When I worked in Iowa some of the farmers would tell stories of wandering vagabonds during the Great Depression. These guys would come through town and stop off at farmhouses looking to earn a meal and some loose change. They'd knock on the door, come to an agreement with the lady of the house, and then work hard for a sandwich and a quarter or two.
I don't know about the sandwich but working hard for a quarter or two appeared to be the Portland Trail Blazers' game plan tonight. They vagabonded the start of their road trip by squeaking out a shaky 94-88 victory over the Boston Celtics.
The game began with the Celtics getting 2 offensive rebounds followed by a layup, a three-pointer, and another layup on the next three possessions. ALL of those things are mortal sins in the St. Stotts Defensive Catechism. Portland tried to strike back by driving down the lane but the Celtics kept bothering and/or stuffing their shots. The start was a little flat.
Appropriate to the season, Rajon Rondo made mincemeat out of Damian Lillar in the first. He squirted past Portland's defense repeatedly. One example:
Damian and LaMarcus Aldridge would combine for 1 field goal and 4 points in the period. Only a heroic effort from Nicolas Batum (8 points in 1:20 in the middle of the quarter) would keep the opening frame from going down as a disaster for Portland. The Celtics led 23-21 after one.
In a trend that would continue throughout the evening, Portland's defense gave the Celtics open mid-range looks in the second. This was more in keeping with the Blazers game plan and Boston obliged by missing many of their opportunities. Chris Kaman notched 6 points in the first 7 minutes of the period...Portland's only scoring until the starters finally came alive to close the half. The Blazers cleaned up their rebounding problems in the second period but couldn't control their turnovers, opening the door for Boston's offense even though the Celtics weren't hitting in the halfcourt. Boston expanded their lead to 49-44 at intermission.
The Celtics continued to foil Lillar and his mates with screens for open jumpers as the third period commenced, but the Blazers were able to respond with Aldridge scoring inside. This opened up the perimeter to Portland's benefit. The hero of the quarter turned out to be Steve Blake. Matched up with Evan Turner, Blake gave away points and then snatched them right back, allowing 4 but scoring 8 as the period wound down. Blake's tally added to the momentum the starters generated early and the Blazers erased their deficit, leading 73-72 heading into the showdown fourth.
The Blazers pulled ahead early in the final period by hitting threes then using the spread floor to score inside. The Celtics had done a good job policing the passing lanes all night, pickpocketing Portland's inside passes. Respecting long-range shooters kept Boston defenders out of the lane and the Blazers' superior size and strength started to show. In about 3.5 minutes the Blazers extended their lead from 1 to 11.
The Celtics brought Rondo back in to turn the tide but Steve Blaked took up the challenge of defending him, replacing Dame in that capacity. It worked. The big men for the Celtics made inroads on Portland's lead late as they brought defenders outside and shot over them. But carrying a double-digit margin into the last 3 minutes left the Blazers needing only a couple shots to win. Boston's 11-3 run in the final four minutes still left them down 4 with only a couple possessions remaining. A Wesley Matthews dunk with 11 seconds left sealed the win. The Blazers walked away victors, 94-88, pushing their road record to 2-2 and their overall record to 10-3.
This was a classic "glass half-empty or glass half-full" outing. The Blazers ended up correcting most of their major mistakes, including noticeable rebounding and turnover problems in the first half. But those problems also put a game against an inferior opponent in question. Those issues, and the general lack of urgency that spawns them, have cropped up repeatedly for the Blazers this season.
On the other hand, the miscues and lack of focus weren't fatal...nor have they been in the big picture. Every team has some issues. A 10-3 record shows that the Blazers are managing theirs just fine.
On the other, other hand, the chronic issues we should be talking about are screen defense and big men having to cover the perimeter. Those also showed up tonight. You know the Blazers aren't going to solve those riddles anytime soon. Given that, adding optional issues on top seems like a bad idea.
On the fourth hand, winning in the final period against lesser opponents on the road is a legit pattern for good teams. That's just what the Blazers did tonight.
On the fifth hand, you still get the lingering feeling that the Blazers might not be quite as good as all that. If the Celtics hadn't missed plenty of wide-open shots tonight, the story would have been different.
On the sixth hand, the Celtics score in the paint and not on the fringes. Portland knew that, allowed them only 40 points inside, and gave them those open shots because they'd miss them.
On the seventh hand, the Blazers won't play Boston every night.
On the eight hand, they do play the Philadelphia 76'ers tomorrow, which is an even better matchup. No need to stress.
On the...aw, heck. It was a win, OK? That's good enough.
Fun With Numbers
The Blazers committed 16 turnovers tonight, forcing only 8.
Portland's 15-4 fast-break deficit was a direct result. Nowhere was this more comically evident than a sequence in the 3rd period wherein Gerald Wallace intercepted a Lillard pass and streaked for a layup attempt. He blew the layin. Lillard rebounded it and promptly threw it to Rondo who was standing at halfcourt. Rondo then converted the layup. It was like a blown spot in wrestling when the two guys execute the botched move over again to get the right result.
The Blazers shot 7-19 (37%) from distance today but the Celtics did worse at 5-23 (22%).
Boston attempted 95 field goals to only 86 for the Blazers. That doesn't usually lead to a happy result for Portland.
LaMarcus Aldridge once again provided Portland's security blanket when everything was going wrong in the first half. His second-quarter performance kept the Blazers afloat. When they really, really need a bucket they just give him the ball and watch him work.
Aldridge's post game was more on display in this game than usual, no doubt a planned exploitation of matchups. Boston's bigs aren't exactly intimidating on the defensive end.
If you want a demonstration of Aldridge's respect at a league-wide level, look no further than the karate chops to the defender's chest he's allowed to throw in order to set up his post moves. He's not getting the Shaq treatment, but he is allowed to push defenders out of the way, spin, then pick up the whistle while they're reeling.
Aldridge shot only 7-21 tonight but he attempted a game-high 7 free throws (hitting 6) and helped cure Portland's rebounding woes with 14 rebounds in a game where nobody else reached double-digits. His 21 points didn't hurt either.
Damian Lillar(d) shot 4-14 for 12 points but added 9 rebounds of his own. he yin-yanged his assists and turnovers with 5 each. I assume we don't have to comment on the other end of the floor much?
Nicolas Batum was the only starter who looked like he was playing normally in the first half. He finished the game with 12 points after the flurry of 8 in the second period. But it's hard to overestimate how important that flurry was...not just keeping the Blazers in contact on the scoreboard but demonstrating that not everybody was going to play like a legless hamster on offense.
Robin Lopez had trouble with the quick hands and feet of Boston's centers all night. He couldn't chase on defense, couldn't move or catch on offense, and had too few opportunities for his classic "biggest man in the building" buckets. But he was really solid in the lane defensively. 9 points and 7 rebounds.
Wesley Matthews became the fourth-quarter herald announcing the Blazers were going to win this game by hitting a three to start the period. As mentioned above, he also declared the game finished with his last-possession dunk. Those 2 shots accounted for 5 of his 10 points. It was mostly an, "Oh yeah, you're here too" night for Matthews...like the quiet guy at the party who occasionally pops up with a funny joke.
Chris Kaman played fantastic off the bench again with 16 points and 8 rebounds in 18 minutes. They may have to invent a 12th Man of the Year award if he turns out to be twice as good as his nearest competitor for 6th Man of the Year.
That said, the Bench Guy of the Night trophy has to go to Steve Blake. He did it on both ends, closing the Rondo hole on defense and shooting 5-8 for 11 points and 5 assists. He would have had 14 points if his toe hadn't been draping the three-point arc on a few separate shots. When the Celtics thought they might come back and win this thing, Blake was the voice that said, "No."
Dorell Wright showed signs of life (besides shooting) with 4 rebounds and a block in 6 minutes. He matches up well with Boston.
Joel Freeland again played well enough but he keeps collecting fouls. Allen Crabbe didn't really register much tonight.
The Blazers play the Philadelphia 76'ers tomorrow with a 4:00 p.m. Pacific start.
Our Instant Recap will give you post-game reaction from around the interwebs.
Our In-Arena Report covers the up-close and personal view of TD Garden tonight.
CelticsBlog might have mixed feelings about this game. You can check it out and see.