After a week of up and down drama, the Portland Trail Blazers were due for a perfunctory victory tonight as they faced the Denver Nuggets in the friendly confines of the Moda Center. They got the win, 116-100. They also escaped the first 47 minutes of the game with relatively little drama. That changed with a single minute remaining as forward Nicolas Batum fell to the floor after a rebounding scrum and had to be helped to the locker room. He suffered a right knee contusion and is questionable for Tuesday's game. You can read updates on his condition as they become available in our post dedicated to that subject. You can find other post-game reaction from around the web plus a quick and dirty description of the on-court action in our Instant Recap thread.
The Trail Blazers got down to business early in this one. Wesley Matthews scored in the post. Nicolas Batum fired and hit open jumpers. While the Nuggets twirled in place trying to figure out how to stop those two, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard blindsided them. Kenneth Faried drew 2 early fouls. The lane opened up like magic for drives, dishes, and offensive rebounds. When Chris Kaman poured in 7 points in support of the starters and Steve Blake hit a three to end the period, it almost wasn't fair. Portland notched 36 in their first 12 minutes. The Nuggets played fast and hard but could only manage 27. Both lead and momentum looked comfortable, but the Blazers thought the same in Saturday's game versus the Los Angeles Clippers and ended up losing that one. Would the tide turn again?
Suspicion swept through the Moda Center at the beginning of the second period as Terry Stotts used his cushion as an opportunity to dive into his bench wholesale. With Kaman, Blake, Thomas Robinson, and Will Barton on the floor at the same time, scoring died. Denver made a 7-point run, closing the lead to 2, before Stotts waved Matthews and Robin Lopez back in the game. Matthews finished the period so on fire that Caesar Flickerman stopped him for a halftime interview. His 12 points (quadruple three-pointers) helped the Blazers reclaim a 64-56 lead at the half.
Denver Assistant Coach Lester Conner gave an interesting interview coming out of the locker room, revealing the Nuggets' mindset. The key quote: "They're going to let us score." Given Portland's defensive reputation plus the 27 and 29 points allowed in the first two periods, his assessment was understandable. But it didn't work out that way.
Arron Afflalo and Wilson Chandler put in buckets to start the period, then Denver went dry as the Blazers clamped down. Portland was aided by Coach Brian Shaw's decision to run two bigs--JaVale McGee and Timofey Mozgov--during the latter portion of the period. The Nuggets rebounded well but the Blazers ran circles around them on the offensive end. Plus the Twin Towers left Denver's attack straight, inside, and predictable. Anyone who's watched the Blazers this season knows what happens when you come against Portland's defense like that. Denver forays met multiple Blazers in the lane, all of whom bothered shots and dribbles and most of whom balanced out any rebounding edge the Nuggets might have salvaged from the move. Portland led 85-73 at the end of three.
10 points from the second unit in the first 4 minutes of the fourth ensured that the Blazers wouldn't be losing their lead tonight. Denver made a couple runs but they never threatened. The only bumps in the road were the Batum injury and a chippy pushing contest between Blake and Faried. Other than that, Portland cruised to a 116-100 victory.
The Blazers out-gunned the Nuggets tonight. But if you're tempted to shrug at such victories, remember it wasn't long ago that Portland couldn't make that claim against anyone. It's nice to be that team sometimes.
The second-half defense was as impressive as any we've seen this season. Denver being lane-bound didn't hurt, but the Blazers adjusted coverage and defended the paint well. You can feel the team's defensive confidence surge as games go by. If this keeps up it won't be long before they'll start believing in the ability of their defense to win for them.
Also impressive: Portland's ability to adjust to a variety of Denver lineups. The Nuggets aren't entirely healthy but the Blazers still had to deal with McGee, Faried, Mozgov, J.J. Hickson, Afflalo, Wilson Chandler, Randy Foye, and Nate Robinson. However Denver mixed and matched--even when they got temporary boosts from differing skills and hot hands--the Blazers always had an answer.
Fun with Numbers
--The Nuggets scored 56 points in the paint tonight but shot 40% doing it.
--The combination of 16 offensive rebounds, 15 turnovers forced, and a quick pace pushed the Blazers to 100 shot attempts. It's almost always a good night when their attempts get that high and this was no exception.
--52% (16-31) on three-pointers didn't hurt either.
--The only clear advantage the Nuggets held came at the foul line. Their 23-30 rate bested Portland's 10-14, but playing style had something to do with that.
We've barely mentioned him so far, but LaMarcus Aldridge led the Blazers with 28 points on 12-26 shooting plus 9 rebounds and 4 assists. His jumper is so pure and regular now you pretty much take it for granted. The Nuggets didn't have anyone to stop him no matter where he fired from.
Wesley Matthews finished 5-13 from the arc, 8-19 overall for 21 points plus 6 rebounds and 3 assists. The Blazers opened with him in the post, the Nuggets couldn't compensate, and his offense developed from there.
Damian Lillard went 4-9 for 11 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds, but his most impressive stat might have been 0 turnovers. He's been coughing up the ball lately. The Blazers committed only 10 turnovers overall tonight and Lillard's self-control was a big part of that.
Nicolas Batum hit 2-5 threes for 10 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 assists in 35 minutes. He was a big part of Portland's versatility on defense and their ability to adjust to Denver's rebounding.
Robin Lopez had 9 rebounds and 12 points but his most interesting contribution was 3 blocked shots as Denver came right into his wheelhouse.
If Lopez was Gimli on those blocks, Chris Kaman played Legolas, notching 5 caps in 19 minutes. 12 points and 8 rebounds made him into a verifiable stats machine. As we speak the league is debating whether it's ethical to put Kaman on the floor anymore. That kind of production may ruin the integrity of the game.
Steve Blake played 22 minutes, put Faried down for 2/3 of a pinfall, and rectified his recent shooting woes with a 3-3, 9-point performance (all from beyond the arc). 4 assists were fine, 3 turnovers less so. The Blazers will live with it.
CJ McCollum had another strong, opportunistic showing with 2-3 triples hit and 3 assists in 13 minutes. The fast pace and green light meshes with his style. He looked as comfortable in the offense as we've seen him.
Thomas Robinson got the second-quarter call off the bench but didn't look comfortable, committing 3 fouls in 5 minutes. 4 rebounds mitigates that, but Robinson has become enough of a foul machine to make Rookie Mark Bryant blush.
Will Barton didn't look that synchronized either. He got the first look for the wings but it lasted only 5 minutes. Then McCollum eclipsed him.
Joel Freeland saw 7 minutes of late-game play and did well on both ends. This was his best outing of the season by far.
Meyers Leonard got a minute and an assist.
The Blazers have a day off before hosting Charlotte on Tuesday night. They play Denver again in the Mile High City on Wednesday, their second straight back-to-back.
Denver Stiffs no doubt was named for Faried's forearm style, but Blake's was stiffer tonight.
Stay tuned for the always-entertaining In-Arena Report from the Moda Center coming later tonight!