The Portland Trail Blazers traveled to New York this afternoon, taking out the Knicks in a tight contest that half resembled a rock concert and half a train wreck. The Knicks threw liberal doses of star power at the Blazers but Portland answered with their own highlight-reel crew, leading to a 103-99 victory.
This game started out in the muck. The Knicks mostly attempted jumpers and mostly missed them. They made the game easy for the Blazers, relieving them of the need to defend. When New York did go inside they found success but they didn't explore the paint nearly enough. Portland's offense wasn't crisp but at least the Blazers looked like they had seen an NBA playbook before. Portland led 25-20 after the first period.
A couple of developments changed the momentum in the second. Portland's bench went dry, scoring only 8 points in the first 6 minutes of the period. At the same time the Knicks hit a couple of contested threes. This had the same effect on their offense that spinach has on Popeye's. Suddenly New York could do no wrong. In the blink of an eye they pushed a 5-point deficit to a 7-point lead. A trio of triples saved Portland's bacon as the quarter closed but the Knicks ended up scoring 30 in the period. Despite the shaky start, 50% shooting for the half left the Knicks trailing only 53-50 at halftime.
The Blazers turned the tables on their hosts in the third. As usual, their primary lever was LaMarcus Aldridge's offense, braced ably by brilliant drives and quick jumpers from Damian Lillard. Less expected was Portland's excellent backcourt defense in the frame. Both Lillard and Wes Matthews were on fire defensively, making the Knicks' probing attempts seem futile. The Blazers forced turnovers, ran, and got back the 30 points that they had given up in the second period. A 30-25 edge in the third left Portland leading 83-75 with one quarter remaining.
As it turned out, the first three periods had just been warm-ups for the finale, a rehearsal of the strengths and weaknesses for each side so we could view them on full display as the game was decided.
The Blazers started out the final period by offering up a weakness...their distinct lack of bench scoring. Portland goose-egged the first 3 minutes of the quarter, allowing the Knicks to climb back within 4 by the 9:00 mark. Then Matthews caught Madison Square Garden on fire, pouring in a pair of three-pointers and getting fouled beyond the arc for 3 made free throws. 9 points in 90 seconds from Matthews put the Blazers up 11 again and threatened to finish the game then and there.
After that it was time for the Knicks to show off. J.R. Smith--whose general incompetence had allowed Matthews to explode--redeemed himself by hitting 5 straight buckets in 5 possessions. Then Carmelo Anthony scored 5 points in 40 seconds himself. The great Portland defense of the third period was a distant memory. When their fireworks display ended the Knicks led 97-95 with 3:30 remaining.
Then it was time for the Blazers to fire back through Aldridge. Again and again they fed him. Again and again he delivered. With 2 buckets and 2 free throws in his version of the 90-second walk of fame, Aldridge put the Blazers ahead again 102-99 with 1:17 left.
Technically it was the Knicks' turn to respond in strength but they brought forth a weakness instead. They returned to the mid-range ground that had lost them the first quarter and came up as empty as a politician's promise, scoring only 1 time in their final 7 possessions of the game...a grand total of 2 points in the last 3 minutes. Despite that the home team still had a chance, as Portland's offense folded down the stretch as well. When Aldridge missed a jumper with 10 seconds remaining and the Knicks down only 3, you wondered if the Blazers' luck had run out.
As has been the case all season, though, Portland had one more hidden strength up their sleeves. Robin Lopez beat everyone to the rebound off the Aldridge miss, denying New York the chance to tie with a three-pointer. Portland bled clock until the Knicks fouled Matthews, who sank 1 of 2 free throws to seal the victory. Portland opened their 5-game road trip with 103-99 a win, driving their record to 16-4 overall. The loss dropped the Knicks to 4-18.
In the micro view, you look at this game and say it was good to see the Blazers shoot 36% from distance (below their norm but better than several games of late), attempt 29 free throws to the opponent's 14, and win the offensive rebounding battle 16-4. They needed all of that on a night when they were out-shot 52% to 42%.
Blazer fans also have to get at least a little enthused about the way their guards got after it on the defensive end in the third period and in transition the whole game. New York scored 3 points on the break tonight. If the Blazers can defend like that on a regular basis--even if the halfcourt only gets locked down for a while--they're going to be hard to beat. Tonight's third quarter was as good as I've seen that backcourt defend as a unit this year.
In the macro view, you just have to love LaMarcus Aldridge. Every time the Blazers have a doubt they turn to him. And every time he responds with, "I've got you." In this, the Blazers are getting predictable in a good way. They're not consistent in their play or even the methods they use to win, but they know where the foundation of their success lies, they trust it, and other teams are having a hard time breaking through that pattern. Whether Aldridge has a good game or a poor one doesn't matter much. His teammates pick up for him when the stats aren't there. But 2 shots, 3 shots, critical shots to set up the win? That's Aldridge time. He's been so good at it that the Blazers haven't even had to throw the patented Damian Lillard game-winner into the mix. The texture and reliability of this team is starting to approach a level we haven't seen since they were very, very good.
Fun With Numbers
We've already covered most of the important team figures, so how about this? Carmelo Anthony scored 23 points, J.R. Smith 20, and Amar'e Stoudemire 16 compared with Aldridge's 24 points, Lillard's 20, and Matthews with 18. Line those up and you'll see that the Blazers matched or exceeded the individual scoring numbers of a team that only knows how to produce offense through individuals. But the Blazers also employed rebounding, tempo, chemistry, and all the team-oriented fun you're used to. Nice.
Have we said enough about Aldridge yet? 9-19 shooting, 24 points, 11 rebounds, and a couple game-saving buckets.
Damian Lillard had some nice drives and good defensive stands tonight. We saw the usual slips too, but it was definitely a positive evening for him despite a 5-16 shooting rate and only 2 assists to go with his 20 points.
Wesley Matthews hit half of his three-pointers and added 3 steals and 3 assists to his 18. Plus that fourth-quarter flurry stopped a bench-induced disaster that could have cost the Blazers the game. His teammates set him up for those shots but he followed through.
Nicolas Batum picked up fouls guarding Anthony but he looked really into this game, hitting 4-8 and playing decisively on the offensive end. 11 points, 7 assists, 5 rebounds.
Robin Lopez didn't have great matchups in this game with Stoudemire proving hard to stop and Samuel Dalembert needing very little guarding. (Nowhere was the Knicks' incompetence in the semi-triangle offense they're semi-trying to run more evident tonight than when they burned 20 seconds off the shot clock only to get Dalembert a jumper.) But Lopez grabbed 6 huge offensive rebounds including the game-deciding one and generally patrolled the lane well for his team.
Portland's bench put up a couple pretty numbers with Chris Kaman's 4-8 shooting and Steve Blake's 6 assists and 5 rebounds in 23 minutes but overall this wasn't a great outing for the reserves. Allen Crabbe had a nice three and a breakaway dunk. Dorell Wright hit a 3 in his 3 minutes of play.
The Blazers face the Detroit Pistons on Tuesday in the first tilt of a 4-games-in-5-nights stretch.
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The folks at Posting and Toasting are probably steaming and screaming with all the close games the Knicks have lost lately. Not to pile on, but that team is broken. Watching them play I'm slightly more surprised that they've won 4 than I am that they've lost 18. Wrong personnel, wrong system, wrong plan. The contrast with the direction the Blazers are heading could not be clearer. Portland will probably lose at a greater rate than they are currently, but they'd have to pile on a huge helping of disarray and ugly to match what the Knicks are putting out there right now.