This game was played in NBA uniforms. This game was played on an NBA court. This game had an NBA-worthy finish. But you don't have to understand any of that to get tonight's proceedings. Whatever the initials said, this was all about Big Brother vs. Little Brother going at it for bragging rights and backyard dominance.
Aside from the depth disparity, the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers are more similar than different. Theoretically both want to run. Both pass well. Both feature multiple points of attack but rely on All-Star power forwards with range as their bread and butter. Each team falls apart when they don't execute properly, having a hard time winning on talent or one-on-one play alone. Portland's head coach Terry Stotts spent the last five seasons as an assistant with Dallas. The Mavericks have veteran experience on their side, plus a championship a couple years back. The Blazers have youth and energy, plus they're just dumb enough to think they can win any given game no matter what happens. Both teams are pretty good at what they do.
The first half of tonight's contest saw Big Brother beating the tar out of Little Brother. You want to say the Blazers were playing sloppy: tons of misses at the rim, poor rebounding, allowing Dallas to enter the ball to the paint unopposed play after play, not rotating or respecting the five-man attack of the Mavericks on defense. In reality, though, the Blazers weren't playing sloppy as much as they were playing at Dallas' pace. Portland's defense went a bit too slow and Portland's offense went a bit too fast. By the time the first quarter had ended the score was 32-28 Dallas and each team was on pace for 100 field goal attempts with few offensive rebounds involved. Obviously both teams were shooting early in the clock. Dallas was doing it by design. Portland was flinging the first open shot available, usually after 1 or 0 passes. Portland showed no effective screening to speak of, ran few coherent plays. It was easy for Dallas to read their playbook, not just because it was similar to their own but because the Blazers never got past Step 1 on any given set. A few of those shots fell but you knew this was not going to turn out well.
The second period bore out that impression as Portland's defense fell apart completely. The Mavericks weren't just scoring off the usual passes and mid-range Dirk Nowitzki shots. They were peppering threes, hitting the rim, getting offensive boards. It was a nightmare for the Blazers...more so because Portland's bench players didn't change the quick-draw offense, they just missed more shots while attempting to keep up the pace. A 27-14 quarter for Dallas put the Blazers down 15, 59-44, at the break. Big Brother walked off the court with his head held high, knowing Little Brother hadn't grown up enough yet and couldn't touch him. Little Brother stared straight ahead as he walked off, fists hanging at his side and clenched.
Big Brother rubbed it in early in the third period, forcing turnovers, getting layups, making Little Brother look silly. The lead expanded to 21. He was probably thinking of asking his younger sibling if he wanted to quit and go have a lemonade instead.
Because Little Brother still had a couple of big players. J.J. Hickson was the part that wouldn't let go no matter what the scoreboard, and rational thought, suggested. He had been playing well all night--the only Blazer to do so--but he started owning the second half with rebounds, dunks, converted free throws, jump shots...just crazy, "Come on! Bring it! I'm not giving up!" kind of stuff. LaMarcus Aldridge was the part of Little Brother that had actually learned over the years, that had the skill to beat Big Brother. And boy, did he show it. Aldridge would post, face-up, get rebounds, and (like Hickson) hit his free throws. Between them Aldridge and Hickson cleaned up the nasty mess the Blazers had been leaving under the glass all game long. Portland's rebounding prowess in the second half kept the Mavericks from going as fast as they wanted (perhaps combined with their older lineup fatiguing as the game progressed). That made all the difference.
With time to think during each play, the rest of Portland's lineup regrouped. Nobody kept up the sustained pressure like Hickson and Aldridge but Damian Lillard hit a couple threes, Wesley Matthews poked away steals, Sasha Pavlovic even converted a crucial and-one layup on the break. 20 to 10 to 2 to 0...the lead shrank and now Little Brother was smiling confidently as Big Brother panted and shook his head as he stood there with his hands on his knees.
Portland's rebounding stayed solid through the final period and both teams got in enough offense to stay neck and neck. This led to the damnedest ending you're ever going to see in a basketball game, full of stuff nobody could have predicted.
Having lapsed a little defensively in the latter part of the fourth, the Blazers had to scramble to cut a 7-point deficit with 2:00 remaining down to 3 with 30 seconds to go. Dallas' propensity to foul helped them out, as those four points all came off of free throws. Still, with Portland shooting poorly from the arc all night, those 3 points remaining seemed like a gulf. They got erased when Nicolas Batum hit a three off of a busted play and subsequent Lillard pass with 28 seconds left. Score tied 101-101.
On the ensuing play the Mavericks probed but couldn't get any easy looks. Their busted play went to Nowitzki, also out beyond the three-point arc. He heaved and he hit as well. 104-101 Dallas with 11 seconds left. Drat the luck.
The Blazers drew up a play that looked to be designed for Lillard but that got busted all to heck too and the Blazers ended up with Aldridge handling the ball on the right side of the court, 21 feet out, time ticking down. He stepped back, checked his feet against the arc, and let fly. With 4 seconds left his shot splashed in--his 10th three-point attempt of the year and his first make--and the game was tied at 104.
Three three-pointers put home in 24 seconds of play, each one game-saving, none intended.
Finally something went as planned for the Mavericks on the ensuing inbounds play as they found O.J. Mayo--their leading scorer on the season--as Mayo lost his defender and cut clearly to the hoop. Ball in hand, he was prepared for the winning layup. Except Ronnie Price (of all people) jumped across the no-charge circle, got his feet just outside of it, stood upright, and took the charge. Mavs turn over the ball, a little over 1 second remaining, score still tied.
So what's the play for Portland? With a single second left it's got to be a twisting Batum jumper, right? Failing that, it's Lillard for sure. But no...they got the ball to Aldridge in the post. How often has that happened on deciding plays this year? Having established position at 17 feet, Aldridge caught, spun, and launched that un-blockable turn-around with a defender right in his face. Arc up...up...up...down...down...down. Houston, we have splashdown. Oh, and Dallas? Game over. Little Brother jumps all over the court in glee while Big Brother shakes his head, not believing he got taken like that. Argument's done. For this day at least, Little Brother is the victor. Now the Mavericks have to do our chores for a week.
It's not like the Blazers played a great game. That Dallas offense was able to score at will for most of the evening. The Mavs shot 50% from the floor, 53% from the arc, tallied 31 assists on 42 made shots. It was textbook for them...textbook for what the Blazers would like to do but aren't good/experienced/deep enough to manage. The Blazers did OK: 45% from the field, 35% from the arc, 24 assists on 39 buckets. It was Dallas Lite, Little Brother stuff. But the Blazers did a couple of things magnificently. First they reversed the aforementioned rebounding problem, finishing the game with 15 offensive boards to 10 for Dallas, 46 total to the Mavs' 40. Second, thanks to Hickson and Aldridge the Blazers scored a big, fat 46 points in the paint, exceeding the Mavs by 2. This was critical because for much of the game Portland's jumpers weren't falling. Third, the Blazers shot 23 free throws to Dallas' 15, ending up 6 points ahead from the stripe on the night. That was partly because of the inside attack but also because this is a Mavericks weakness...the penalty for playing older, formerly offensive-minded guys. And finally, though the Blazers only forced 16 turnovers (and committed 14 themselves) it seemed like all of the critical possession changes near the end favored Portland. One couldn't help but sense that Big Brother still had the cruise control mindset while Little Brother was seeking a chance to beat him just one time. Those picked pockets and passes ended up providing the opportunity.
Part of Portland's early problems can be attributed to ignoring LaMarcus All-Star errr...Aldridge on offense. He was hitting every good look he got but the ball-handlers kept seeing better opportunities for themselves. When the offense is running fast and trying to survive on a 1-pass maximum you know Aldridge is not going to get touches and it showed. I assume Coach Stotts bent some ears in the huddle, if Aldridge himself didn't do so. As soon as he started getting opportunities the whole floor opened up for the Blazers. He finished 12-20 with 29 points, 2 game-saving/winning shots in the final seconds, and 13 rebounds. The guy was just crazy good in that second half.
J.J. Hickson was both crazy and good as well. Most nights dude just doesn't care. He's gonna dunk and he's gonna rebound. He did both tonight, continuing his streak of early looks off of cuts and late-game rebounding. He also hit the jumper tonight and everything in between. At one point he was carrying Portland's offense. Not having to worry about offensive firepower at his position on the other end helped (as long as they kept him off of Nowitzki). Hickson finished with 26 points on 9-13 shooting and 15 huge rebounds. No word on whether he said, "Survive THAT" as he walked off the floor.
The next best game of the evening belonged to Wesley Matthews, though this is admittedly like saying you got the third pick when asking Jessica Alba, Blake Lively, and their friends to dance. Matthews struggled from the floor in the middle stanzas but started and finished strong, shooting 5-15, 3-9 from distance for 17 points. More important were his 4 steals, 4 assists, and 6 rebounds. He keyed major parts of Portland's rally with those picks.
Damian Lillard and Nicolas Batum had generally poor outings. Lillard slumped under pressure again. Pressure didn't seem to slow him down much earlier in the season. Smelling blood in the water, teams are more dedicated to it now, but one also wonders if fatigue is playing a part. He went 3-11 for 10 points but did have 8 assists. Batum just...I don't know. He had one of those "Who are you again?" nights. He attempted 14 shots--better than his 5 the other night--but hit only 4 of them. 6 assists was respectable and he did hit that big three down the stretch but he only had 4 rebounds, never got out on the break, got to the foul line but once and missed both free throws, and his defense was nothing to write home about.
Ronnie Price had his game of the season off the bench. The big move was the last one, drawing that charge on Mayo. Credit Coach Stotts for putting him in for that play. But Price also hit 2-4 shots, including a Rally-Time 3, and dished 2 assists in 10 minutes.
Sasha Pavlovic executed his first meaningful play in weeks with the layup finish (though he missed the and-one free throw attempt). He went 2-3, scored 4 with an assist and a steal in 9 minutes.
Luke Babbitt also hit a Rally-Time 3 (it was quite the party) but managed only 1-4 overall for 3 points in 9 minutes. Stotts kept him in there, though, showing confidence. Hopefully Babbitt can find his again.
Speaking of confidence, I'm not sure Meyers Leonard has much left at this point. He posted 3 minutes, Jared Jeffries 7. Jeffries didn't do that much but apparently not much from him is better than whatever Leonard is offering at the moment. This might have been a nice night for him to get some run, as Dallas' bigs aren't ultra-potent (and the potent ones are all smaller than Leonard). But it was not to be.
Will "Jazz Hands" Barton is on the other end of the confidence scale. He grabbed 3 impressive rebounds in 6 minutes and scored a bucket. 2 personal fouls, 2 turnovers, and some questionable defense muted the evening for him but dang, the guy tries to play big every time he hits the floor.
The Blazers have a few days to rest now. This feel-good win will make those practice sessions much more fun.
Mavs Moneyball is saying, "Wait...we won this, right?"
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P.S. Aldridge in the post for the win. Who'd have thunk it?