, Rudy, Gerald, L.A., Camby. I've always been able to handle the ball. I just think some nights I'll be able to do that and other nights I need to be able to play off. We've just got to be ready for whatever each night brings. Next game may be different. But I think we've got to be ready to step up."
  • Carlisle on the game's final play, a contested Nowitzki corner three that didn't fall: "We probed it in transition. Jason [Kidd] didn't have anything. We took a timeout. We were able to get a look. In that situation, you'd love to get a completely unmolested shot but it's difficult. I thought Dirk did a good job of creating a look but we just couldn't get it down."
  • The magic potion for resurrecting Roy's career is to always have DeShawn Stevenson guard him.   

Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments

Initial Thoughts

Dallas is a really good team. They're shooting the ball -- I think they made their first 11 attempts. Shooting 73% for the first quarter. 63% for the half. I was really impressed with our guys just staying with it. Not giving in, not giving up. We've been talking about challenging each other, encouraging each other, staying together. I thought they did that tonight and always found a way to get this win.

We got stops, we went with a lineup that we haven't used all season long down the stretch. We talked about the change in the lineup, Camby, in situations like that, you can have teams that drop their heads and make excuses. I thought he played a good game for us. Rudy came in, I thought he was the difference, his pressure in that second half on the ball, we started to get pressure, we started to get stops, I thought everybody started to get into it after that. And then LaMarcus, I thought he was fatigued our last two losses. Tonight he looked fresh, we played through him, had a strong finish. And then Brandon just made some big plays down the stretch. Total team effort.

Miller didn't play the fourth quarter but was over there encouraging, supportive, these guys have got to let each other play because we can do some things like we did tonight as far as different lineups, everybody just go out and play.

8 Man Rotation

We went with match-ups and trying to take advantage of our combinations. That was the rotation tonight. That lineup was doing well for us in the fourth quarter, I thought about subbing it, they looked pretty fresh, we ended up finishing with it. 

Brandon Roy

That's the best I've seen him this year. And we've talked to him about his minutes, he's feeling good with the minutes that he's been getting and we need to keep him there. That's working, we haven't had any setbacks and keep him there. I thought he did a great job tonight. We moved him to the point and he made some big plays for us, big shots.

Brandon Roy: Best you've seen him this year or best since his return?

I haven't seen him like that. That Phoenix, I can't remember back that far. It's been awhile since he's been out on the floor. He played point that game, he played point that game Miller was suspended. I thought tonight, I guess you could say the best since he's been back. Really good. 

New starting lineup

That's hard to extend our defense against that unit, that team. We made adjustments. I still want to get aggressive, I want to get up and pressure the ball. I thought Rudy played the type of defense on the ball that we're looking for. We need to get everybody playing that way. Both units playing that way. I thought that was the difference. We got into the game when Rudy got pressure on the ball and he started forcing some turnovers, we got some traps going, all of a sudden we started to make some shots and make a run.

What does this win mean the rest of the way?

What we have to do is -- we showed them the chart where we are in the race. We talked about finishing this season. This was an important game, our home games are very important going down the stretch. To get ourselves not only into the playoffs but trying to move up in the playoffs. We're not in it. We're not locked. We need to win games. Cleveland game -- we need to come out and play a good basketball game. We can't be messing around and we need to be focused, we need to be locked in as far as that game and take care of business. We've got nine home games remaining. We need to take care of business here at home.

Stepping up against the league's best teams

I think the one thing is that we've been locked in. I thought tonight they were locked in to playing these guys and competing. I thought the effort was certainly there. We were down and they were making unbelievable shots. That's a good team, they've been together for awhile, they know each other like the back of their hand, but we hung in there. We were finally able to get a little lead and control the game the rest of the way.

Sticking with the late-game lineup was a matter of feel?

Brandon hadn't played point, Brandon and Rudy -- we went away from that, but it was working. I decided to stick with it. They were feeling good. I felt like we could not only score but we could defend them. A lot of times you're trying to get some defense in there. Wesley's sitting on the sidelines and Rudy is out there defending, Wesley is normally the guy we have defending Terry so it was a feel. They were rolling so we decided to let them go.

Would you have made the same late-game lineup moves earlier in your career?  

It depends on the lineup. It may be, at that time we were developing. There's certain situations where you've got to get Dre in. You've got to show some confidence in your guard. But I think the big thing for us tonight, Dre allowed his teammates, he wasn't over there pouting. He was supporting and talking to the guys about what they need to do. That's what we need to do with everybody coming back. They're going to be some nights when we may need to finish this way and this was one of those nights.

Brandon getting back into things makes you guys a different team?

It's one game. What we need to do is finish strong, ok? Finish strong and get ourselves into the playoffs and Brandon coming off, being able to do some things like that, you're probably going to have some match-ups that you can go to. I think that gives him confidence, it gives us some confidence to run some things for him. I think the biggest thing is to continue to manage his minutes and don't go crazy. Dr. Roberts is not going to allow us to change that anyway. It's good to see him have a good game.

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