The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Los Angeles Clippers, 116-112, in overtime at the Moda Center on Thursday night, improving their record to 24-5.
The very bleakest moments of a season that has so far been a shiny fairy tale came right at the beginning. Before the actual beginning, if you think about it, all the way back during the first 3:23 of Portland's very first preseason game. In those opening minutes, DeAndre Jordan scored five points -- a dunk followed by an and-one -- and Robin Lopez, the headlining move of a quiet Blazers offseason, couldn't do anything about it. That Jordan, an imperfect big man with as many holes in his game as attributes, could be so dominant created early moments of very real panic.
In the write-up from that game, which somehow was written just 80 days ago, an arena worker is quoted as saying, "I hope it's not a long, ugly season," and a flustered Lopez admitted that he could "find a lot of faults" with his own play, which he characterized as "overzealous" and "over-anxious." The fear in October was that Lopez wasn't capable of changing anything for a Portland team that had lacked a defensive spine the previous season; the first impression was that he would be simply another poster buddy for the likes of Jordan and Blake Griffin to victimize, and for Chris Paul to bamboozle in pick-and-rolls situations.
It's been said before, and it will be said again, but a significant chunk of the credit for this 80-day journey, a trip that has broken bleak's ankles, belongs to Lopez, whose play Thursday was properly adjusted on the "zealous" meter. Here he was helping to hold Jordan to just one basket in 41 minutes; here he was making Griffin work when LaMarcus Aldridge encountered foul trouble; here he was, late in the game, tipping in a basket, and tapping out a rebound to set up a Nicolas Batum three, and contesting a Jordan dunk attempt, and extending a possession by tracking down a loose ball. Here he was posting 11 points and 15 rebounds, and playing 40 minutes, nearly a career-high, and here he was being singled out by coach Terry Stotts for his extra effort plays on defense.
"The play he had at the rim, being vertical, taking away the dunk," Stotts said, describing one shot-altering sequence. "We ring the bell on those. When you go up [even though] everybody on SportsCenter wants to show that [dunk]... those are big time plays."
In his preseason debut, especially early, Lopez looked content to be an innocent bystander; Thursday, he looked like the Good Samaritan that runs down the street at full speed to recover a stolen wallet from a fleeing pickpocket. Racing back on one play, he lifted off the ground and got his arms up -- a feat of total coordination and timing that was entirely unexpected -- to deflect a potential lob opportunity with his back still turned to the play. It was urgent defense in the best way, a player committed to not getting beaten if he could help it, a player doing something so athletic that, if he's done it before, he hasn't done it very often. This was maxing out, and it was good theater, and it led to a Damian Lillard three-pointer on the other end.
"Rolo's runback -- that runback he had taking away a lay-up, we go down and score on the other end, those are winning plays," Stotts said.
That was an important five-point swing just after halftime, but this game would have 10 or maybe even 15 additional sequences to come that all could have proven decisive. Portland couldn't slam the door in the fourth quarter despite a double-digit lead; the Clippers didn't foul while leading by three points with 10 seconds left like they wanted to; Paul couldn't make one final jumper on a night full of them to deliver at the buzzer; Griffin couldn't make a crucial lay-up in overtime; Jordan fouled out while defending LaMarcus Aldridge in the extra period; Griffin again missed a lay-up and Jamal Crawford uncharacteristically missed a free throw as the game slipped away from L.A.; Wesley Matthews missed a big free throw late in regulation but managed to nail a pair to ice things in the game's closing seconds.
Pulling out a game like that against a team like this, against players like Paul and Griffin, involved none of the inevitability of Portland's recent escape against the New Orleans Pelicans. Especially as Paul scored eight straight points near the end of regulation, and especially as he lined up the potential game-winner, the result dangled out of Portland's pocket rather than residing firmly inside it. The Clippers are well above-.500 in clutch games this season, and Paul is rightfully regarded as one of the game's best closers.
The Blazers claimed this one because they did the little things (Lopez) and the big things (a huge three-pointer from Batum to force overtime), but also because they adhered to their defensive principles, despite the trying circumstances. It's one thing to stick to a defensive script that encourages mid-range jumpers when it's Brandon Jennings pulling up in the second quarter of a Monday night snoozer; it's another thing to stay the course when Paul is raining in shot after shot down the stretch of a nationally-televised TNT game.
"You've got to give up something," Stotts said afterwards. "Keeping [Paul] out of the paint [and] shooting contested shots is our goal. He's a great player. He's going to make those big plays. I've seen games where he gets into the paint, he either scores at the rim or dumps it off for dunks, so you've got to live with some of those [jumpers]."
It's easy to conceive of the numbers game in a vacuum: this season, Paul is shooting 44.1 percent on mid-range jumpers, Griffin is shooting 62.4 percent in the basket area, and Jordan is shooting 65 percent in the basket area. These are basic fractions when we look at shot charts, and clear-cut decisions in theory, but it's not quite so simple when the league's top point guard -- a man with a limitless bag of tricks -- is sizing up a defense with the game on the line.
Can the defenders maintain their responsibilities without reacting or overreacting to recent events? Can they stay disciplined throughout the dribble moves and pump fakes? Can they keep track of active big men as Paul distracts with his on-ball wizardry? Can they maintain proper spacing throughout an entire possession? Can they do it all without fouling, or without given up second-chance opportunities, or without losing a drifting three-point shooter?
Paul's potential game-winner from 17 feet at the end of regulation with the score tied at 101 was makeable, certainly, and the Blazers dodged a bullet on the play, without a doubt.
"I had a great shot to win the game there, we shouldn't have even been in overtime," Paul said. "We should have won, there's no question about it. It hurts more to miss it [than it feels good to make a shot in that situation]. When you practice all the time, you expect to make it so when you make it, it doesn't surprise you. It sucks [to miss]."
The bigger lesson isn't the dodged bullet but that the Blazers diligently picked their poison by opting to defend the rim as best they could, possession after possession after possession down the stretch. Griffin finished with a game-high 35 points (on 15-for-27 shooting), but he was 6-for-8 on jumpers and just 7-19 from eight feet and in. Jordan's 1-for-6 night included five point-blank misses. Paul, who can seemingly get wherever he wants whenever he wants, had just one paint basket in the fourth quarter and overtime combined.
"[Paul] made some tough shots," Aldridge told Blazersedge. "Just like my fadeaways were tough. At the end of the day you want to give up those shots rather than him going to the basket and throwing lobs to Blake and Jordan."
As noted last Saturday, a big part of winning close games is having a natural understanding for what you want to do and where you want to go on offense when the game is on the line. Defeating the Clippers reinforced the same lesson, just on the other end.
"I do think I could have been a little bit closer on some of those in support," Lopez told Blazersedge, in response to a question about how the Blazers conceded jumpers to Paul late in order to play the odds. "But that's something you do have to give up. That's something we've been doing all season long so far."
The sequence served as a damn good test for the philosophy and a damn good case study for how it can be successful.
Sometimes it's best for a writer to lead with the defense because it doesn't always speak for itself as clearly, and because it's always subject to random moments of greatness. If Paul hits his shot -- as he has dozens of times over the years -- all of Lopez's little plays and all of Portland's diligent rebounding (they out-rebounded L.A. 60-48) are lost to history. Plus, sometimes -- often with this team -- moments of superior defense are overshadowed by unforgettable, made-for-YouTube sequences on the other end.
And, wouldn't you know it, Batum delivered another Moda Center memory in the closing seconds of regulation, charging in from his position as the sideline inbounder to take a dribble hand-off from Aldridge well outside the arc. Stepping into his shot with two quick dribbles, Batum buried a three-pointer to tie the game at 101 with five seconds left. Clippers coach Doc Rivers was left to lament his team's defense on the play afterwards.
"We should have fouled and that's on me," Rivers said. "I always foul [up three]. The one time I don't, they score. That's why I always foul, so that one is on me."
The play was designed to give Aldridge the option of finding either Batum or Lillard with a pass.
"Me or Dame, depends on which one is going to be open," Batum said, in comments recorded by CSNNW.com. "I was open."
Batum said that he knew the shot was good when he released it, and it showed. It was reminiscent of his kill shot three-pointer against the Oklahoma City Thunder earlier this season in its total lack of doubt. However, the shot wasn't enough to secure a win, and that task fell to Aldridge, who scored seven of his team-high 32 points (on 12-for-27 shooting) in overtime.
The go-ahead (for good) basket came on a baseline fallaway in which Aldridge actually fell all the way to the court. Griffin had an arm up to contest it but that really didn't make a difference, and the jumper swished home like so many others from that spot this season.
For Aldridge, it was a postcard ending to a 10-day stretch that's been rough by this year's standard. After shooting 7-for-22 against the Minnesota Timberwolves and 8-for-24 against the Pelicans in his last two games, Aldridge had his wisdom teeth removed on Sunday. For the next four days, he consumed only soup as he recuperated over the holiday break; he was finally able to eat grilled chicken, broccoli and mashed potatoes earlier Thursday. His cheeks were puffed up slightly -- he said his face was "throbbing" but he wasn't able to properly pronounce the "r" sound because of his cheeks -- and he wasn't fully committed to playing against the Clippers until after he participated in a pre-game workout routine. Once in the game, he got in some early foul trouble that forced him to sit for an extended stretch of the second quarter.
"Thirty one shots," Aldridge joked afterwards, when asked about how he was able to get his shot back on track. "I think anybody can find a groove [with 31 shots]. I felt better tonight. A little bit rusty to start [because] I went four days without taking even one shot."
The shot was tuned up when it mattered, and his team's defense again turned up with the game on the line. Together it was enough to overcome the Clippers, who clearly wanted to wipe away the bad aftertaste left by a Christmas Day loss to the Golden State Warriors. The Blazers did not oblige, instead improving their league-best record in clutch games to 14-3 on the season.
"We think we're going to win the game, we don't think we're out of it," Stotts said, when asked to summarize his team's late-game demeanor. "That finishing group is very confident in what we can do at both ends of the court. Offensively we have a lot of different guys who can make shots and make plays. Defensively I think we rise to the occasion."
Random Game Notes
- This game was announced as a sellout (20,053). Best crowd of the year, hands down. The decibel reader hit 105 during the game's closing minutes.
- I can only imagine that Saturday's crowd will top it. Is this weekend's showdown with the Miami Heat the most anticipated home game since the 2011 playoffs?
- Here are the game highlights via YouTube user portlandtrailblazers.
- Above, LaMarcus Aldridge joked about his 31 shot attempts but the Clippers' were complicit in helping him achieve that season-high tally. It was clearly Los Angeles' plan to take Damian Lillard out of the game by paying him extra attention, thereby forcing Aldridge to carry more of the load and potentially persuading Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews (who combined for eight turnovers) to do more than they are usually accustomed to doing. The Clippers mostly achieved their goals, holding Lillard to 14 points (on 4-for-12 shooting) and neutralizing his impact for long stretches of the game.
- Aldridge to Blazersedge on what he did to adjust to the extra attention to Lillard: "A lot of [the shots] was because they were trying to trap him and Mo [Williams] and clog the paint overly on me. I was open a lot. I'm going to keep shooting it, and I did."
- Many of the Blazers -- including Lillard, Meyers Leonard and others -- left quickly after this game because it ran so late. A 7:30 p.m. start time, the incessant TNT commercials and the overtime period makes for a bad combination.
- When Lillard left before one writer could stop him to ask for questions, Aldridge laughed and recalled sliding out of the locker room without taking questions earlier in his career. "That used to be my trick." To be clear, Lillard wasn't ducking the questions, he just didn't think the reporters -- most of whom were heading for deadline trouble and wanted to talk to Aldridge -- needed him.
- Aldridge said his main concern with playing Thursday was his "energy levels" because he hadn't been eating normally. I guess that worked out alright, given that he played 40+ minutes.
- Meyers Leonard saw 12 minutes of action, scoring two points (on 1-for-3 shooting) and grabbing seven rebounds. He saw time alongside both Joel Freeland and Robin Lopez (twin towers), and he generally played the high post role as expected. It's weird saying this on a night when he crashed to the court head first like a dolphin twice, but I thought Leonard was operating at his peak awareness for the season.
- I'm all in on the Meyers Leonard Experience: the good, the bad and the ugly. I saw a number of people on Twitter bemoaning the absence of Thomas Robinson during this one, but that thought really didn't cross my mind. However, "Who might be willing to trade for Thomas Robinson and his $3.7 million contract for 2014-15?" did cross my mind. Twice.
- Aldridge, who recently said in an interview that the Blazers are "good enough to win it all one day," was asked about the goals for this year's team specifically: "Just keep doing what we're doing. We're not trying to get too far in front of ourselves. We're going to keep working every night, keep getting better. If we're in a position to play for a championship then we'll do it, but we're not going off and start making these crazy goals. We're staying in the moment, game to game."
- This was an interesting quote from Robin Lopez when you consider that the Heat are on deck: "We'll be tested the next few games. I'm excited to get out to Oklahoma City and play in their arena." Perhaps a little hint that the Blazers know they still need to rack up some "quality road wins" to check that box on their list, and perhaps a little stoking of a Northwest Division rivalry.
- Lost in the shuffle (in this post) was Mo Williams, who finished with 12 points and eight assists. Stotts referred to him both before and after the game as "the best back-up point guard in the league." The back-to-back threes from Williams and Dorell Wright early in the fourth were big momentum plays.
- Clippers coach Doc Rivers wanted his team to foul on Batum's three-pointer and Chris Paul was kicking himself for only waving at Batum late rather than really contesting the shot. "On that three pointer at the end I should have switched out on Batum," he said.
- A Blazers fan named Bill M. has started a Change.org petition with the hope of eliminating the fan voting from the All-Star process. Both LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard rose up the ranks in the latest round of balloting, but neither is close to competing for a starting spot.
- Referee Violet Palmer gave Lillard the "I don't even want to hear it" hand after Lillard received a technical foul in the first half. GIF via @CJZero
- Some weird calls all around, at least for those watching in person without the benefit of any explanations passed along on the broadcast. Doc Rivers got his technical from a referee standing 30+ feet away.
- Jamie Rafe Francis, a photographer for The Oregonian, got a great shot of Batum's game-tying three-pointer.
- Dane Carbaugh made this GIF of Leonard spilling head over heels.
- Leonard singlehandedly got two unusual defensive stops. First, Matt Barnes was dinged for "staying out of bounds too long" as he tried to suck Leonard away from the hoop on the baseline. Later, Leonard played defense on Blake Griffin for long enough that Griffin was hit with a five-second call.
- There was a young man with a "Robin Lopez, will you marry me?" sign. Other signs: "L.A. > L.A." (LaMarcus Aldridge > Los Angeles), "Rip City vs. Sob City," "2 of my favorite things: Lopez's hair and Lillard's flair," "Lillard the killer," "Dish the Clippers a holiday hangover," "TNT -- our Blazers are dynamite." The game crew did an excellent job cutting to a "Un-Deux-Trois" sign after Batum hit his three-pointer.
- Doug Eberhardt has spent some time in the NBA coaching ranks, and he's now diagramming ATO (After Time Out) plays for SB Nation. This one is on the Blazers' lob to Lillard from the other night. Pretty cool.
- Loved the Clippers' ATO play that got Portland to bite on a fake hand-off to Paul before Griffin was able to wheel to the hoop for a quick dunk. Beautiful.
- Sara Jean Underwood is still getting Moda Center jumbotron treatment six years after her 2007 Playboy "Playmate of the Year" award.
- The "Cha-Lu-Pa!" chant remains dead as the Moda Center jumbotron continues to avoid chanting instructions.
- No advice from any chiropractors tonight but I did have a kid sneeze on me.
- Stotts gave an extended post-game press conference (see below). Thoughts on a bunch of different players are included.
- I put together this gallery of sneakers worn during the Christmas Day games if you're interested. A little throwback to the "Kix Pix" days for long-time readers.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
It was another good win for us, obviously against an elite team in the West. I think we just keep finding ways to win games, making clutch shots, getting stops, make it interesting at times. That was a terrific game and glad to get a win.
Mo was terrific. His line was great, he brought energy, he made his shots. He had eight assists. That second unit was very productive in both halves and he had a lot to do with it. I think he's the best back-up point guard in the league and we're lucky to have him.
What you wanted on Nicolas Batum three-pointer
More or less. They denied L.A. out a little bit further, so it ended up being a double screen instead of a single screen, but that was what we were looking for.
Finding a way to win, demeanor
The demeanor is that we think we're going to win the game. We don't think we're out of it. Generally that finishing group is very confident in what we can do at both ends of the court. Offensively we have a lot of different guys who can make shots and make plays. Defensively I think we rise to the occasion.
On the whole, they're an explosive team. I thought Blake Griffin and Chris Paul played at a very high level. I thought they made some tough shots. The first quarter -- the first 20 minutes of the game, our defense was very solid. Maybe it's because they were missing shots. I thought the defense was very solid. The fourth quarter, it was going back and forth, I thought both teams were good defensively and both teams made good offensive plays.
On the whole, look, we win the game, our defense was better than their defense. That's Mike D'Antoni's line. We really do show a lot of pride in our defense. Timeouts are about getting stops, I thought we executed gameplans pretty well. The first half, when we switched the pick-and-rolls, L.A. did a terrific job guarding the perimeter guys, we rebounded the ball pretty well. There were some times where the ball was bouncing around, but my opinion is that we're competing and as long as we're competing that's all you can ask.
When did you know L.A.'s availability?
When he got here. He got here after the press conference. Whenever he got here is when we knew.
He was guarding [Blake] Griffin for much of the night with L.A. getting in foul trouble early, and then trying to keep L.A. out of foul trouble. I thought he did a nice job defensively. I thought both he and L.A. with our pick-and-rolls, I thought they did a nice job of minimizing the lobs and things like that. Rolo competes, he talks.
The play he had at the rim, being vertical, taking away dunk, Meyers Leonard had the same play, those are two big time plays. We ring the bell on those. When you go up, and everybody on SportsCenter wants to show that play, both he and Meyers go up and take away dunks and not come away with a foul. Those are big time plays. And his runback. Rolo's runback -- that runback he had taking away a lay-up, we go down and score the other end, those are winning plays.
Chris Paul's jumpers late, OK to live with those philosophically?
I thought Nic was doing a good job on him. You've got to give up something. Keeping him out of the paint, shooting contested shots is our goal. He's a great player. He's going to make those big plays. I've seen games where he gets into the paint, he either scores at the rim or dumps it off for dunks. You've got to live with some of those.
Nic shows his versatility. He's our most versatile player, he can guard multiple positions, he can handle, he can shoot. The block he had after a switch, he's capable of doing so many things on the court within a game and over the course of the season. Tonight you saw a little bit of everything, guarding point guards, making a three, he had a big drive, using him in pick-and-rolls. His versatility is really one of our keys.
Able to enjoy win?
I'm enjoying this right now and we've got Miami on Saturday. I'm thrilled we won the game. It may not show, but I'm thrilled we won the game.
He got off to a little shaky start, but I thought he played very well. The play at the rim was an exceptional play, I think his presence on the court, the more he's on there, the more comfortable he will be. The guys are comfortable with him, he's made shots, he's unselfish. I think he fits in well with that group.
Clippers' defense on Damian Lillard
It seemed to me like they were determined to take him out of pick-and-rolls. LaMarcus had a lot of open shots. It seemed like their gameplan was to take Damian out of pick-and-rolls, which is a big part of our game. In doing so, it opened up L.A. for a lot of open looks on the weakside. I thought Damian showed great patience with that. Everyone wants to be a part of it, they trapped him, wanted to get the ball out of his hands, that was their gameplan.
More pick-and-rolls for Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum because of Clippers' defense?
Not so much Wes. Wes just kind of happened in the flow of the game. I thought Nic -- we really tried to involve Nic in the pick-and-rolls. Chris Paul is a great defender. He can really muddle up plays if he's involved in it defensively. Getting Nic involved was really important for us in certain stretches of the game.
LaMarcus Aldridge in overtime
Being in foul trouble it's kind of hard to get your rhythm on the game. When Jordan fouled out, we went to him every time. I thought he delivered. Not only big shots, but kick it out, getting tips, for a night that he struggled with foul trouble, I thought he ended up playing a very effective game.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter