The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Utah Jazz, 105-99, at the Rose Garden on Saturday night, improving to 24-23.
There were no frantic finishes, bang/bang calls, or game-winners in this one and the Blazers managed to avoid any truly obscene dry spells and only came back from a 10-point deficit. Thanks a lot, guys. Making the writers work for once.
No beating around the bush, this was a B-team night: Mo Williams, Gordon Hayward, Earl Watson, Wesley Matthews, Sasha Pavlovic and Ronnie Price were all unavailable due to injuries. Some have been out for a long while, some a short while, some just since Friday night. Their collective absence sucked the juice out of what is often a heated rivalry game and the home-and-home back-to-back logistics seemed to prime the Jazz for a let-up.
"It was tough, but I don't feel too bad about it," Jazz center Al Jefferson said afterwards.
Exactly. Not a crippling loss or a momentous victory. Blazers coach Terry Stotts seemed ever so slightly bored as he began his post-game comments.
"Twenty four hours makes a difference," he said. "The Clippers back-to-back and this back-to-back. Last night, we couldn't score. Tonight, we did a pretty good job of scoring."
Dull probably feels pretty good after a hectic few months and the recent string of recent injuries; this was a breath-catcher between a string of heart-stoppers and the upcoming six-game road trip. The situation called for average energy and offensive execution; these short-handed Jazz simply aren't that good. The Blazers came up with both and surprisingly won the battles in the paint and between the benches too.
LaMarcus Aldridge (18 points and 11 rebounds) and J.J. Hickson (21 points and 11 rebounds) out-scored and out-rebounded Jefferson (12 points and six rebounds) and Paul Millsap 18 points and eight rebounds). The Blazers collapsed well enough to make life difficult on the Jazz's bruising pair.
Meanwhile, after combining to score 16 points in 99 minutes over Friday's loss in Utah and the first half of this one, Portland's bench combined to score 22 points in 37 second-half minutes. Nolan Smith finished with 13 points, Luke Babbitt added eight points and five rebounds and Will Barton finished with seven points, three rebounds and two assists. The trio combined to commit just three turnovers and they all finished with positive +/- during their minutes.
Before the post-game locker room talk turned to the upcoming road trip, there was practically a parade for Smith, who matched his season total for three-pointers (two) and played throughout crunch time. Wesley Matthews razzed Smith about all the media members waiting to speak with him and Stotts singled him out early in his comments.
"I'm happy for Nolan that he came in and did a terrific job of playing defense and making his shots and playing like he knows he can," Stotts said. "What you saw tonight, he's done before, I'm glad people got to see him do it."
Smith presided over the wrong end of a 17-0 run during a recent loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, a performance that left him dejected and left anyone watching wondering what he was doing on the court. He committed three quick turnovers in succession, getting embarrassed by the Bucks' pressure defense on the perimeter.
"[After] the last game where Brandon [Jennings], I turned the ball over, I was telling myself, I'm too good, that can't happen, to continue doing things like that. Coach kept telling me that. So now, next time, teams pressure me, I'm not going to turn my back. I'm going to go past him. First instinct for me is score the ball, go past him, make a play."
After a turnover on his first possession, which he joked that he had to "get out of the way," Smith played with good steadiness, although he was often hidden off the ball, a smart move for all involved. The Jazz dared him to shoot late in the game, sagging as much as 10 feet off of him in the corner, and he knocked down a big three to give Portland a six-point lead with 3:32 to play.
"I think for the time that it came, in a situation when we needed a win versus Utah, I definitely say it would be [my best game as a professional]," Smith said.
Batum also singled out Smith's fourth quarter defense on Randy Foye, who found his lost jumper on the flight from Salt Lake City, finishing with 23 points on 15 shots one night after shooting four-for-17. Foye made just one field goal in the fourth quarter though.
"We're happy for him," Batum said of Smith. "He was a big part of our win. He did a great job on defense on Randy Foye, he shut him down the last 10 minutes, shut him down."
The flashes of competence were game-changing and helpful, but not particularly convincing. I suppose it's human nature to celebrate the lottery scratch-off that pays $25 after two years of nothing. To make it matter, Smith must do it again, and again, and against better competition, and on the road, and... and... and. You get the point. A flash in the pan isn't the same as a turnaround story; to Smith's credit he seems to understand that.
"I was hard at work [after the Milwaukee loss]," he said. "Obviously disappointed about the last time I was out on the court. I put more hours into the gym with coach [Dale] Osbourne. Working on my shot, doing everything to be better next time. ... It definitely feels good [to play well]. I think coach felt good about it as well. To give coach confidence in me, to give myself confidence, I'm just excited to get back on the court and get better."
With Matthews out and Batum playing through a sore right wrist, the fact that Damian Lillard came out aggressively was as important as the bench help. Lillard scored 12 first-half points, double what he managed in the first half in Utah. He loosened up on his shot selection a bit but the circumstances demanded it, and the Jazz lacked the commitment to handle both him and the Blazers' big men as the game wore on.
The third quarter run that swung the game was virtually all of Lillard's creation. He hit a jumper, set up Babbitt for a three-pointer and then turned a sensational block by Batum into a quick bucket on the other end for Barton. He followed all of that up with a three-pointer, providing the meat of a 14-0 run that erased a 10-point Jazz lead.
"That's not unfamiliar territory for us," Lillard said of the deficit. "We're usually in a hole at some point in the game. We just started our run."
Stotts said of the second half push: "A little bit of everything. Our passing was good. We mixed line-ups, where we had a shooting line-up and a big line-up. Threes were available."
The Blazers head for familiar but unfriendly territory over the next two weeks, embarking on a six-game, 10-day trip that includes stops in Minnesota, Dallas, Houston, Orlando, Miami and New Orleans. The mood on Saturday was much like the mood following Portland's Dec. 29 home victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. The glow of the win didn't last long before the looming trip sunk in.
"[This will] make or break our season, really," Aldridge said. "We play a lot of guys in the West, lots of guys we'll be fighting."
Batum added: "It's going to be a long one. ... We're going to play the Mavs, Rockets and Minnesota, those are teams we're going to compete with for playoff spots. This is going to be huge for us."
Portland enters the trip having lost four straight on the road; the team's last win away from the Rose Garden came on Jan. 5. The trip is stacked with winnable games but the Blazers seemed to be approaching the trip cautiously, tempering expectations and allowing for the possibility that the recent road struggles could continue.
"As a coach I strive for consistency," Stotts said. "We're not there yet. That's part of our growth."
"It can be make or break," Lillard said, agreeing with Aldridge, before backing off a firm ultimatum. "Even if it doesn't go the way we want it to go, we'll still have a long way to go to give ourselves a chance to make up for it. But it can make us go in either direction."
Random Game Notes
- The game was announced as a sellout. Excellent attendance after an ugly loss on Friday.
- The excitement over the Chalupa was usually passionate, especially for a close game. It really damages the soul to hear collective groans following two missed free throws by Aldridge with 48 seconds left in a seven-point game, knowing they were caused by Portland's inability to hit triple digits rather than its inability to ice a not-quite-finished victory. It wound up working out for both the Blazers and their fans (thanks in part to more clutch free throws from J.J. Hickson).
- Nicolas Batum on his wrist: "The same. I can't really shoot it. I took only seven shots tonight. I can't really shoot so I tried to do everything else."
- Batum finished with 10 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. Of his near triple-double: "We got a win, so I'm OK."
- Batum on whether knowing that minutes will be guaranteed because of injury absences to teammates can help a reserve focus: "Maybe. They knew they were going to be on the court tonight. Vic [Claver], Will and Nolan, really stepped up. Sometimes when people go down you have to step up, that's an opportunity for you... You just know tonight, you're going to be on the court more than you're used to, be ready even more."
- Wesley Matthews, who badly sprained his right ankle on Friday, tested it pre-game, dressed for the game and was initially listed in the starting lineup. He did not play. His thought process: "I didn't know if I was guarded, shot clock situation, if I could break somebody. I didn't feel like I could get past anybody if I had to. Cutting, defensively. That was my thing first. Would I be able to play defense? I wasn't sure. I wasn't going to be able to chase on screens, dig [down on defense and handle] lots of responsibilities helping on bigs."
- Matthews was wearing an athletic wrap on his ankle under his sock and he said that he was optimistic for Monday's game against the Timberwolves. "Yeah. That was the point of all this, taking this day to test it, see where it's at, evaluate and go from there."
- Nolan Smith on Matthews being his mentor: "Wes is my big brother, everybody knows that. As you can tell, he's the happiest person in the locker room right now. That's Wes. He told me the opportunity was going to come, just be myself, play basketball."
- Lillard on Smith's impact on the game: "He made big shots down the stretch. They sent two guys to L.A. He made the pass out. Nolan ended up being the open guy two different times. He put pressure on the ball defensively, that really disturbed their offense in the fourth quarter and he took some pressure off me bringing the ball up the court and I was able to play off the ball. Playing besides him and him playing so well, that helped our team a lot and helped me a lot."
- Was wild to see Luke Babbitt block Paul Millsap in the post. A sliver of revenge after Friday's drubbing.
- Will Barton had a nice game. His dime to a cutting Aldridge at the end of the third quarter was excellent. On a night when most of the post-game talk was about Smith, Aldridge singled Barton out for praise: "I thought Will came in, we were down 10, and then we were tied up after that."
- Early offense from Lillard will be a major key as long as Batum and Matthews continue to be limited. There are times when a point guard should let the game come to him; these are not those times.
- More Lillard on the road trip: "We're kind of fighting for that last few playoff spots. If we go on this road trip and drop a lot of games it could be tough for us to get our heads back above water. We've got to go in focused and be ready to steal some games."
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
Twenty four hours makes a difference. The Clippers back-to-back and this back-to-back. Last night we couldn't score. Tonight we did a pretty good job of scoring. Obviously our bench played well, I'm happy for Nolan that he came in and did a terrific job of playing defense and making his shots and playing like he knows he can. It was a win we needed. Looking at the back-to-back with Utah, it's a big back-to-back series, we would have loved to have them both but at least getting one, especially at home, was pretty good.
He's played well in practice, he's done a lot of good things. What you saw tonight, he's done before, I'm glad people got to see him do it.
Second half offense
A little bit of everything. Our passing was good. We mixed line-ups, where we had a shooting line-up and a big line-up. Threes were available. I thought our interior passing was good. I wouldn't say it was one thing or another, we took what was there.
I've said all along, I think a lot of times we look too much at the points. Our bench is, I don't think it needs to be defined by scoring. Tonight we got some scoring off the bench, Nolan and Luke and Will scored, but I'm not going to define their play, whether it's good or bad, by how many points they scored.
The bench played very well, with Wes out, Sasha out and Ronnie out, it gave those guys an opportunity and they played well.
Will Barton as ball-handler
I think Will has great basketball instincts, especially in the open court. He can create things and get to the paint. Once he's there, he's got to decide whether to score or pass. I thought he made good decisions tonight.
Wesley Matthews update
Not really. No.
Rebounding turnaround from Friday night
Particularly in the fourth quarter, we were still with the small lineup and they had a big line-up with Millsap at the three, I think Carroll was at two. We kind of held our own during that stretch. What they do well, they offensive rebound well, they score in the paint well, and we held our own in both of those areas.
Up and down play within a game
Do you mean within the course of a game? That's just the ebb and flow of a team like ours. You're going to have good moments where you're struggling and it's not clicking. Our turnovers were a little frustrating. We're finding our way. No team really plays 48 minutes of great basketball, that's what you strive for. I appreciate it when we're playing well. As a coach I strive for consistency, we're not there yet. That's part of our growth.
Damian Lillard's shot selection, more mid-range shots
We talked about that before the game. The way they defend the pick-and-roll and clog the paint, the 15-to-18 foot shots might there more so. He studies the game and learns from one game to the next. Teams are playing his threes and they know he can get to the rim, whether it's a floater or a 15-to-18 footer off the dribble, it's just things he has to add to his repertoire.
Damian Lillard looking up more to pass, right before the half
It was a great pass. I don't know if he's doing it more or less but that was a great pass.
Aware Nicolas was close to a triple double?
Try to draw something up to get him the last assist?
Well, actually I did. His ninth assist came out of a timeout.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter