Tonight's contest between the Portland Trail Blazers and the Denver Nuggets tonight didn't resemble an NBA Basketball game as much as an extended session of "chicken". The Trail Blazers spent most of the evening with the pedal to the metal, cruising in the lane of an oncoming loss. They weren't faint of heart either. They pushed the experience to the limit. "How long can we go before hitting a three? How long can we allow the opponent to shoot over 50%? How long can we ride Wesley Matthews when he's not hitting anything? How long can we watch Chris Kaman brick? How long can we trail in this game? Whooo-haahhh!"
Meanwhile Portland Coach Terry Stotts sat in the back seat going, "Guys, this isn't sensible. Get out of the way. Get back in your own lane! Guys? Guys?!? GUYS!!!!!! What the...AHHHHH!!!"
As it turned out, the Blazers kept the gas floored until they could see the dilated pupils of that loss staring them right in the face. But the loss saw Robin Lopez first and swerved out of the way, leaving the Blazers the exhilarated kings of the road, waving a 105-103 victory in the air as they whooped it up down the highway.
Portland started out strong in this one. They forced turnovers, ran, played mismatch basketball in the halfcourt. Wherever the Nuggets weren't, that's where the Blazers put the ball. The result was open jumpers, easy layups, and a quick 9-3 lead.
Then the Nuggets regained their senses and embarked on a ceaseless campaign of guard/wing scoring. If you stood under 6'8" and your name wasn't Nate Robinson, you were pouring in points for the Nuggets tonight. Their preferred option was the break. Failing that, Denver went with drive-and-dish or drive-and-layup. It worked. A lot. Portland's defense broke down again and again as the Nuggets took a 31-23 lead after one.
As has been the story all season, LaMarcus Aldridge saved Portland's bacon. And their sausage. And any stray cocktail wienies that dropped on the floor too. Basically all processed meat products in the vicinity of the Blazers got rescued by #12. Between sweet jumpers, superstar foul calls with free throw conversions, and the occasional post move LaMarcus tallied 26 points in the first half alone. Since the Blazers scored only 50 total, that was pretty impressive.
Portland probably could have had 70 in the half if anybody could hit a three-pointer but they shot 0-7 from distance before intermission. Meanwhile the Nuggets continued to hit 50% of their attempts. As a result Aldridge's heroism could only cut the lead to 56-50 at the half.
Two new heroes replaced Aldridge in the third quarter. Steve Blake stepped out of the phone booth to pour in 8 points, including a couple sigh-of-relief threes to spread the floor. After that Damian Lillard took over for 8 points in 76 seconds of play. Lillard's outburst would key a 12-0 Portland run midway through the third. Amazingly Denver still outscored them in the period 29-28 because, well...defense. Portland trailed 78-85 heading into the final stanza.
Thankfully Portland's defense FINALLY showed up in the fourth quarter. They forced the Nuggets out of the paint and crowded their jump shots. Perhaps believing in fool's gold from their high percentages all game, Denver acquiesced fairly meekly, seeming happy to put up mid-range jumpers and threes. That earned them all of 18 points in the period.
The Blazers stalled early in the fourth as well, going down by 10 as the 9:00 mark passed. Just as they clamped down on Denver, their own shots stopped falling. Irony never goes out of style.
But as the quarter progressed Aldridge and Lillard snapped Portland out of their funk with some well-timed jumpers and drives. Matthews even put in a brief guest appearance, generating his only real offense of the night. You could see confidence seeping out of the Nuggets as the ball moved, shots fell against them, and their lead dwindled. Aldridge finally put the Blazers back in front 103-101 when J.J. Hickson goaltended his layup at the 1:46 mark. Arron Afflalo would score on the next possession to force a 103-103 tie.
There the score would remain until the final possession of the game for the Blazers. It came with 4 seconds remaining on the clock after Lillard missed a layup but the Nuggets couldn't corral the rebound.
Portland had one play to get on top, inbounding from the baseline underneath the hoop. They got the ball to Aldridge at the foul line circle. Instead of taking the shot he spotted Robin Lopez under the basket being guarded by Hickson. Aldridge fired the high-low pass to Lopez. Hickson gambled for the steal in his typical defensive style (which begins with comedy and ends with tragedy). As J.J. flailed and missed the entry pass, Lopez caught at the rim unopposed and calmly put the ball through the net for a 105-103 lead.
A single second remained. Denver's inbounds pass caught Danilo Gallinari leaning away from the basket for a desperation three well beyond the arc. It had no chance. Dejection and fury mixed on the faces of the Nuggets as they walked off the floor. Meanwhile the Blazers followed up their grand game of chicken by baseball batting every mailbox in Pepsi Center. Those Portland boys won't be welcome back in Denver anytime soon.
What are you going to say about a victory after the Blazers hit 0 three-pointers in the first half, shot 23% from distance overall, allowed the opponent to shoot over 50%, managed only 4 offensive rebounds, and couldn't defend a guard or small forward to save their lives? Is this the prescribed way to win? No. Does it still count as a win? Yes. And it's doubly impressive because they managed this on the road. It was an odd game but a nifty and memorable one.
To the Blazers' credit they never panicked for a second, especially on offense. They found shooters and seams, fed hot hands, and shot 50% themselves. When Aldridge was brilliant they kept going to him for the entire first half. One bit of ego, one alternate agenda, could have put this game in the loss column. The Blazers didn't have any...right down to that same ultra-hot Aldridge hitting Robin Lopez (of all people) for the game-winner. The Nuggets are going to feel they're snakebit against Portland. Hey Denver, you didn't get envenomed, you got Blazerfied. This is how Portland rolls.
Also a shout-out to amlmart1 whose Mailbag Question about opposing teams using big guards to score on smaller Portland players bore fruit on the very day it got published. Every time Arron Afflalo posted up tonight, amlmart must have been on his feet going, "See??? See???" Nice work there.
Fun With Numbers
--Afflalo had 18 points tonight, Ty Lawson 24 with 13 assists, Wilson Chandler 18, and even the ghost of a shell of a facsimile of Gallinari had 9 points in 19 minutes.
--Portland scored 44 in the paint to Denver's 40...a nice achievement and a testament to Portland's patience on offense tonight.
--Aldridge's 39 points were not only a season high, they comprised 37%--more than a third--of Portland's total points tonight. Just as impressive, his 11 rebounds accounted for 30% of Portland's total boards. Domination.
Aldridge. We told you the story, now take a moment of silence to contemplate his awesomeness. Count to 12 in your head before moving on with this recap. We'll wait.
Damian Lillard had a somewhat-subpar night with 17 points on 7-15 shooting, only 1-5 from distance, 2 free throws attempted, 6 assists, and 5 personal fouls. But his torrid spree in the third period made sure the Blazers didn't go away in this game. That's the way it seems to go for Lillard and the Blazers this year. They're not perfect, but just when you think it's not going to happen...it happens.
Wesley Matthews did not happen tonight. He shot 5-15 and watching him shoot 1-10 on three-pointers was one of those cheese-grater-to-cornea experiences. Still he managed 15 points instead of the 7 Old Wes would have put up on a bad shooting night. It was still a shock after seeing him score 20+ on 60% shooting over the last three games.
We fielded a question about Nicolas Batum's utility in this week's podcast. My response to the query was that Batum's stats may not always be flashy but the Blazers can't replace his hub-like support role with any other player. Tonight's game became Exhibit A in the argument, as Batum shot 2-6 for 4 points but added 13 assists and 3 steals. He wasn't the superstar; he was the stagehand making sure the spotlight followed the superstars throughout the performance.
Robin Lopez can go to Disneyland after converting that game-winning layup. Well done. 5-5 shooting ain't bad either. I guess if you need just one shot to win it, you go to the guy shooting 100%.
Surprisingly enough, Steve Blake also qualified for that club tonight, hitting 5-5 including 3 triples for 13 points. In the process he matched Lillard's third-quarter run, albeit over a longer stretch of time. He was they key player off the pines tonight and one of the most important players in the game overall. Without Blake--or even on an off-night for Blake--the Blazers lose this game. He was brilliant.
And Blake needed to be brilliant because tonight the part of Chris Kaman was played by a guy who could not hit a shot. 4 points, a block, 2 turnovers, and 2 fouls in 17 minutes. You wonder if the Blazers bench carries around a tiki or totem that allows somebody to play 90 million miles above their pay grade. If so, Blake filched it from Kaman during the plane ride to Denver.
Joel Freeland continues to create mini-moments on the court, netting 7 rebounds, a steal, a block, and 2 turnovers in 10 minutes. And no personal fouls! That's got to be a first. But seriously, like we said in the last recap, Freeland always does something. It's a mix of positive and negative, but you know he's out there. More Portland bench players should be like that.
Allen Crabbe's something amounted to 4 personal fouls and 3 rebounds in 17 minutes tonight. Young guards go up, young guards come down.
The Indiana Pacers will visit the Moda Center on Thursday before the Blazers embark on a 5-game road swing through New York and the Midwest.
The Instant Recap will give you post-game reactions from hither and yon.
Denver Stiffs was ready to take a stiff drink in celebration. Now they'll be taking 5 drowning their sorrows.
You can send Mailbag questions to firstname.lastname@example.org OR you can now phone in your questions to our weekly podcast with Phil Naessens at 234-738-3394. The next version of that should go up this afternoon.
Since it's the season of giving, don't forget to help underprivileged youth, children, and chaperons see Portland's March 30th game against the Phoenix Suns by contributing tickets to Blazer's Edge Night. The cost of a ticket is low and the joy it brings into the life of a child who otherwise wouldn't get to see a game is immeasurable. We're looking to send over 1000 kids this year. You can find all the details here. Please help with a ticket or two (or 10!) if you can.