The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Indiana Pacers, 106-102, at the Moda Center on Monday night, improving their record to 15-3.
As members of the national media were lining up on Twitter after the final buzzer, offering unconditional praise and even toying with the notion of a possible trip to the Finals, Blazers coach Terry Stotts did his best to cling to a mantra that his team seems determined to disprove. We haven't done anything yet, it's early, it's just one win, it's just a home win, there are plenty of tough games coming up. Finally, peeking through that hanging, cloudy wariness, a full line of unfettered satisfaction. Positive, unqualified words that weren't spread out to include the opposition too.
"I will say this -- I thought this was our most consistent game from beginning to end," Stotts said. "Execution, effort, mental focus, all those things."
The briefest of self-congratulations, there for just that moment, disappeared as quickly as it came. Stotts then continued, almost as if covering his tracks: "I don't think you make statement games -- or anything like that -- in December."
Here, it seemed, were two incompatible ideas. It seems impossible for a 15-3 team to enjoy its most consistent performance of the season, to prevail against a playoff-tested opponent that has the league's best record, to win in a hyped match-up, in an intense atmosphere and in a gimmick-free manner, and have it be just another game. Those factors and circumstances must say something of significance.
"[It says] we're a pretty damn good team and we can compete with anybody," Blazers guard Wesley Matthews offered, happily connecting the dots.
This game scored off the charts when it comes to "memorability" -- any time an All-Star scores a career-high 43 points and hits five three-pointers in the game's final three minutes, as Paul George did, you won't soon forget that. But a strange thing happened as George was hitting miracle shot after miracle shot after miracle shot: he never got the Pacers over the hump, and Portland, even with one sloppy sequence, never truly creaked. Here George was bailing water like his arms were operating in fast-forward and there the Blazers were dumping it right back on top of him.
George's first three-pointer of the final sequence cut Portland's lead to four; at the buzzer, after his fifth three-pointer of the sequence (and seventh of the game), Portland's lead was, still, four points. This was one of the greatest hamster wheels of our time.
The Blazers held on in the closing seconds thanks to some solid free-throw shooting, but LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard positioned things for the victory by countering George down the stretch, unmoved by his heroics. Stotts called it "mental toughness" and it was definitely that, but there was also a joy, a child-like "anything you can do, we can do better" response that carried through those final minutes.
Aldridge, needing a hoop, went directly at Roy Hibbert, the early favorite for 2014 Defensive Player of the Year, to draw two free throws. Aldridge, needing a hoop, went directly at Hibbert again, drawing more free throws. Aldridge, needing a hoop, went to his ever-reliable jumper. He finished with 28 points (on 11-for-19 shooting), 10 rebounds and three assists, and those six points in four possessions kept Portland clear of a collapse.
"I've been with this guy for six years now," Blazers forward Nicolas Batum told Blazersedge, after calling Aldridge "almost unstoppable" down the stretch. "This is my sixth year with him. I've seen him growing every game and every day. He's playing the best basketball of his life. He's the best power forward in the league. He grew up."
On the season, Aldridge is now shooting 57.9 percent on long twos from his favorite spot, the left wing, an astounding figure that's 17 percent above the league average and almost exactly the same as his shooting percentage inside the restricted area. In other words, his 18-foot turnaround has become, for all intents and purposes, a lay-up.
"They mixed [their defense] up," Aldridge said. "They fronted, they tried to come big to big. I felt good tonight, I was trying to go to the basket, they were crowding me more tonight. It was one of those nights, where I had to make reads. If the big fella [Hibbert] was on me, I was taking my jump shot. If David West was on me, I was trying to go to the basket more."
Lillard, who added 26 points (on 7-for-17 shooting) and six rebounds, discarded the "almost" when told of Batum's "unstoppable" comment.
"I think he is [unstoppable]," Lillard told Blazersedge. "You've got a guy that can score over both shoulders, you can't get to his fadeaway. High release. Too tall. It's hard to stop. I haven't seen anybody stop him yet. Any time I throw it to him on the block, if he doesn't score, it's guaranteed we're going to get a good shot."
Although he struggled to finish in the paint and forced the issue on occasion, Lillard wasn't too bad himself. He scored seven points -- including a crucial three-pointer -- in the game's make-or-break final stretch, and his sometimes over-eager approach wound up paying dividends with 10 free-throw attempts, six of which came in the final period.
"I knew going in that their bigs like to sag off and protect the paint," he said, describing Indiana's preferred pick-and-roll coverage. "We ended up getting into the penalty early a lot. I just wanted to force it in there, get contact with the bigs, kind of force the issue at the rim. I was able to get some calls."
The incessant whistles were the only blemish on the night; the referees seemed determined to avoid any roughhousing, even though the only thing that came close was a minor exchange after Robin Lopez and Lance Stephenson became entangled. This was a draining game in which Aldridge and Lillard emerged as aggressors. It was Aldridge who twice doubled Hibbert over with a knee on drives to the hoop; it was Lillard who crashed to the court after accidentally leap-frogging George Hill early on, only to pick himself up for 37 minutes worth of punishment against one of the league's most physical teams.
George's spectacular flurry, and his attempted superstar shushing of the Moda Center crowd, will take a spot among the best performances the building has seen in recent years, but it was only one of the tests the Blazers stared down. Indiana established its style of play and held Portland to a season-low five three-pointers, but Portland probed from mid-range and got to the foul line at crucial junctures. The Pacers never trailed through three quarters, but the Blazers showed a certain resilience by staying within distance, and their second-unit had a nice kick early in the fourth that swung the scoreboard.
Still, the closing minutes were clearly the most impressive: things could have fallen apart for the Blazers ... and they just didn't.
"It's always easier at the house," Aldridge quipped.
Surviving George's heroics left the Blazers emboldened. They were no doubt impressed by what they had seen: Lillard called George an "MVP caliber" player and Batum referred to him as a "top five MVP candidate right now." They hadn't flinched, though, a fact that they believed reinforced their approaches on both offense and defense.
"He was almost by himself at the end," Batum said, contrasting that with Portland's attack, which saw all five Blazers starters score down the stretch. Lillard noted that, "everything [George] got, he worked for," an approval of Portland's perimeter defense that was generally shared by everyone. Matthews pointed out that Portland was willing to "play the odds" with George because "no one else was able to get a rhythm or a flow," as the rest of the Pacers combined to make just four field goals in the fourth quarter.
In other words: if you play together on offense and play hard on defense, good things can happen, even against an elite team and even when an A-list talent has a career night. Portland's end-game steadiness and the post-game reaffirmation -- holding up under adversity and then later pinpointing why -- combined to make this a statement game, even if Stotts' personal code would have him reject that conclusion publicly.
"It was [a statement game]," Lillard told Blazersedge, seconding Matthews. "We played some games where people [said] we haven't played good teams, there's always going to be some type of question mark. I think tonight's win just showed that we're really a good team."
The statement made against the Pacers is that, yes, the Blazers are "for real," or at least "for real" enough that it's time to stop asking whether they are "for real." The statement made against the Pacers is that it's high time for a new, overarching question to steer the discourse around this team: "What's Portland's ceiling?"
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced at 19,023. Despite Paul George's instructions, the building was very loud throughout the second half.
- Here's the game highlights via YouTube user DennisOnBasketball.
- Here's Paul George's highlight reel via YouTube user Maxa711Clips.
- Roy Hibbert joked that he's going to be "wearing a cup" next time he plays against Aldridge after taking two knees to the groin. He even tweeted a photo of a cup for effect. Aldridge replied, saying that he didn't do it on purpose. Hibbert then responded: "We will see each other in the Finals."
- Seeing even one empty seat -- let alone 1,000 -- for a game like this (and two teams playing like this) feels wrong in every non-rational, non-business way. If you were a kid and this was your first NBA game, you would be hooked for life and you wouldn't have any say in the matter! Sorry, a crippling life-long basketball addiction is now your lot. Hopefully the next generation has premium cable.
- We did learn that there is, in fact, a limit to the corporate influence. This game was so intense that the jumbotron didn't even show the "Mick-ee-dees" graphic when Portland hit 98 points. Without any instructions, the crowd just kept cheering and completely ignored the "Cha-Lu-Pa" chant as well.
- As you all know, I love the "Cha-Lu-Pa" chant way too much, but there's no question this was the ideal outcome. The jumbotron did show the McDonald's logo after Portland topped 100, which was the right and logical compromise. This should become the standard of conduct for close games.
- I guess this means the "Cha-Lu-Pa" chant is technically no longer undefeated this season.
Terry Stotts discussed his Coach of the Month award during his pre-game availability, via Erik Gundersen of The Columbian: "It feels good. More than anything else, awards like this, it's a team award. Player of the Month, those guys are making the baskets but when you win an award like this...The players did a great job this month, my staff did a great job. We stayed healthy because of our health and performance department. This is definitely a team award."
- The Blazers' pre-game graphics played up Portland's "Best in the West" record and Stotts' introduction included a Coach of the Month mention.
- Olympian Galen Rupp was in attendance. They played NBC's Olympics theme song when they showed him on the jumbotron, which was nice.
- The best jumbotron bit involved the Blazers discussing their favorite rivalries. Most of the team went for college basketball (UNC vs. Duke) or college football (Texas vs. Oklahoma) rivalries while Nicolas Batum (Real Madrid vs. Barcelona) and Joel Freeland (Tottenham vs. Arsenal) opted for soccer. Victor Claver went for two tennis players, which drew some laughs. The whole thing ended with Mo Williams talking up his Alabama team before they showed video of Auburn's 109-yard field goal run-back touchdown from Saturday. Williams watched on the jumbotron before receiving a conciliatory handshake from Damian Lillard.
- Best sign: "Call us butter 'cause we're on a roll."
- Portlandia's Carrie Brownstein has serious juice: she was in the locker room during the media's post-game session. Rarely (!) does that happen.
- Pacers assistant (and former Blazers coach) Nate McMillan was shown on the jumbotron just after halftime and he was greeted with applause, including a partial standing ovation.
- One fan's sign read: "Sorry to spoil your return, Nate."
- Damian Lillard on the closing stretch: "We've just got to control what we can control. [George] is hitting threes with two hands in his face, fading away, that just shows how good of a player he is. That was out of our control at that point. Guys are defending to the best of their ability and he's still making shots. We've got to do a good job of what we can control, execute on offense, get good shots, everything he got he worked for it. We did our job."
- Aldridge on the meaning of the win: "This was a big test for us. They play a slow, grind it out game. They don't do anything tricky. They are physical, they do the same thing every night. We knew they were going to be consistent and they played well. We stayed with our defense."
- Nicolas Batum on the team's post-game reaction: "We were happy but not that excited."
- The Blazers collectively have a lot of respect for the Pacers' No. 1 ranked defense. Batum: "We knew it was going to be a tough game against the best defensive team in the league. Their numbers are historic numbers on defense. We scored like 100-something points when this team allows 86."
- As mentioned, the national praise was lining up after this win. Bill Simmons (here): "Rip City just threw its hat in the ring."
- David Aldridge (here): "Anybody fly nonstop between Indianapolis and Portland? #justaskin"
- Reggie Miller (here): "Way way way early, SOOOOOO many games left, but I wouldn't mind 7 games of Pacers-Blazers Finals.. World wouldn't, purist would...."
- Joe Swide of Portland Roundball Society had an entertaining (and excited) post-game write-up.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
That was a terrific basketball game. I thought both teams really played at a high level. They kind of mirrored each other as far as style of play, particularly defensively. Neither team really caved in. Paul George put on a performance that was extremely impressive, but I was very proud of our team, very proud of everybody that played. We did a lot of good things and beat a quality team.
Pacers are tough team, you matched that
You don't win in this league without being tough. I think toughness goes well past physical toughness, mental toughness to fight through. In the third quarter, we got down, got a slow start, didn't look like it was going much, but I think we've shown some mental toughness throughout the season so far. I think mental toughness in this league is as important or more important than physical toughness.
Going through it, but yeah -- we played a very good game against San Antonio. A lot of times you look at the quality of the opponent, obviously San Antonio and Indiana are two of the best teams in the league, if not the best. You'd have to put those in that category.
Playing this style of game, basically we played their style of game and we won the game. San Antonio was a high scoring game. I don't know about style points and all that, offense, defense, I think it's just important to figure out how to win a game.
Bench play to start the fourth
The bench play, the beginning of the fourth, Joel [Freeland], [Thomas Robinson], Mo [Williams], Dorell [Wright], that group was playing in flow, getting stops. Really I thought it got the crowd into the game, I thought the crowd really showed their appreciation when each guy came out of the game. In a physical, draining game like this, to give our starters an extra breather on the bench was really valuable.
Played their style, did you think that would be a winning formula?
Basically I'm saying both teams played a good defensive game. If you had told me before the game that we were going to play a good defensive game, I would have said, 'Yeah, we have a chance.'
We tried to push the pace but they lead the league in giving up the fewest fast break points. It's tough to push the pace. I thought we made our run when we were able to push the ball and play in flow. We didn't get easy baskets but we weren't playing against their set halfcourt defense either.
Mental toughness, keeping it together down the stretch
You know when you play good defense and a guy makes a great shot. When guys do that, you tip your hat. You did what you're supposed to do and great players in this league do those type of things. I thought that we -- and he did that at the outset when he made his first 10 or 12 points, I thought those were equally tough shots. When you're playing great scorers or great shooters like that, you just have to keep competing, knowing they are going to make some of those. You just have to get back up, next time they come down, do the same thing.
LaMarcus was LaMarcus. I can say the thing I say most nights: he's the anchor on offense, he creates problems, he creates opportunities, I liked the way he took the ball to the basket and got to the free throw line. Defensively, I've said this for a long time, he's extremely underrated as a defender. He executes all of our screens, he talks, he's long, he protects the paint, I thought he did all of those things tonight.
Attacking the paint, going at Roy Hibbert
The gameplan was to be aggressive, however that came. LaMarcus was aggressive on those couple drives, involving Hibbert in pick-and-rolls was part of the gameplan. Once you get there you have to make the right read. If you make the wrong read, he's going to make a good defensive play. That's where the talent and the decision-making comes in.
Trying to manufacture tempo, push pace
It's difficult to do after makes because you get a little deflated because a team scores. It's difficult to do after makes. We want to continue to do that. It's difficult to do against a team that grinds it out like Indiana. You really try to emphasize it and do as much as you can.
Closed gap to best record in the league
I'm pleased with our record, how's that?
Validation from this win?
Beating a quality team is important. You don't win a championship with one game. The season isn't even a quarter through. What I'm pleased about is our growth as a team, the process we're going through, the consistency. I will say this -- I thought this was our most consistent game from beginning to end, with execution, effort, mental focus, all those things. I don't think you make statement games or anything like that in December. We beat a good team at home, it's something to be proud of but we've got another great team coming in on Wednesday. We just have to keep rolling along.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter