The Portland Trail Blazers faced off against the Denver Nuggets in the Moda Center this evening, escaping with a 110-105 victory in a game that Denver held early and which became nip and tuck as the second half progressed. This was one of those evenings when other commitments kept me from viewing the game until late so instead of the usual long-form breakdown I'm going to give you the top ten storylines and some big-picture analysis after. For a more detailed account of the game flow see Timmay's Instant Recap. Also make sure to check out the quotes from Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen who interrupted his busy Seahawks Superbowl schedule to drop in on this game and speak to media. As always, stay tuned for Ben Golliver's Media Row Report summarizing the quotes and notes from the arena tonight.
Top Ten Stories From Tonight's Game
1. LaMarcus Aldridge
Aldridge scored 44 points on 15-29 shooting, doubling the shot attempts of his next closest teammate. He also drew an amazing 17 foul shot attempts, making 14. The Blazers needed all of those points plus 13 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 blocks, plus Aldridge's steady presence as the storm raged around him in order to win this game. The Nuggets couldn't find anyone to defend him and the Blazers made them pay, finding LaMarcus repeatedly. Tonight was Aldridge's argument that the best forwards in the West might not necessarily be named Kevin.
2. Offensive Rebounds Make Up For Threes Not Falling
The Blazers shot far worse than the Nuggets tonight, 43% to 49%. Denver shot 44% from the three-point arc, hitting 10-23. Portland fired a miserable 4-18, 22%. Extra shot opportunities saved Portland's bacon. Portland corralled 16 offensive boards, Denver 7. Portland attempted 88 shots, Denver 79. The Nuggets were forced to play Timofey Mozgov late in the game in order to stop Robin Lopez from grabbing so many offensive rebounds. Even though Mozgov did reasonably well, his inexperience was one factor hurting the Nuggets in Category #3...
3. Denver's Huge Mistakes Down the Stretch
The Nuggets made multiple blunders late: unnecessary fouls, silly turnovers, losing rebounds, setting up too late in the clock, going for a 2 pointer when down 3 with 8 seconds left and no timeouts then missing that 2-pointer. Guys like Mozgov and Evan Fournier don't belong in the game during critical moments but foul trouble, lack of depth, lack of defense, and questionable coaching conspired to keep Denver vulnerable in moments when they could have taken the game.
A bonus mention for J.J. Hickson's idiotic foul on Wesley Matthews on a halfcourt, buzzer-beating attempt at the end of the first half even though it didn't happen at the end of the game. Nice way to give up 30% of the lead you worked hard to get.
4. Denver Turnovers
19 Denver miscues led to 28 Portland points tonight, a quarter of Portland's total. A few of those were due to Portland's opportunism but plenty can be chalked up to Denver being broken.
5. Denver Is Broken
No Danilo Gallinari, no Andre Miller, no Darrell Arthur...the Nuggets are jury-rigged right now and it shows.
6. Free Throws
Portland hit 30-34, Denver 17-20. That's a 13-point cushion that the Blazers needed.
7. Wesley Matthews: Portland's Secret Weapon
Matthews has come out aggressively in most games over the last few weeks, eschewing his usual role as catch-and-shoot three guy and attacking the basket on the drive, in the post, and on the break. Results have been mixed but against Denver's smaller guards the tactic worked. Just when the Nuggets thought they could get a handle on Aldridge, Matthews started filleting them from the other side.
8. Portland's Bench Gets Outplayed Badly
The second unit offense was kind of an issue tonight with 4 bench players combining for 4-15 shooting. But the bench defense was nearly unmentionable in the first half and only tentatively good in the second. Joel Freeland committed 2 fouls in 9 minutes, C.J. McCollum 2 in 11 minutes, Mo Williams 5 in 19 minutes. The starters combined for 11 fouls in 191 minutes of play. Portland's bench combined for 10 fouls in 49 minutes. And it's not like those fouls were preventing points. Denver's bench scored 40, admittedly in far greater minutes and against a mix of starters and reserves from Portland, but still. The upshot is, in order to beat a haphazardly-constructed incarnation of an already-suspect Nuggets team in a narrow game decided in the final 10 seconds of play the Blazers were forced to play their starters between 37-39 minutes each.
9. News Flash: The Blazers Can't Defend, Except When They Can
As mentioned above, Portland's first half defense was abysmal. Yes, the Nuggets score plenty. But giving up 30 and 37 in consecutive quarters was beyond the pale. The defense adjusted in the third to allow a more reasonable 24 points and the beginning of the fourth period was brilliant as Denver fought the clock for pressured, outside shots. But things slipped towards the end of the game and you got the feeling that Denver fell apart and lost this game as much as the Blazers came together and won it. Lack of defense seems to put every game in jeopardy at some point no matter who the opponent is.
10. The Blazers Win Anyway
They needed every bit of heroics--every scrap of Lopez hustle, every timely shot from Matthews, every dominant moment from Aldridge--but the Blazers did it...again. This was another mark in the win column and another step towards achieving the post-season dream. In the end, that's what matters.
Big picture, though, nights like this have to concern Blazer fans quietly even as they applaud loudly. How long can Portland continue to extend the starters, compensate for a shaky bench and even shakier defense, keep these heart-stopping victories coming in the final minutes of the fourth? Portland's first back-to-back losses of the season came on December 28th and 30th. The one-month anniversary of that event will come next Tuesday, following games against Minnesota, Golden State, and Memphis. We've definitely seen a different team in that month than we saw in the first two. It feels like a marathoner who's been running with the lead pack and is still doing so, but you start to see a small hitch in his stride. It's nothing big right now, but with the race only 40% over (counting the playoffs) you wonder how long he can keep running with that hitch, when it might cause him to drop back, and if he can mount a second wind when he's already been performing beyond expectations.
The Blazers won tonight. The Blazers also have things to iron out. The sooner that happens, the easier we can breathe.
Your Jersey Contest scores and the form for Saturday's game are HERE.
Tonight's Contest Answers:
The Nuggets score 9 fastbreak points.
Mo Williams plays 19 minutes.
Portland's bench scores 13 points combined.
Nicolas Batum leads the Blazers in assists.
Fugitiveguy leads tonight's scoring with 76 out of a possible 100 points. MavetheGreat leads for the month with 433 points and a 61.9 point average.