Forget swallows at Capistrano, Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania X8, and Al Pacino in Godfather II. Forget Indiana Jones boarding that submarine, Rick Deckard getting pulled off that rooftop hang, and the supposedly-departed Han Solo swooping in to blast Tie Fighters off of Luke's tail during the Death Star trench run. Tonight we witnessed the greatest return moment in the history of sports or entertainment. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Portland Trail Blazers' three-point shooting is BACK!
Sorry. I was just channeling a little Mike Rice hyperbole there. But the Blazers did shoot 12-31 from the arc tonight in their 100-95 victory over the Denver Nuggets. That's pretty good, right?
This game was odd. It wasn't a back-and-forth affair, really. It was more like standing in the middle of a waterpark wave pool when they start the crazy waves that bounce asymmetrically tossing you every which way. The evening began with both teams moving the ball and scoring well. Denver found offensive traction inside the paint. The Blazers passed to the perimeter for open shots. Each team had 11 points in the first 4 minutes and it looked like we were off to the races.
That's when the Blazers decided to knuckle down on the interior defense. They decided that they'd allow the Nuggets reasonable looks from range as long as shots in the paint got contested by 2, preferably 3, defenders. That worked out pretty well for the Blazers. Denver missed multiple attempts at the cup and sputtered their way to a 21-point first period following the hot start. Oddly enough, Denver seemed to follow the same defensive philosophy even though...
A. The Blazers don't score much in the paint. And...
B. All those extra bodies inside mean nobody guarding the perimeter. Heavy traffic also made it easier for the officials to call fouls when the Blazers did drive.
The Blazers tripled their way to a 32-point quarter and led Denver by 11 as the period came to a close.
The Nuggets turned around their fortunes in the second period due to a confluence of events. Portland's bench played defense like they were curling, not playing hoops. If the shots went astray they'd try to sweep up the rebound but until then they were apparently honor-bound not to interfere. Denver's rim attempts, a struggle in the opening frame, started paying off in the second. Denver also scored on the break as the Blazers failed to get defenders back. The energy swung towards the home team as Portland's reserves failed to score. Damian Lillard returned mid-quarter to put a stop to Denver's party. He and his teammates started feasting on foul calls, using the free throw line to slow down momentum and keep the Nuggets from streaking away. Denver ended up with a 4-point advantage in the second but Portland still led 52-45 at the half.
The Blazers looked like they were going to put this game away early in the third. Their defense was superb, stopping every attempt in the paint before it started, forcing Denver to score on mid-range shots. Meanwhile Denver coaches got caught on tape admitting that their second-half strategy was to continue keeping Portland out of the paint. This was like saying, "Our strategy is to keep that goldfish out of the sock drawer." Well, I'd say you're probably going to succeed with that. But....
Once or twice the Blazers had the decency to look guilty as they hoisted wide...open...threes but the team has been so harried by defenses over the last couple months that my reaction was completely unrepentant relief. It looked like Portland's offense of old: 1, 2, maybe 3 passes and three points ringing up on the scoreboard. Anything that wasn't a three eventually turned into 2 foul shots as once again Denver's interior defense was long on bodies, short on quality. Portland scored 30 in the period against 24 for Denver and led 82-69 heading into the fourth.
As it turned out, that 13-point lead almost wasn't enough. Once again Portland's bench turned sour as month-old lemons and this time the starters couldn't bail them out after Denver seized the momentum. Portland scored only 4 points in the first 8:10 of the fourth period....a pair of layups from Mo Williams. One thing and one thing alone saved the Blazers: they played excellent defense. Robin Lopez channeled his inner Joel Przybilla and took charge of the lane during his fourth-quarter tour. He was the anchor around which Portland's smaller defenders revolved. Those defenders kept the Nuggets from getting open looks, limiting Denver to only 15 points during Portland's drought. Still, a 15-4 advantage equated to 11 points taken off Portland's lead. The Blazers clung to a 2-point margin as the final four minutes commenced.
Though the Nuggets didn't score big during the early- and mid-fourth period they did turn almost every 50-50 possession their way. Plus J.J. Hickson went on an incredible rebounding tear, giving Denver full command of the glass on both ends. With momentum, energy, and board-work trending Denver's way, the Blazers could feel the ground trembling beneath their feet. But in the end the Nuggets were betrayed by the same forces that gave them control of the game. Hickson and Kenneth Faried had size and a huge post advantage over their Portland counterparts. Denver took full advantage as the game wound down, scoring and rebounding over smaller players. But neither Hickson nor Faried can defend. That left the lane vulnerable to Portland's guards, provided they could get past their initial defenders. They could and they did. The Nuggets ended up in all kinds of big-small mismatches. The Blazers didn't score outright but they sure made hay at the foul line, attempting 10 shots (4 intentionally-given) in the final 3:50 of the game. 9 made free throws provided the foundation for Portland's late-game scoring. A Nicolas Batum corner three with 42 seconds left put the nail in the coffin, giving Portland a 7-point edge and forcing Denver to foul for possession thereafter. Portland stopped the Denver tide and escaped with the win, 100-95.
The rebounding differential in this game was glaring. Denver had 27 offensive rebounds. You read that right...27. The Blazers managed only 7 themselves. Denver won the overall rebounding battle 64-41. With 105 total rebounds up for grabs you know the shooting percentages had to be stinky in this one, and they were. Portland shot 28-76, 37% and the Nuggets fired 37-103, 36%. Even though the Blazers converted 9 fewer field goals than the Nuggets, Portland sank 12 three-pointers to Denver's 4 and hit 32 foul shots to Denver's 17. Denver scored 54 points in the paint to 26 for the Blazers but that advantage didn't tell for them, in part because they allowed Portland so many good looks from distance and in part because they missed so many foul shots while the Blazers made so many of theirs.
Robin Lopez was the heart of this game for Portland. Other players made flashier, more obvious contributions but Lopez was the only reason the Blazers didn't go down by double digits tonight. Nowhere was this better encapsulated than in the late-fourth period. Kenneth Faried got a head of steam and started taking the ball inside against Portland's "power" forwards...6'8" and stick-thin comparatively. He scored back-to-back with 3 minutes left to go, cutting a 6-point Portland lead down to 2. The next possession the Blazers put Lopez on Faried. Boom. That's the end of that. Faried tried to score anyway but he ended up hearing sad trombones instead of the roar of the crowd. Lopez had 7 blocked shots tonight. Granted, part of the credit needs to go to his perimeter defenders who (for once) channeled dribblers into him and stuck close enough to make sure he didn't get juked into a foul. Part of the credit also goes to Denver not having a center of Lopez's size and physicality, plus the Nuggets being so streaky outside that the Blazers could play them for the drive. It's not like Lopez turned into Bill Russell out there. But Portland's defense kept him where he needed to be and Lopez paid off like a Triple-7 slot machine. Lopez finished the night with 12 points, 10 rebounds, 7 blocks, an eventual 6-foul disqualification (well-earned), and the game ball.
Damian Lillard scored 31 on 8-20 shooting, 4-11 from the arc. Those are pedestrian numbers but his 11-13 clip from the foul line makes the eyes pop. Lillard was making star plays out there and getting star respect from the refs. He also dished 9 assists and grabbed 7 rebounds...and those numbers are far from pedestrian. His most significant role, though, was momentum killer. Every time it seemed like Denver would wash over the Blazers, Lillard stood on an island and shoved them back. Timely threes and timely drives kept them at bay.
Nicolas Batum played an opportunistic game, not an overwhelming one. Denver didn't field a premier scorer for him to guard. He did manage to keep Wilson Chandler and Quincy Miller under wraps. He didn't dominate on the offense end but he hit 4 of 6 shots including that game-closing three. He went 3-4 from the arc overall...good to see. 5-6 free throws also helped the cause. 16 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocked shots.
Wesley Matthews had a bad offensive night. And by "bad" we mean 2-14, 1-7 from distance on mostly open shots "bad". Continuing a theme, he went 6-6 from the line, free throws providing more than half of his 11 points.
Dorell Wright started again at power forward and copied his teammates, shooting 3-5 overall, 2-4 from distance, 4-6 from the foul line for 12 points and 4 rebounds. His shooting helped spread the court on the offensive end but he was swamped defending power forwards...pretty much as expected.
Mo Williams played 26 minutes and scored a bench-high 14 points, shooting 6-11 with a couple triples. His production couldn't bail out his fellow reserves, nor did he improve upon their shoddy defense.
Thomas Robinson suffered a patella strain and was visibly limping as he left the court. Ben's update from our Instant Recap:
Update: Blazers forward Thomas Robinson suffered a strain of the patella tendon in his left knee and will be a game-time decision on Wednesday against the Brooklyn Nets. Here's video of Robinson's injury.
Robinson's play before and after the strain was full of lapses, a far cry from his triumphant march against Minnesota.
C.J. McCollum played 6 wholly unproductive minutes, in part because he kept getting tangled up with Robinson. Ditto Will Barton in 7 minutes minus the Robinson involvement. Victor Claver played decent defense for most of his 12 minutes but missed all three of his shot attempts. Long story short: these guys have to play alongside starters more than each other if they're going to be effective.
Tomorrow night the Brooklyn Nets come to town with revenge on their minds and a suddenly-hot Deron Williams manning the helm. Should be interesting.
Your Jersey Contest scores and the form for tomorrow are HERE. Tonight's answers: Thomas Robinson played 14 minutes, scored 2 points, grabbed 5 rebounds, and wore #41.
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