The 2013-14 Portland Trail Blazers like to win basketball games. Plenty of them. 27 and counting at this point. But they don't like to win them easily. If they were hunters they'd use the bow and arrow; if they were fishermen it'd be catch and release. In true Trail Blazer fashion the guys in red and black came out soft and spotted the Orlando Magic a 9-point lead plus momentum in the second half before reeling them in and destroying them in the fourth period for a 16-point victory.
The game opened with the Magic looking clueless, allowing the Blazers jumpers in their sweet spots. Portland sprinted to a 9-2 lead. Then Victor Olapido hit a three and the Magic suddenly kicked into gear. They drove the lane, drew fouls, moved their bigs to keep Robin Lopez off-center, and watched Portland's defense go to pot. Nicolas Batum getting tagged for 2 of those fouls in the first 3 minutes of the game didn't help matters. He'd be in and out throughout the half and Portland's performance wasn't pretty when he was out.
Opposing defenses generally fall into two camps when playing against Portland. One theory says to single-cover LaMarcus Aldridge, living with his points but keeping the Blazers from getting open threes. The other approach fixates on Aldridge, robbing the Blazers of their star and hoping to harry the passing lanes enough to prevent easy ball movement to open shooters. The Magic went with the first tactic in the opening half, allowing Aldridge to score but keeping three-point conversions to a trickle. In general it worked. Aldridge scored 14 in the first quarter alone but the Blazers managed only 24 in the period, the same as Orlando. 24-24 isn't an actual victory but for the Magic it had to feel like a moral one.
Orlando got far more than that in the second period as once again Portland's second-unit defense couldn't stand, mostly because they were standing. It was one of those nights when every screen felt like advanced calculus to Blazer defenders. Either they didn't call them out to each other, they went the wrong way around, or they just stopped dead when hitting the pick and silently pleaded for help. Personally I was screaming at the TV set like the Blazers were the blonde in a slasher movie, except instead of, "Don't go into the basement!" it was, "Don't run into that screen! NOOOOOO!!! Ahhhh! I can't watch!"
The Magic built a dozen-point lead with 4:30 left in the second period and no doubt felt as if they were cruising. They didn't know that victories against Portland are stored at the end of a long vault behind 2-inch-thick, bulletproof glass. They also didn't know that an invisible laser cuts across the hallway at exactly the "12 point behind" mark, triggering Portland's alarm system. Sure enough, the 12-point deficit triggered Blazer Security. Nicolas Batum sprang off the bench into action. Everybody else put down their powdered doughnuts, shut off the late-night reruns of "Are You Being Served?" and got to work. The Blazers finished the half with 11 points in 4 minutes on offense, 3 blocked shots on defense, and trimmed Orlando's lead to just 6 at the half, 51-45.
You'd think that would be lesson enough, right? You'd expect the Blazers to come out on fire and put this game away with one of their famous third-quarter explosions. Well, you'd be semi-right. Portland did come out with more energy but didn't get great results out of it. Orlando switched their defensive coverage, sending extra men against Aldridge and daring the Blazers to hit the threes they'd been denied heretofore. The Blazers couldn't. Aldridge made a couple shots early but Portland's offense stalled.
Meanwhile the Magic went with a two-pronged attack: penetration by guards and mid-range jumpers from big men...both excellent tactics against Portland's defense. They tried to use the jumpers to set up the drives, attempting to draw Lopez out of the lane. But Lopez never had to commit because Glen Davis couldn't hit a 20-footer to save his life. Frankly this saved the Blazers as they were still able to contain the penetration on those terms. Had Davis hit a couple more shots Orlando's lead could have bloomed into dangerous territory. As it was the Blazers fought them to a near-standstill. Both teams scored early in the third, went through a serious mid-quarter drought, and then came alive at the end of the period. The result was Portland gaining a meager 2 points on the Magic in the quarter, still behind 75-71 starting the fourth.
That's when Wesley Matthews said, "Enough of this. If nobody else is going to do it, I'm going to." Matthews began the fourth period with a three-pointer then hit a couple close in with another close miss sandwiched between. He played with serious energy and got his hands way dirtier than he usually does, fighting for position, to get shots up, to bump people around on defense. It was like watching the smart kid in chemistry class throw down against a couple wrestlers, kicking them in their knees sideways while delivering elbows to the solar plexus.
Matthews had a pretty strong ally in Thomas Robinson who looked at Matthews swinging away and said, "Oh, that's what we're doing? I'm good at that." Sure enough he was. While Matthews held Orlando's attention Robinson sucker-punched them from the side with layups, rebounds, bull-headed charging on defense, and enough much-needed energy that Coach Stotts kept him in for the entire fourth quarter.
After Matthews and Robinson took down the Magic they were effectively done. Aldridge and Damian Lillard made some mop-up shots, Portland bulldozed to a double-digit lead, and Orlando started heaving prayers (none of which were answered). It wasn't a pretty win but it was a Mortal Kombat-level finish for the Blazers and a 110-94 victory in the books.
The Blazers shot 47% from the field and a modest 30% from the arc tonight but accomplished an ultra-rare feat by outscoring the Magic 42-24 in the paint, 16-12 in fast-break points, and 14-10 in points after turnovers. I'm struggling to remember a game in which Portland won all three of those categories simultaneously...or even one in which they held the opponent below 30 points in the paint, period. The Magic had the right idea in general, attempting to spread the floor and make Portland's defense move. They never could hit enough jumpers to make the tactic effective, though. Orlando's offense stalled, the Blazers saw the game there like a ripe plum waiting to be picked, and the Magic couldn't counter.
Orlando's approach to LaMarcus Aldridge worked for a while but he ended up scoring 36 tonight on 16-25 shooting with 9 rebounds and 3 blocks. Maybe letting him get on a roll isn't the best idea.
Damian Lillard was out of this game for three quarters to the point where it didn't even seem he was touching the ball. He came alive in the late third and in the fourth, finishing with 11 on 4-12 from the field, 3-8 from the arc. He did garner 7 rebounds to counter Jameer Nelson who had 5 of his own and was working hard underneath for a little guy.
Nicolas Batum started out this game with 2 fouls and some shaky play but he must have been listening to Katy Perry on the bench because when he came back he roared big time. Not only did he salvage Portland's defense he actually put up shots (6-14 for 14 points) and notched a triple-double with 14 assists and 10 rebounds.
Wesley Matthews went from doing a little bit of nothing to doing a little bit of everything, particularly in that fourth quarter. He hit only 6-17 on the night but put the ball in the hoop when the Blazers needed it, scoring 17 with 5 rebounds and 4 assists. Arron Afflalo had a good night against Matthews but that's part of the package.
Robin Lopez had 7 rebounds and 7 points in 25 minutes and showed wisdom in staying home when the Magic were trying to draw him out.
Mo Williams had a pretty good night on the offensive end, playing silent partner to the starters in Portland's rally (if dribbling the ball that much can be considered "silent"). He shot 5-10, scored 12, committed only 1 turnover against 4 assists and 2 steals, and offered 4 personal fouls on defense including one in which he played bongos like Jack Costanzo on Oladipo's head on the break. He did stop Oladipo from converting.
Chris Haynes is reporting that Williams has decided to opt out of his contract at the end of the season, hoping to re-sign with the Blazers. Given the dollar value of the contract and the presence of the opt-out clause in the first place, that's no surprise. The timing of the announcement is slightly curious. Then again, Williams has opted out of a few defensive possessions early too.
Despite Mo's scoring and contract headlines the night belonged to Thomas Robinson off the bench. He played 11 minutes in the fourth, scored 6, grabbed 3 rebounds, blocked a shot, and even had an assist. Most of all he brought that relentless energy that got him into this league and which the Blazers needed tonight.
Joel Freeland did OK in 18 minutes but Meyers Leonard once again struggled defensively in his 7-minute stint. Robinson's fourth-quarter minutes likely came from Leonard and it doesn't look like T-Rob wants to give them back.
One of the interesting stories from last night's Sacramento game was that Dorell Wright didn't play and Will Barton did. Tonight both sat in favor of C.J. McCollum as Coach Stotts kicks the tires on those reserve wing options. McCollum did well for his first NBA game. He only had a couple gaffes, the most obvious being an attempted cross-court pass on his first handle that turned into a Pick-2 for Orlando. But in general he played smart, stayed in the right vicinity on defense, didn't push beyond himself or over-dribble, and looked comfortable in his own sneakers. That's about what you want from a guy trying to integrate into a successful system. He shot 2-5 for 4 points and 2 boards plus a steal in 14 minutes.
The Blazers get a little rest before facing Boston in the Moda Center on Saturday. That could go one of two ways. Either they could iron out some of their shakes in practice and consider Boston a re-start or they could lose even more of their edge and go stale anticipating weak opponents over the next couple games.
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Orlando Pinstriped Post will be reeling after that fourth quarter collapse.
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