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Media Row Report: Blazers 110, Sixers 101

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The Portland Trail Blazers notched a convincing 110-101 victory against the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night, capitalizing on a huge swing in athleticism created by the absence of Sixers forward Andre Iguodala and an all-over-the-place night from Blazers forward Gerald Wallace.

This was one of the most enjoyable, aesthetically-pleasing Blazers wins in awhile, a night that started off with a bang thanks to a perfect-from-the-field in the first quarter Wesley Matthews and ended with solid five-man defense in the fourth quarter that wound up making the win feel a lot easier than it actually was.

The game was decided by the chemistry of Portland's new-look small ball starting lineup, which also served as its late-game lineup when Blazers coach Nate McMillan opted to return Brandon Roy to the bench in favor of Nicolas Batum at roughly the eight minute mark. The decision, on its face, wasn't difficult: The Blazers held a lead, needed to deal with Philadelphia's extreme backcourt quickness and Roy wasn't particularly effective or active, shooting just one for four from the field for six points. Still, habit can have a funny way of overpowering logic in these situations. 

The sound decision paid dividends. After Matthews and Batum entered the game at roughly the eight minute mark, the Blazers went on a 12-3 over the next five minutes, as the Sixers shot 1-10 from the field and committed multiple turnovers.   

"We forced them out of what they wanted to do," Wallace, who had four steals on the night and two in the fourth quarter, said. "They got kind of caught up in shooting quick threes to get back into the game. Our main thing was to force them to take shots with a hand contested in their face." 

The first player McMillan praised after the game was Batum. "I thought Nic was really good on the ball. We wanted to pressure, even though they had speed, we wanted to extend our defense and get Nicolas up there, get our shadow going with Wallace taking the ball out of certain guys' hands. I thought Nic and Rudy [Fernandez] established our defense tonight by being able to extend their pressure, make [Lou] Williams, make [Jrue] Holiday work to bring the ball up the floor."

Holiday and Williams both gave Portland trouble at times but shot a combined 2-9 in the fourth quarter.

When I asked him, Batum said all the right things about caring first about the victory rather than about playing down the stretch, choosing instead to focus on the developing defensive chemistry among Portland's starters. "I know I can disturb [opposing guards] with my length... Gerald and I can guard on the point guard, on the shooting guard, on the small forward, on the power forward. We can switch every time. It can a huge thing for us. Wesley also can sometimes guard those guys, B. Roy too. That [versatility] is a huge factor for us, especially on defense."

"I think it's a mentality," Matthews said when asked about the late-game lockdown. "Me and Nic are the guys who usually have to spearhead the ball pressure, we're just going out and doing it. Trying to make it tough for the guards who have to bring the ball up the court."

Aldridge agreed that the defensive cohesion is starting to come together among the starters. "We're learning how to play off of each other. Learning how to make reads. Guys are making plays. Gerald is blocking shots, guys are just making plays." 

The starting five made the bulk of the plays on Saturday night, as the Blazers bench combined to score just 14 points and play just 51 minutes. Portland's starters, meanwhile, both shot and shared the ball very well, making the extra pass and smart read time and again. They also kept Philadelphia on its heels thanks in large part to Wallace's aggressiveness. 

"What's not to like? They spread the floor well," Wallace said, in assessing his new starting lineup partners after he scored 25 points, dished out a season-high eight assists and added six rebounds. "Great shooters. A guy like me likes to get to the basket, makes for a whole lot more room when they have to stand out there with those guys. If they don't, I'm able to find them and they knock down shots."

Matthews was in one of his zones, hitting all six of his first quarter attempts, including five three-pointers, to finish with 28 points and six rebounds. "I don't understand why they go under the screens every time," Batum laughed afterwards.

The emphatic win against the Sixers, a playoff team that has given them trouble recently, left many of the Blazers reflecting on the progress they've made over the course of this season. 

"We're playing tougher than we've showed before," Matthews said. "We're hungrier. We've seen success, tasted success, whenever you feel success you want it again. We're not getting tired of what's working for us."

Batum said that he has been counting down the games until the playoffs, that he feels like the season has flown by but that he now wants it to hurry up. "We are so athletic, so aggressive, so talented," Batum told me. "We've got a [starting] lineup and then we've got Brandon Roy, Marcus Camby and Rudy Fernandez from the bench. We're maybe the five or six spot right now in the playoffs ... I can't wait for the playoffs."

Random Game Notes:
  • About a month ago I referenced a study of "Black Hole" players: guards that play a certain number of minutes who take tons of shots but don't tally many assists. Both Wesley Matthews and Brandon Roy were among the league leaders in being a "Black Hole." Tonight, Matthews had the ultimate "Black Hole" night, scoring 28 points and dishing zero assists. A check of Basketball-Reference.com reveals he is only the third Blazers guard in the last 25 years to score 28 or more points and finish with zero assists. The upshot: the other two are Roy (in 2008) and Clyde Drexler (in 1992). 
  • Patty Mills closed both the first quarter and second quarter with ugly plays. Hopefully there's a new quarter-closing pecking order by the time the playoffs roll around. No sense in putting the ball in the fastest player's hands if there's no method to the madness his speed creates, which there often isn't. Again, Mills sat for the entire second half. Aside for some late third quarter grind with the ball in Roy's hands, Mills wasn't particularly missed.
  • Even after a night like tonight, LaMarcus Aldridge continued to refuse to express anything but indifference towards the small ball lineup. "It's whatever. I don't really care. Go big or go small we have guys who can play." He finished with 18 points, seven rebounds, five assists and a steal on 13 shots. 

Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments:

Initial Thoughts

That's a good team. That speed out there was going to be a challenge for us tonight. I thought Nic was really good on the ball. We wanted to pressure, even though they had speed, we wanted to extend our defense and get Nicolas up there, get our shadow going with Wallace taking the ball out of certain guys' hands. I thought Nic and Rudy established our defense tonight by being able to extend their pressure, make Williams, make Holiday work to bring the ball up the floor. Offensively, another good night moving the ball. 29 assists again tonight. The guys are just sharing the ball. Good job both ways.

Gerald Wallace

He made big plays. Made big plays down the stretch, a few loose balls, a couple of threes. Just in the right place at the right time. He does a good job of playing off of guys. Made some big plays down the stretch. Defensively we matched him up with Brand to try to use some speed to front him. I thought he did a good job of disrupting there. But some big plays down the stretch.

Wallace will start against LA?

Yeah, we're going to go with that lineup. We know they are going to have size. Even if... Camby will be in the game... We will have Camby in. We will have LaMarcus in the lineup. They're going to be big regardless of who we start. We have to try to take advantage of our speed again. We talk about guarding those guys but they have to guard us too.

Did you hear the "Beat LA" chants in the fourth quarter?

I did. A little early. But I did hear that. 

Thoughts on tomorrow's game against the Lakers?

Now we focus... we got this game tonight. Tomorrow night we know it's going to be a tough one. We've got an opportunity -- we haven't beaten this team this year. We had an opportunity right after the break to beat them here. The defending champions so we know it's going to be a tough challenge.

Are you guys making another strong late-season push?

We take it one game at a time. We were able to get a couple games here at home. We've got the Lakers tomorrow night. We're doing some good things. We'll try to continue that tomorrow night.

Fourth quarter defense

That's what it's all about. You've got to lock down and tighten up defensively. You've got to make plays both ways. They were shooting the ball well. Williams came in and knocked down a few threes. Brand was able to knock down a few shots. We forced some stops, got a couple of turnovers. Made some big shots. I thought Wallace three was a big three and getting to -- his steal late, two of them -- were big plays.

Why take out Wesley after he was 5-5 in the first quarter?

He was winded. I thought he made some shots but he was winded. It was time to get someone fresh in there.

Lots of points early and 100+ overall again. What do you attribute it to?

Definitely more ball movement, making shots. Tonight we shoot 47% from the three. 11 of 23.  A few games ago we had 27 threes and I think we shot 27%. You're going to get open looks with LaMarcus being in the post. You've got to knock down those shots. Tonight, I thought the first group did a good job of knocking down our shots. Our second group struggled a little bit, we got a little stagnant. Moving the ball when they double-team and knocking down your shots. 

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