Two basketball bloggers walk into a music store. Blogger A turns to Blogger B and says, "I could run circles around your analysis with my eyes closed."
Blogger B considers for a second then responds, "I'll concede the point if you can pass my analysis test."
"I can pass any test you want. Let me at it."
Blogger B looks around the store, then picks out a ukulele and a bass drum. Turning to Blogger A he says, "Tell me which one of these best represents the Portland Trail Blazers."
"That's easy," retorts Blogger A. "It's the drum. They're strong, deep, and have developed quite a rhythm."
"You suck, and you lose," says Blogger B, walking towards the door.
"All those things you said may be true, but even the simplest fool knows by now...nobody beats the Blazers."
Slam. End of story.
That also turned out to be the end of the story tonight in Carolina, as the Portland Trail Blazers dispensed with the Charlotte Hornets 105-97 to run their winning streak to 9 games. It was as masterful of a performance as we've seen during the streak. The Blazers aren't signalling intentions to stop anytime soon.
Lately the Blazers have fallen into a nasty habit of getting behind in the first period then digging their way out. They did no such thing tonight. The first 6 minutes of this game showed why the Blazers are edging over the line from decent team to conference contenders. They were cold-blooded, professional. Robin Lopez policed the lane on defense, forcing the Hornets to the perimeter where they missed most of their shots. The Blazers collected rebounds, got the ball down the floor quickly, then set up an inside-out attack that resulted in a bevy of open looks, including a pair of threes. Portland opened up an 11-4 lead and held the margin through 23-16 with 4:30 to go in the period. The performance neared "Spurs-like" territory.
Unfortunately the defense couldn't hold up, especially after Portland's reserves cycled in. Charlotte crawled back within 28-26 as the period ended but the Blazers had still put up one of the better first periods in the last few weeks.
There's a difference between being able to come back in order to win a game and having to come back in order to win a game. Unfortunately that message hasn't reached Portland's ears yet. In the second period the Blazers gave back everything they earned with their first quarter play and then some. They stood or chased on defense, couldn't keep the Hornets out of the paint, failed to rebound, and towards the end of the period even let turnovers creep in. Meanwhile Charlotte concentrated on shutting down the lane defensively and the Blazers couldn't respond with jumpers. The result was a 30-17 edge for the Hornets in the frame and a 56-45 lead for Charlotte headed into halftime.
As recent recaps will attest, when the Blazers get into first-half trouble LaMarcus Aldridge becomes their security blanket in the third quarter, bailing them out of their difficulties. Portland tried that tonight and for the first time in forever, Aldridge couldn't respond. Charlotte had him defended, locked up, struggling to find space after he caught the ball. This would have been the end for the Trail Blazers except for a few mitigating factors:
1. While the Hornets were watching Aldridge, Wesley Matthews racked up 3 triples and 11 points in the quarter.
2. Damian Lillard followed up with 8 points of his own.
3. The Blazers tightened up their defense and denied the Hornets the rebounds which had allowed them to control the game in the second period.
A 34-20 advantage for the Blazers in the third turned around the deficit and propelled Portland to a 79-76 lead heading into the fourth. The showdown was on.
The Blazers showed up to the showdown with a bazooka, 2 sniper rifles, an armored-vehicle-mounted machine gun, and a couple grenades. The Hornets showed up with a cherry-flavored slushie. And no baby wipes.
Matthews and Lillard blasted the heck out of Charlotte in vivid slow motion as half-chewed ice dribbles melted down their chin. Matthews scored 9 in the period, Lillard 7. When the guards weren't racking them up from distance, they were finding centers for open shots. All the Hornets could do in return was shoot mid-range jumpers and pray. Those petitions went unanswered until the game was way out of hand. Portland walked away with the 105-97 win and a perfect close to their short Eastern road trip.
It's hard to pick apart much in this game. Portland limited their turnovers (8), limited opponent fast break points (4), hit threes (12-27, 44%), and took control of the boards after losing it briefly in the first half. Basically they took all the flaws that had hamstrung them over the last week or so and stuffed them down the memory hole. As a result they made the game look easy even though Aldridge shot 3-18 for 9 points and the team as a whole shot 42%. You cannot beat this team by defending just one guy. You cannot beat this team by dominating just one quarter. The Blazers are not perfect and the Blazers may not even be elite yet, but playing against Portland is hard. They won't make many possessions easy for an opponent, let alone many games. Being a hard out will get you a long way in the NBA regular season. If the Blazers keep playing like they did tonight, they're going to have a happy year.
Fun With Numbers
--Those 8 turnovers deserve a re-mention. This has been an issue for Portland and for one night, at least, they solved it. Funny how the game looks easier when you're not giving it away.
LaMarcus Aldridge: 3-18 shooting, 3-6 free throws, 9 points. Bad night, right? Not so fast. Here's the difference between 2014 Aldridge and the three-years-ago version. He still provided that security blanket. He just did it with rebounding, shot blocks, and hustle. He gathered 14 boards (tied for game high) and 3 blocks. Aldridge isn't so much leading the team right now as pushing them all up from beneath, like Atlas holding the world.
Wesley Matthews was just plain unfair to the Hornets, shooting 6-9 from distance and 10-15 overall on his way to a game-high 28 points. He started with open looks created by inside pressure from Aldridge and Lopez. Then he progressed to filthy, dirty, "must be over 17 or accompanied by an adult to view this" shots that cored the heart right out of the Hornets.
Damian Lillard spent the night saying, "I can do that too!" as he followed in Matthews' wake, making Charlotte regret that they got out of bed this morning with 4-8 shooting from range, 7 assists, and 22 points. When the Hornets swarmed all over Aldridge, Matthews and Lillard showed up with big ol' cans of Raid and fumigated them from a distance. It's impossible to overstate how Portland's guard offense crippled Charlotte tonight.
Robin Lopez reminded the Hornets that he could hit too, firing 6-10 for 15 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 blocks. Everywhere the ball went, Charlotte suffered.
This was a classic "Nicolas Batum: 5th Option" night. The Blazers didn't need Batum to shoot much and he didn't. 4-11, 10 points, 6 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block.
Chris Kaman: 12 points, 7 rebounds in 18 minutes. It's funny that this is considered a normal night for him now. It's even funnier that he didn't look that good on the court tonight and still produced like that.
Nobody else off the bench registered much. Steve Blake collected 4 fouls and 3 assists in 21 minutes with some decent defense. Allen Crabbe scored 3 in 17 minutes and didn't touch the ball much. Joel Freeland managed to keep out of foul trouble for the first time in forever, grabbing 4 rebounds and only fouling once in 12 minutes.
Portland has Thanksgiving Day to rest before facing a super-stiff challenge on their Friday return to the Moda Center: the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Instant Recap will give you post-game reaction.
At The Hive probably developed a case of the hives watching that three-point shooting by Matthews and Lillard. They better stock up on Calamine lotion, because they've got the Golden State Warriors next.
--Dave firstname.lastname@example.org / @DaveDeckard / @Blazersedge