Early in their 2013-14 campaign the Portland Trail Blazers appeared to be on a single-minded quest to Myth Bust the old adage, "You win some, You lose some" when it comes to close games. For a while it seemed like every game that came down to the final minute ended up, "You win some, then you win some more" in Portland's direction. The veneer cracked slightly three weeks ago against the Mavericks, then slipped slightly more in the Blazers' last outing versus the Heat. Tonight the Pelicans saw that tiny crack and stomped on it, one-upping Portland's hot fourth-quarter guard scoring with torrid backcourt scoring of their own, bulling their way to a 110-108 victory.
From the start you could tell this would be one of Portland's shakier efforts of the season. The Pelicans learned from their recent narrow loss in Portland. They played disciplined first-quarter offense, taking the ball to the rim again and again, exploiting the Blazers' weak paint defense. Between outright scores, short offensive rebounds for their big men, and 2 fouls drawn against Robin Lopez in the first 8 minutes, they accomplished their mission. The Blazers weren't helpless by any means. LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews stroked jumpers. But the Blazers weren't hitting triples and weren't gathering in offensive boards. Their usual sources of extra points ran dry. Throw in a few lazy turnovers and Portland mustered only 21 points in the first compared to 26 for the Pelicans.
The picture shifted as the second units came into play. Portland found energy, offensive rebounding, and points from Damian Lillard. They even hit a couple threes to start the second, making a run seem imminent. That never materialized as the threes stopped falling and the energy level drooped again. New Orleans built an 11-point lead before Aldridge and Lillard closed the quarter strong, bringing the Blazers back withing 7, 49-56.
As always the third period was Blazer Time. The Blazers shifted into hustle mode, scoring off of opportunity and hustle. Blocked shots, great rebounding, aggressive defense, and snappy passing created a whirlwind from which the Pelicans could not escape. The Blazers over-relied on the triple in the first half. In the third the three-pointer became the period at the end of the sentence which read, "You should not have messed with us." The Blazers also feasted on free throws in the quarter, a trend which would continue through much of the second half. The foul line and the arc propelled Portland to a 33-point period, far and away their best so far.
The problem was, when you looked up at the scoreboard the Blazers had gained no ground. The Pelicans also scored 33 in the third. Blocked shots made Portland's defense look better than it was. Every time you turned around there were the Dirty Birds flying down the lane again. 7 of Portland's 9 made shots in the quarter came from 17 feet and beyond. 13 of 14 shots made by the Pelicans came from 16 feet and in with 9 of those happening right at the cup. The fact that the two teams remained even with New Orleans making 6 more field goals shows the power of the three but it also shows that the calls were going Portland's way in this period despite New Orleans attacking the lane aggressively. Shadows lurked behind the Blazers' best quarter.
Nevertheless this became a ballgame when New Orleans opened up the fourth with 3 straight turnovers followed by 4 misses. The Blazers didn't set the world on fire during that 3-minute stretch but they did score 7 points, evening the score. At that point you knew that whatever else was happening, the Blazers were going to be in it. Sharks don't smell blood and then ask for tea. They're going for the kill.
In this case Damian Lillard was Portland's weapon of choice, supplemented by Mo Williams. With Lopez unable to chase the Pelican's bigs and offensive rebounds not coming Portland's way anyway, Coach Terry Stotts opted to finish the game with a small-ball lineup featuring Lillard and Williams at guard with Matthews, Aldridge. and Nicolas Batum. Batum scored a couple and made some nice passes but Williams and Lillard netted half a dozen points each in the final 7:30 of the game, a veritable backcourt blitz. The problem was they gave up as much as they delivered. As Lillard and Williams were taking turns draining jumpers Jrue Holiday played Superstar against whichever guard the Blazers matched up against him. Holiday would score 15 in the period with not a single free throw adding to the total: 7 vicious buckets against only 2 misses in the final 9 minutes of the game.
It looked as if the Blazers would have the last laugh as Damian Lillard drained an in-and-then-out-and-then-in-again 27-footer to tie the score at 108 with 10 seconds left. But Tyreke Evans canned the game-winning jumper over Williams with a little over a second left on the clock. New Orleans did a great job denying Lillard the ball on the inbounds and then covering Aldridge into an awkward miss at the buzzer. Blazers lose 110-108.
After shooting 5-17 on three-pointers in the first half the Blazers hit 7-15 in the second to end up 12-32, 37.5%, for the evening. That's a fine percentage but 32 threes out of 88 total shots may be a bit much even for Portland's tastes. Those shots did produce a +30 margin from beyond the arc when measured against the Pelicans' awful 2-11 clip but the Blazers went -36 in the paint as New Orleans dominated the lane 68-32. Offensive rebounds and turnovers were a wash but New Orleans doubled up the Blazers 20-10 in fast break points. Portland went 18-24 from the free throw stripe while the Pelicans managed only 15 foul shots, hitting 12.
This was neither the best or the worst game we've seen from Portland this season. The Pelicans had their moments but they also had down stretches. But New Orleans was able to contain Portland's rebounding and their big defenders were good enough individually to allow their smalls to stay home on three-point shooters. Plus the Pelicans took advantage of the weaknesses of Portland's backcourt even as they felt the brunt of its strength. In the end that was enough for a narrow victory.
Believe it or not this is the first time the Blazers have lost consecutive games this season. That's a testament to how good this start has been.
LaMarcus Aldridge had a good offensive night, hitting 13 of 25 shots for 28 points. But this was not a dominant night for him despite the gaudy numbers. His 8 rebounds and 2 blocks were well-earned but not back-breaking. His back-and-forth play with Anthony Davis was amazing to watch but Davis gave as good as he got. When Aldridge moved to center in the smaller lineup he looked less comfortable. Since the offense drifted to the perimeter players at the same time, he seemed under-utilized in that configuration.
Damian Lillard was a hurricane destroying everything in his path tonight. 5-8 three-pointers made, 10-18 shooting overall, a team-high 29 points...he had it in full star mode. His confidence in releasing the straight-line three is just sick right now. You almost think he could shoot it from halfcourt if somebody gave him a little screen to space his defender. On the other hand Holiday had 31 points and 13 assists, ultimately the leak that popped Portland's balloon.
Wesley Matthews scored 18 tonight, dominating in streaks during the first half. His three-pointer was solid with 3 of 8 shots made. He filled up the stat column more than usual with 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals. He couldn't handle Tyreke Evans when Evans made inside moves but that's hardly a unique fault in this league. Overall it was a fine game for Matthews.
Nicolas Batum had a great fourth quarter moving the ball in that smaller lineup. He finished with 7 rebounds and 6 assists. But the "Oh my God, you too?!?" effect Batum had earlier in the year seems to have slipped away over the last few weeks. He attempted only 9 shots, hitting 3 for 8 points. 7 of those attempts came from beyond the arc and he hit only 1. Batum was deadly when he was a facilitator and... The "and..." part just isn't there right now.
With the Pelicans coming into the lane on nearly every play Robin Lopez ended up with 6 blocks tonight. He also hit 5-6 free throws and netted 7 points with 6 rebounds in 24 minutes. His energy was high in his return to last year's stomping grounds. But again he wasn't suited to the opponent. The blocks were great but they didn't really deter. He had 3 personal fouls, couldn't move fast enough to stay in the game long-term. Lopez is really good at maximizing his strengths and his heart is in it but the Blazers need to get him help for nights like tonight (and like a few of the last games we've seen).
Portland's bench was tapioca pudding tonight, little nuggets of goodness buried in a glut of blah. Mo Williams hit those late-game threes but he shot 3-9 and showed that he probably can't play with Lillard in critical situations without creating a defensive hole the size of Crater Lake. Dorell Wright drew 4 fouls shots but also missed 4 field goals and committed 2 turnovers in his 11-minute stint. Meyers Leonard couldn't hang in this game, playing only 5 minutes and getting benched for missing a defensive assignment on an inbounds play that led to an easy layup for New Orleans. He had a turnover, a missed shot, and a foul in that 5-minute stretch. Joel Freeland had 5 rebounds in 12 minutes but looked overmatched on both ends.
Tomorrow night the Blazers visit Oklahoma City. The Thunder don't have Russell Westbrook but they do carry the memory of a December 4th loss to the Blazers in which LaMarcus Aldridge dominated everybody on the floor. It'll be interesting to see what Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins have cooked up for LMA this time and whether the Blazers can escape 2013 with one more win.
The Bird Writes happy things tonight.