The Portland Trail Blazers beat the Charlotte Hornets 102-100 tonight, providing a thrilling finish to a game that almost flew out of Portland's hands. The Hornets built a 23-point lead in the first half and coasted on its residue until 3:03 remained in the fourth. In the end, the Blazers broke out of Charlotte's web. Great late-game defense and rebounding salvaged an otherwise lackluster effort for Portland, who exited the arena with a 2-point victory.
One of the Food Network's most popular shows is the cooking challenged "Chopped". Four chefs receive baskets full of mystery ingredients which they must then integrate into a composed dish to be judged by a panel of experts. Weave the components into an amazing course and you move on. Blow it and you're chopped.
Tonight's mystery ingredient for the Blazers was Crabbe (as in, Allen). To the surprise of just about everyone, the second-year guard started in place of injured forward Nicolas Batum, manning the shooting guard position and pushing Wesley Matthews to small forward.
If the Blazers were judged on how well they integrated this ingredient in the first 12 minutes of this game, they'd have been chopped on the spot. It would have been the only appetizer in the history of the show served with a mandatory barf bag.
Charlotte had a three-part approach to offense in the early going:
1. Screen on every play because, well...Blazers defense.
2. Make sure to go against Crabbe or any young guard the Blazers threw in the game to replace him.
No question marks were needed in the middle of that list. It was all profit, all the time. Charlotte's shooting percentage soared over 50% and would remain there for three solid quarters. Kemba Walker and Lance Stephenson made mincemeat out of Portland defenders. When they got tired and headed to the bench, Gary Neal and P.J. Hairston did the same.
You knew things were going very, very bad for Portland when the Hornets hit the first 4 three-pointers they attempted. Charlotte's three-point percentage hovers below 30%, within spitting distance of the worst in the league. A couple of screens, a couple of inside passes kicked out, and all of a sudden they're the Splash Brothers East. The Blazers switched screens. The Blazers tried to double. The Blazers did everything but the Hokey-Pokey. It didn't matter. The Hornets scored a groan-inducing 35 points in the first period.
On the other end Portland went iso 1-on-1 with their stars, fell into Charlotte traps, turned over the ball, failed to rebound, and emerged from the quarter with 21 points...tallying a 14-point deficit after one. If this was the appetizer round, nobody wanted to see the entree.
The Blazers' bench began the second period by burning everything they tried to cook...except the nets, of course.
"Let's just stick this cold soup in the chiller."
That's the oven.
"Oh! Well I'm going to stick these breadsticks in the oven."
That's your ear.
Portland's first 5 minutes of play produced 6 points. But that's OK...Charlotte provided plenty of scoring to make up for it. Top 6-week-old liver with a nice dollop of Limburger cheese then stick it inside a Durian rind. You'll have some idea of how bad Portland's defense was. At least the Hornets guards had been hitting legit jumpers in the first period. Now they were scoring in the heart of the lane too.
Portland's starters redeemed the situation during their second-period shift. 6 shots made within 3 feet coupled with 3 three-pointers will bring you back in a hurry. Aldridge, Lillard, and company provided the first signs of life the Blazers had shown all evening. After falling down by 23 midway through the quarter Portland cut Charlotte's lead to 13, 64-51, at the half.
In the third period the Hornets began edging ever so slightly towards Al Jefferson iso sets, allowing more time for the Blazers to adjust. Portland also threw a zone defense, forcing the Hornets back outside if they wanted open shots. It worked. Even though Charlotte maintained a high percentage throughout the quarter, their tempo slowed. Along with it went their scoring.
Meanwhile the Blazers began to move the ball more, relying less on isolation moves from LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, more on keeping the feet of Hornets defenders in motion. Open threes and fouls on drives to the basket provided the bulk of Portland's scoring. The entree round concluded with the Blazers dumping the chuck-steak offense and serving up good old rump roast instead. Portland outscored Charlotte 24-21 in the period and trailed 75-85 headed into dessert.
And how sweet that dessert round was.
The jumpers that had fallen for Charlotte's bench in the first half came up empty in the fourth. Each thunk on the rim seemed to buoy Portland's confidence. The Hornets compensated by feeding Jefferson a steady diet of post plays. The Blazers struggled to stop him until Joel Freeland took the stage. He kept a body in front of Jefferson, kept his feet on the floor, and forced Big Al to shoot over the top or pass out instead of faking, dipping, and driving. With all the other Portland defenders able to stay at home, Jefferson's passes weren't finding open targets. Charlotte's offense, already on a downward trend, stalled completely.
Meanwhile the Blazers kept chipping away at the lead. A Chris Kaman jump shot here, a Steve Blake free throw there...Portland's reserves had the lead down to 4 by the time the starters took over again. Aldridge and Lillard went to work on fatigued and nervous Hornets defenders, scoring 11 points (out of 14 total for the team) between the 5:50 and 2:20 marks of the fourth period. The other three points belonged to Blake, whose triple put the Blazers ahead for good in the game.
Though offense and defense both favored the Blazers in the closing minutes, rebounding really saved their bacon. Charlotte had kept Portland's board-work contained during most of the game, but spraying caroms fell into Portland's hands again and again in the fourth. They tallied 6 offensive rebounds in the final 8:07 of the game. Had Charlotte regained even one of those possessions, the game might have turned out differently.
That said, Portland once again blew their final offensive possession of the game with near-dire consequences. The Blazers had the ball up 2 points with 10 seconds left. They shot clock was off. They inbounded the ball to Damian Lillard who was expecting to be fouled for possession. Instead he got doubled and pressured. He spun towards the bucket, tried an escape dribble, but escaped right into the clutches of 2 more Hornets defenders. In desperation he threw up a looping layup which missed. Charlotte rebounded, gaining the ball without giving up any points or a foul. This is nearly unheard of. That dessert the Blazers just plated up almost got knocked on the floor.
Down 100-102, the Hornets had 3.5 seconds remaining to tie or win the game. As it turned out, they needed 3.6 seconds. Gary Neal got free and made it all the way to the rim for an easy layup but the ball left his fingers literally a tenth of a second too late. His conversion got waved off and Portland escaped with the 2-point win.
I was on the radio with Brian Perkins of 750 The Game this afternoon [shameless plug] and one of the things I said was that the Blazers could stand to cut down the number of points allowed to opponents in the first quarter. Giving up 29 and 30 point periods wasn't proving fatal but it sure was making life harder. So instead they go out and give up 35, barely getting out of the Moda Center with the victory, requiring an intense comeback.
Can the Blazers win this way? Sure. Should the Blazers win this way? You already know the odds don't favor success with that plan. Not only did Portland almost get nicked at home by a team they should have beaten, they spent 39 minutes from Aldridge and Lillard plus a bunch of physical and emotional energy winning the first game of a back-to-back...the game that theoretically should have been the easier of the two. That's not smart.
The Blazers switched screens from the outset of this game, a departure from their usual method of playing it straight early and switching more in the second half. It didn't work. The hole in the defense caused by Batum's absence was a big part of that. Plus even the densest team is going to figure out that Robin Lopez vs. Anybody out on the perimeter is a good look for them. Only Portland's zone defense slowed down the Hornets. It was a good call...a game changer. But again, it'd be nice if games like this didn't have to be changed in the first place. Better defense and a little more focus at the outset of the game would alleviate the need.
That said, almost everybody who played tonight on Portland's side contributed to the win. The game was packed with thrilling plays, often from surprising sources. It wasn't pretty, but the Blazers cobbled together enough ingredients to make this read as a "W" in the standings column. That's all that matters for now.
We'll see how tomorrow night in Denver goes.
Fun With Numbers
--The Hornets shot 47% tonight. This looks like a decent number until you consider they were shooting 56% at the half and 53% after three.
--Portland shot only 32% from distance (8-25). The Hornets fired 44% (7-16) from the same range. It's not often Charlotte does that.
--The Blazers got obliterated at the foul line once again. The Hornets went 23-27, Portland 14-16.
--Lance Stephenson shot 5-10, scoring 14 and ripping off 14 rebounds. Up until now he's been having a horrible year, shooting 31% from the field.
--The Blazers outscored the Hornets in the paint 42-32 and on the break 8-3. Those aren't Portland's usual strengths, but tonight? They'll take them.
Damian Lillard scored a game-high 29, hitting 12-21 shots and 5-8 from the arc. The Blazers needed every bit of it too. Lillard looked really good coming off screens, hitting the quick jumper, and driving. It was like he was returning what the Hornets guards were dishing out, with interest. Damian also had 7 assists, marred somewhat by 6 turnovers.
LaMarcus Aldridge put down 25 points of his own on 10-21 shooting. Marvin Williams was giving him fits early on, getting his hand in Aldridge's bread basket and not allowing him to bring the ball up over his head. It was an effective strategy against a player with an unblockable shot. The Hornets also harried Aldridge with smart double-teams all night. But LaMarcus took advantage of smaller, quicker defenders by exploiting his size. He grabbed 14 rebounds, 4 offensive. It wasn't Aldridge's best game and it was still worth 25 points and 14 rebounds. How about that?
Wesley Matthews did well enough. He had one grand defensive stand on Lance Stephenson late to help preserve the game. He dished 7 assists, replacing Batum's numbers. Other than that his contribution was sprinkled buckets, 2-9 shooting beyond the arc, and 16 points. That's hardly a disaster, but this wasn't quite the confident Wes we're used to seeing.
Robin Lopez had little or no way of handling Al Jefferson 1-on-1. He played only 23 minutes with 4 rebounds and 4 points. He looked late to almost every defensive play. There was not a good matchup for him anywhere.
Allen Crabbe shot 1-4 with 2 assists, 2 rebounds, and 2 points in 22 minutes in his first NBA start. Next time a Chopped contestant serves up a seafood dish that looks easy to get through and under-seasoned, dub it the Allen Crabbe. (To be fair, he's not supposed to be in this position. Give him longer in the oven and see what happens.)
Chris Kaman once again played like a superstar off the bench, netting 12 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 2 assists in 18 minutes. His mid-range jumper helped turn this game around. His defense on Jefferson wasn't much better than Lopez's, but it was nice to have another body to throw in there.
You know whose defense was better on Jefferson? Joel Freeland's. He's the unsung hero of this game, providing the Blazers incredible production in the fourth period. He stayed in front of Jefferson and stopped him. He nabbed 7 rebounds and scored 5 points in 16 minutes of play. Without Freeland the Blazers don't get the victory. He was a Big Deal tonight.
Steve Blake played 25 minutes, including critical fourth-quarter stretch time. His offensive production wasn't much better than that of his young counterparts. He hit only 1-5 shots and dished 2 assists. But he helped plug the defensive gap that had hamstrung the Blazers throughout the game.
CJ McCollum played 17 minutes and didn't really distinguish himself.
Dorell Wright--the pick of many to start in place of Batum--got 6 minutes and missed 3 shots in a fairly awful outing.
As mentioned above, the Blazers face Denver tomorrow night on the road in a 6:00 p.m. Pacific start.
Get plenty of post-game reaction in our Instant Recap.
At The Hive will have white-knuckled their way through a sinking feeling before they finally got sunk.
Stay tuned for our In-Arena report coming up later tonight!
And remember...in the end a 2-point win after playing 14 good minutes out of 48 is better than a 1-point loss after a spectacular effort.