When Dave is right, he's right.
As guaranteed, the Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder, 98-91, at home on Friday night, the perfect bookend to Wednesday night's demoralizing loss to the New Orleans Hornets.
A game is never really this simple ... but LaMarcus Aldridge, who finished with 32 points and eight rebounds, was the best player on the court and that made all the difference. Portland's new-look starting lineup -- finally re-inserting Marcus Camby at center, shifting LaMarcus Aldridge to the power forward, Gerald Wallace to the small forward and Nicolas Batum to the bench -- got the Blazers in an early hole and, with the way Kevin Durant was just freaking people on his way to 13 first quarter points, that felt like serious trouble.
Portland played with composure, though, and that's a credit to Aldridge, who steadily, steadily, steadily scored points and drew fouls. 12 points in the first quarter. 6 points in the second quarter. 12 points in the third quarter. It was in the third frame that everything swung, as Aldridge's 12 points were enough to single-handedly outscore the entire Thunder team, who managed just 11 points combined. Aldridge's five third-quarter buckets even topped Oklahoma City's combined four. Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City's two All-Stars, combined for five points on 12 shots in the quarter. That's pretty simple math.
Afterwards, Aldridge said he was happy to get back to big ball, playing alongside Camby to start the first and third quarters. "When you play big teams [and] they have real bigs, you have to have another big out there. I think small ball, it works, but when they have dominant bigs like they had and they crash the boards, you have to have two bigs out there."
Portland's third quarter reign of terror really got going when Thunder center Kendrick Perkins drew his fourth foul early in the period. "He clogged the lane but I had made up my mind that I was going to force the issue, try to get him in foul trouble," Aldridge said. "I felt like he was being overly physical. If I kind of gave into it and didn't try to force the issue, then he would have gotten away with it. But with me trying to go back at him, it kind of forced [the referees] to see it. That was big for us."
Stop and read that back. No way Aldridge says those words, like that, six months ago.
Anyway, the Blazers won the third quarter 25-11 and that type of swing is insurmountable when it happens in the Rose Garden these days. As Aaron Grossman of the Blazers noted, the 11 points was tied for the fewest points allowed by the Blazers in a quarter this season and Portland has won seven straight at home, their last home loss coming all the way back on March 1.
With the complexion of the game changed, the Thunder bombed away from deep -- nine fourth quarter three-point attempts -- and the Blazers trotted to the free throw line -- 10-12 on fourth quarter free throws -- to protect their lead. The endgame was fairly academic with Portland's small lineup succeeding in providing enough stops to maintain a solid lead and managing not to commit a single turnover in the final quarter (a season-low five for the game). That type of possession control and defensive intensity is always going to be a winning combination and it wound up sucking some of the late-game butterflies out of the building because the point spread remained constant.
With no last-second halfcourt alley-oop tip ins to break down, here are a few things worth noting tonight.
First, Brandon Roy scored just four points in 14 minutes off the bench, all at the free throw line. He didn't hit a field goal for just the third time in his five-year NBA career. Remarkably, two of those three 0-fers have come in the last 11 days. Again tonight he appeared to be hesitant in looking for his jumper -- a good thing! -- and was playing as a facilitator almost exclusively. He finished with four assists and deferred to both Rudy Fernandez -- who had eight points -- and to Nicolas Batum -- who was a huge key with 19 points off the bench.
After all the juggling, this role feels right for Roy. He didn't play late in the game as the Blazers were sitting on the lead. He didn't force the issue when he did play. His command of the offense was there and it mattered. His defensive liabilities were there -- often obviously -- but his minutes were in the right range so that it wasn't crippling.
Second, bigger picture, aside from an off-night from Wesley Matthews that led Blazers coach Nate McMillan to lean more heavily on Rudy Fernandez, tonight's minutes distribution was about as spot on as I'd personally like to see in the playoffs. Heavy doses of Aldridge and Gerald Wallace, a nice balance of big early and small late, and enough from Batum off the bench that he didn't disappear.
Finally, the best moment of the night came when McMillan was whistled for a technical foul as the referees were in the process of giving him the foul he was asking for, a charge on Durant drawn by Batum right in front of Portland's bench. I asked McMillan to explain about the technical afterwards.
"Olandis," McMillan began, addressing referee Olandis Poole, who was standing next to McMillan as the play unfolded, by his first name. "I thought he was late making the call. They end up giving us the call but, hey, I'm sitting there looking at it. I want to hear the whistle so, you know, blow it."
That's one of the best coachisms I've ever heard: "I want to hear the whistle so, you know, blow it." It's almost Forrest Gumpian in its simplistic brilliance.
Random Game Notes
- This is a must-see. An animated gif of Portland Trail Blazers GM Rich Cho face palming after a missed free throw by Rudy Fernandez in the fourth quarter. Mesmerizing.
- Another (PG-13) must-see: Three fans from Seattle with custom-made "F**** The Thunder" T-Shirts with the Seattle SuperSonics colors and logo. They were not alone ... plenty of other Sonics fans in attendance and in gear tonight.
- Heres's the playoff standings chart updated through Friday's game.
- Kevin Durant wore a black on black on black version of his Nike KDIII's.
- There's something really different about hearing Blazers fans waiting for autographs after the game shouting "Kevin! Kevin! Kevin!" It's enough to stop you in your tracks.
- Be sure to read Dave's recap of Blazersedge Night in his notes. It was very cool of the Game Ops folks to announce the group and show some of the signs on the jumbotron.
- A few photos sent in on Twitter of kids enjoying Blazersedge Night. One. Two. Three (A Nate McMillan impression).
Nate McMillan's Post-Game Comments
A gut check for us tonight. We did the things that we talked about needing to do. We got to the free throw line, did a much better job of taking care of the ball. The first half they got off to a red hot start. We needed to get closer, tighten up our defense. I thought we did that. Held them to 32 in the second half. It comes down to defending, rebounding the ball and scoring. I thought it seemed like we just, in the second half, we started -- our legs were heavy. I think one possession we gave up 3 or 4 offensive boards. We found a way, we got stops and made plays when we needed to.
We needed to get aggressive. We needed to get closer to them. Get into the ball defensively. I thought Rudy came out again tonight and established that for us. Getting pressure on the ball. We had some guys that responded. I thought Nic was really good. Both ends of the floor, defensively as well as offensively, provided some offense for us. And LaMarcus did a nice job of establishing the paint, we got into the penalty early and we got to the free throw line. It wasn't just launching jump shots. I thought we attacked tonight.
New starting lineup
Again, we'll look at it. I thought tonight we did some good things. We may have to make some adjustments. I thought that small unit, when Nicolas came into the game, we were aggressive. Guys have just got to be ready to play. It's just a starting lineup in a sense that we're small regardless of -- either we're small when we start or we're small when we sub. I thought tonight I just liked the second half, the intensity on the defensive end of the floor.
Kevin Durant missed 12 straight shots
We got a little closer. I mean, he was hot, I thought we gave him some space in that first quarter and we needed to get a little closer. I thought our guys did a great job of getting more aggressive. The first few possessions of the third quarter looked the same as the start of the game and then we tightened up.
Batum embraces sixth man role
I thought he looked relaxed. He really came out when I talked to him this morning. As I told him, 'We're going to need you, whether you're in that starting lineup or not, to play both ends of the floor.' I thought he looked a little loose and played a good game tonight.
Nic's play gives you confidence in lineup change
Whether we start with that lineup or we change it, we've got to play. We've got to hoop. Eventually we're going to be small. Our smalls have got to play bigger. Just because we don't have bulk, we have length but we don't have bulk, those big guys to put out there. We're going to have to play that lineup regardless of whether we start it or bring it off the bench.
Nice to see Nic respond in this way, as if he doesn't care whether he starts
Well I hope not. Because what we're trying to do is put our players in position to be productive, all of them. While doing that you're trying to balance a rotation. I thought, just as we saw tonight, it seems like we wear down. When we have Wallace and Nicolas and all of those guys banging with those big guys, I think it takes a toll on us in the fourth quarter. By starting Camby we do get a little size in there and we can get those guys playing their spots. But it worked out tonight. I still like that small group and I thought our guys did a good job of adjusting.
What happened with the technical foul
Olandis, I thought he was late making the call. They end up giving us the call but, hey, I'm sitting there looking at it. I want to hear the whistle so, you know, blow it.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter