Just two seasons ago, the Denver Nuggets were an exciting run-and-gun team, the 3rd seed in the West. When you look at their current roster, you have to admit it looks rather deep, perhaps as dangerous as 1-4 team could be. But on closer inspection, Denver's redundant depth chart makes them a second-rung super hero team: the West Coast Avengers or the New X-Men.
I knew Professor X, I served alongside him; he is a friend of mine; and you, Brian Shaw, are no Charles Xavier.
Of course even second-rung super hero teams have highly skilled mutants not to be taken lightly. Still, fans were feeling this was going to be a Portland win before they got into the arena - "Half their team's on minute restrictions"; "I'm loving the play of our bigs right now" - and were accordingly restless early as Ty Lawson got to the rim at will and Denver ran a lay-up line.
Unqualified disapproval came through by the time Lawson hit layup with 4:05 left in the first quarter. Variations of "Come on!" could be heard around the crowd. I will not repeat what was being said after Lawson scored another layup, then stole the inbounds pass and proceeded to lay it up again with 2 minutes left in the quarter.
This evidently set something off in the fight or flight response of Chris Kaman (aka Unfrozen Kaman Scorer). In the span of 40 seconds, Kaman blocked a shot, secured 2 rebounds, and scored 7 points, staking the Blazers to a sudden 9 point advantage at the end of one.
If you had never seen the Blazers play before this first half - you would be pardoned if you thought this was Wes Matthews' team. It sure felt that way, as he scored 19 points in the first half and seemed to set the tone for how the offense should be run: smooth and controlled, with well-measured fakes and passes which dictated the terms of engagement, consistently putting the Blazers at advantage.
Half the crowd gave Wes a standing ovation for his 3 pointer with 4:32 left in the second period, a shot which opened the lead to 10. He got the full standing ovation treatment for his next three, buzzer beater to slam close the first half.
Wes also played D with hustle and grit, including an all-out diving steal in between a couple of Nuggets which got a roar of appreciation from the crowd.
The Blazers' defense, which has been pegged as a major factor in how far they can go this year, responded to Iron Man's call. It was extremely strong the rest of the way. It seemed like every shot Denver took was well contested, so even their makes were tough. The Blazers only allowed 44 points in the second half. That's a great figure in any game, let alone in a fast-paced one where one team managed to hoist up 100 field goals. Although Denver's guards continued to routinely beat ours off the dribble, there was a clear sense of presence, urgency, and unity on every defensive possession.
Unfrozen Kaman Scorer waxed philosophical about the Blazers' newfound emphasis on D:
"Ladies and gentleman of Portland, I'm just a Kaman. Your world is mysterious and confusing to me. People say we should play more defense, and I wonder, why? Isn't defense just passing time until I can hold rock again? Why would I want more of that? But I do know one thing: If I club opposing player's shot like Woolly Mammoth head, Portland make big noise for me."
The crowd made big noise for Kaman as he got 5 of the team's season-high 11 blocks. Still, there wasn't much obvious to get too excited about in the second half other than very solid team play. The Nuggets definitely tried to push things up-tempo at the beginning of the second half, and the Blazers proved more than up to the task, getting back fairly well in transition and giving as good as they got. The teams ended up tied in fastbreak points.
Brian Shaw went against his tendencies and tried to double LaMarcus Aldridge several times, but #12 reacted as he has all season to date - a quick pass out leading to an open shot. There's no hesitation on his part in these situations. On this team it does not matter who takes the shot. When this unselfishness is automatic for your superstar, that's a very good sign for your franchise. It's not like he didn't get his numbers anyway - we've just become accustomed to lines like the 28 and 9 he put up tonight.
Damian Lillard did not have to turn up his scoring in the fourth quarter as he has in every other game this year. RoLo was free to play less than 29 minutes and forego his usual double-double. The Blazers freely gave some bench players time and still went home with a relatively easy win.
The biggest cheers in the fourth quarter were (1) a clamor for t-shirts and (2) for Steve Blake.
The t-shirt situation was perhaps unfair, as each quadrant of the arena were asked to cheer in turn to show how much they loved free t-shirts. The loudest (evidently the side across from the benches) got showered with a deluge of flying shirts, while the rest of us got nada. It would seem that those seated behind the baskets would be at a disadvantage here, but the marketing team, as well as Blaze the Trailcat and the guy with the t-shirt slingshot, were nowhere to be found for comment after the game.
On the Blake situation, the crowd was united. They absolutely ate up the replay which showed Blake shoving Faried after a pointless backscreen by the Denver big with no play action anywhere near them. (I'm not liking the volume of fairly dirty play I've seen from the Manimal so far in his young career, by the by.) The Nuggets got what they wanted: a flagrant and one more shot at trying to make this a game, but the deficit was too large and the time too late.
Blake had another strong showing offensively, stroking all 3 of his attempts from distance. After bad shooting numbers on the Warriors and hitting only 30% of his FG this preseason, there were rumblings about whether Blake's elbow injury last year ever fully healed, It looks like we can wave off that concern now.
Of course the biggest concern of the moment is Nicolas Batum's heath. No one seemed to see Batum's injury live. It was late in the game and a lot of folks were already hitting the exits. It took people a while to figure out why the game had stopped. As a result there wasn't a coherent reaction to the injury from the confused and diffuse crowd. Nic had a brave face on, but grimaced in pain just before hitting the locker room runway. It did seem to be the kind of grimace that was more of the 'this is a severely annoying pain' variety, which would watch up with the 'knee contusion' diagnosis we've gotten. Those can hurt like a mother.
If there is any small consolation, the Blazers bench has been looking stronger and stronger of late, and the lineup that opened the fourth quarter - Blake, CJ, Wes, Freeland, and Kaman - looked downright solid. That is a group that can keep its head above water and give a nice blow to most of the starters.
We haven't gotten to see much of Joel Freeland due to injury. The crowd, in recognition, gave a nice loud cheer for his first basket of the season. His second basket, a spin and left-handed push over Faried, looked as effortless as when he makes that move on Meyers Leonard in warmups. Trust me, if his nightly schoolings of Meyers is any indication - Joel has some serious back-to-the-basket post game that we haven't gotten to see in live action yet.
And so it went - Iron Man helped our superheroes run off the second stringers in convincing fashion, sending them back to the Fortress of Shame (or whatever Denver calls their arena these days). Summing up, tonight we got a look at a formidable defense that is starting to take shape while being reintroduced to some familiar characters who might play key roles in upcoming storylines. That's The End, for now...until Wednesday night when the Blazers face the Nuggets once again.
Random Arena Notes:
All fans in attendance got a pretty awesome-looking team poster, more ‘action-y' than recent years. They'll be around, so definitely ask ticket representatives about them if you weren't here tonight.
There may be a changing of the guard of post-win songs afoot, and by extension I may have to forever retire my obnoxious ‘All I Do is Win, Win, Win, No Matter What' dance at the end of games. I personally hated that song until it started being associated with Blazers' Wins, which naturally made me want to suddenly dance to it. The last two games it has been replaced with the more subdued "My Team Winnin" by Travis Porter.
There seemed to be an uptick in the number of people signing up for the Toyota Half-Court Shot, and related discussion about the last attempt of the halfcourt shot - which made mention on ESPN.com's "The Ten":
Yeah, I don't think that was at rim height at any time.
The Blazers Organization honored the memory of Sandy Zickefoose, the season ticketholder who passed away on Friday night, with a moment of silence before the national anthem.
A bunch of scalpers sold out early tonight!
A Young Blazermaniac ready to bring it hard.
Freeland posting and toasting Meyers
Everybody watching Wes Matthews' highlights at the half.
The bench really enjoyed a Wes three ball.
Block Party in Full Effect!
RoLo carried a big stick on both ends of the court tonight.
The starters looking on in the early 4th.
Blazer bigs mopped the floor with the Nugs.
Hopefully not too serious.