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Portland Trail Blazers vs. Detroit Pistons: Defense, Teamwork Conquer Motown

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The Blazers wield a highly-touted offense but defensive excellence put away the Detroit Pistons tonight.

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers earned a second consecutive win on their current 5-game road trip tonight, disposing of the Detroit Pistons 98-86 in the Palace of Auburn Hills. The win puts Portland at 17-4 with an impressive 7-2 road record. This was also one of the most efficient, consistent, and hiccup-free outings of the Blazers' young season, a business-like effort against a team the Trail Blazers knew they should beat and ultimately did.

Game Flow

The Blazers took control of this contest early by beating the Pistons at their own game: paint play. Detroit likes to score inside. The Blazers crowded Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe, and any guards that strayed into the lane, forcing Detroit into multiple misses near the rim. Portland policed the boards as well, denying second-chance opportunities. With the inside firmly in the grasp of the Blazers, Detroit had no chance. Josh Smith showed a few signs of life early in the evening but nobody joined him. Portland walked out of the first period with a 33-22 lead.

The Blazers didn't score nearly as well in the second quarter but Chris Kaman carried the torch once again for the bench unit, frustrating the Pistons with 4 quick points to open the frame. As the Pistons were watching Kaman, Allen Crabbe torched them with drives, cuts, and a triple, scoring 9 in the period. Detroit cracked the lid on Portland's paint defense--mostly through upping the tempo--but not enough to sustain a real run. The Blazers led 55-46 at the half, having scored more in the lane in the first half than their hosts.

All of that was a prelude to a magnificent third period in which the Blazers throttled Detroit, proving they capable of winning the game with defense alone. The Pistons scored on a couple of transition layups and a few free throws in the third. But they got almost nothing out of their halfcourt offense...a small handful of penetration buckets, no jumpers hit at all. Wherever Detroit tried to go, the Blazers got men there first. They held the Pistons to 16 points in the period, pushing their lead to 76-62 at the start of the fourth.

As the final period commenced Detroit made one more mighty push. Finally they got some mileage from their size, scoring repeatedly in the interior, salting in a few jumpers for good measure. They ended up closing the margin to 4 points with 7:20 remaining. But LaMarcus Aldridge hit enough shots to keep the Blazers afloat until Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, and Nicolas Batum took turns splashing three-pointers to put the game away. The Pistons will look back at this game and remember that fourth-quarter surge but the scoreboard still read 98-86, Portland when the final horn sounded.

Analysis

The big take-away from this game is simple. Everything you thought about Portland's defensive improvement this year was borne out in spades tonight. I understand the Pistons are 3-19 and the worst shooting team in the league. But big players like the Pistons have--Drummond, Monroe, Smith--gave the Blazers fits last year. Portland could maybe slow them but not contain them. Portland's trouble containing points in the paint during the early part of last season is also legendary. It was one of their chronically-mentioned weaknesses.

Tonight Drummond went 3-12, Smith 4-10. Monroe scored a healthy 22 points but went 10-22 to get there. Between them the trio attempted only 11 free throws. The Pistons scored 50 in the paint but the Blazers shut them down inside for much of the game...enough to make the win comfortable.

Make no mistake, Detroit wanted to beat down the Blazers inside. Portland did not let them do it. Once that pattern was established, the Pistons had no chance. And it wasn't because of Portland's offense, but because the Blazers stood right in the way of Detroit's best punch, grabbed their wrist out of mid-air, and twisted it behind their back until they cried, "Uncle!"

The Blazers will face better opponents than the Pistons. Those opponents will not be foiled so easily. But the Blazers will face those teams standing on a more solid defensive platform than they have previously. This game exemplified the New Blazers, and it was impressive.

The Blazers also got to nearly 100% of the 50-50 balls tonight. That never hurts.

This game was a struggle for LaMarcus Aldridge, yet the Blazers still won. You can draw two things from this:.

1. "Struggle" amounts to 23 points, 11 rebounds, and 2 blocks nowadays. That's how good Aldridge is. His offense was out of kilter for most of the evening (8-21 shooting) and he still put up crazy numbers.

2. Aldridge's teammates stepped up so seamlessly that his off night barely registered. Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Chris Kaman, Allen Crabbe...these guys aren't the marquee names on the roster, but they helped their team to a December victory that ends up counting every bit as much as a March one in the standings.

As happened to many Portland opponents this year, the Pistons tried to cut the head off the dragon and found that they were dealing with a hydra instead.

Nowadays it seems the Blazers do really well when Aldridge is in stride and still do well when he's off. You want to know the difference between a team hoping to make the playoffs and a team expecting to do damage once they get there? The first team wins on their average and good nights, loses when something goes wrong. The second team wins either way. The Blazers might not be exactly that second kind of team yet, but they're certainly showing signs of growing into one.

Fun With Numbers

--Blazers 49% shooting, Detroit 35%. Wow.

--Portland shot 43% from the arc as well.

--The Blazers scored 98 with only 8 free throws attempted. The refs were letting everybody play tonight so it's not like the lack hurt the Blazers in particular, But 98 scored with only 7 free throw makes is pretty decent.

--The Detroit bigs did show up on the boards. Drummond netted 15 all by himself. The Pistons ended up with 17 offensive rebounds to Portland's 10.

--Detroit also scored 17 fast break points. They average around 10.

--The Blazers continue to make hay after opponent turnovers, scoring 18 points after 9 Pistons miscues.

Individual Notes

We already gave you LaMarcus Aldridge's numbers. Despite 8-21 shooting he kept the defense occupied enough to get his teammates free. He also passed Terry Porter as the #2 scorer in Trail Blazers franchise history with a buzzer-beating three from the coffin corner at the end of the first quarter.

Damian Lillard went 6-14, 1-5 from range for 14 points plus 6 assists and 5 rebounds in a semi-off night for him as well. But he had 2 steals and Detroit's main point guards combined for 2-13 shooting.

Wesley Matthews: 3-6 from distance, 8-12 overall, 19 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists. On nights like this the Blazers have interchangeable stars thanks to Matthews' confidence and production. The Blazers don't lose much when the ball is in his hands.

Matthews waxing meant Nicolas Batum waned a little, not touching the ball as much in the offense. He shot 3-7 for 8 points, 5 rebounds, only 1 assist tonight. He kept the opposing wings contained though.

Robin Lopez had interesting battles against those Detroit centers...physical stuff. He acquitted himself well with 11 rebounds and 2 blocks. Plus the bigs didn't score much on his 1-on-1 defense.

Chris Kaman returned to his, "Awwww...that's just not fair!" style tonight, shooting 7-10 on an array of offensive moves, scoring 14 points in 21 minutes with 2 blocks in the process. When he plays like this you can just see the opponent crumple.

Steve Blake had the usual 6 assists in 19 minutes plus good defense tonight.

Allen Crabbe gave his team quite a boost with those 9 second-quarter points. He shot 4-5, splashed a three, and played really well.

Joel Freeland continues to struggle with 4 rebounds and 0 points in 11 minutes. Plus he couldn't handle Detroit's big men. Freeland has been good enough lately that it's hard to watch his light dim. You wonder how fluid Portland's back-up power forward situation is. If he can't turn it around, we may find out.

The Blazers face the still-injured Minnesota Timberwolves tomorrow night in a 5 p.m. Pacific start.

Boxscore

For a detailed picture of the game flow in this one you can check our Instant Recap. (You can also find reaction to the game from around the web there.)

Detroit Bad Boys refers to the Pistons' shooting tonight.

Check out this week's edition of the Blazer's Edge Podcast with Phil Naessens...now on iTunes!  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.

Please help send underprivileged youth, children, and chaperons to 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.

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard@Blazersedge