The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Brooklyn Nets, 124-80, at the Moda Center on Wednesday night, improving their record to 40-18.
Brooklyn played with the vigor of a sunburned walrus. That sentence is sufficient to explain the carnage that unfolded in a game that saw energy levels registering at polar opposites. The Blazers -- down four bigs and stuck playing lineups that occasionally included five players that have been previously used on the perimeter -- played as loose as they have in a month, if not more. The Nets labored and labored and labored, making life look more difficult with each passing possession.
They labored while rotating defensively, they labored while getting into their offense, they labored as they made decisions in one-on-one situations, and they labored as they launched slow-motion jumpers. "The game came easy for us tonight," is one of those basketball cliches you hear every week or two, and it's hard to remember the last time this simple game was made to look this grueling.
My baby brother, now a full-fledged undergraduate himself, flew across country to visit me for a few days back when I was in college and he was just eight or nine years old. The trip's most memorable moment came when one of my friends asked my brother if she had been a "cool" babysitter after she had attended to him while I was in class. My brother replied without hesitation: "Yes, you are cool. You're a Constipated, Overweight, Out-of-style Loser." He then giggled uncontrollably as the near-adults in the room took a minute to decipher the sophomoric wordplay.
That blunt assessment came to mind after watching these Nets. There are polite ways to beat around the bush in assessing their present and future, but a grade school smart aleck unencumbered by parental supervision would do the same job more efficiently, by cutting straight to the gruesome chase: old, overpaid, decrepit, unfocused, apathetic, mish-mashed, directionless and flat out boring. (And if you want to be down with Bad Boy, bleep you too.) Those were the Nets that suffered through a 44-point loss on Wednesday night.
"This is the NBA, games like this happen," Brooklyn coach Jason Kidd explained, after his team matched the third-worst defeat in the franchise's history, which dates back to 1976. To be clear, "games like this" have happened to the Nets only a precious few times over the last 38 years.
Brooklyn, of course, had two days off to prepare for Portland, who entered the evening shorthanded and on the second night of a road-home back-to-back. The Nets didn't even make it to halftime before the game was out of reach, and Kidd pulled the plug on his squad with 18 minutes remaining in the contest. Just chill, you big, red walrus. Rest up a bit before you plot your next move.
"There weren't too many guys who didn't have a terrific game tonight," Blazers coach Terry Stotts said, which was both funny and true.
The 44 points stood as Portland's biggest margin of victory this season, and the Blazers enjoyed season-highs from Will Barton (20 points) and Mo Williams (21 points), plus a career-high from Victor Claver (13 points). The factoid of the night: Barton and Williams, who are making a combined $3.5 million this season, outscored Brooklyn's entire starting five, which is being paid a combined $68.6 million, by a count of 41-35.
"No way against any NBA team should we lose by 40 with the guys we got," said Paul Pierce, one of four recent All-Stars in Brooklyn's starting lineup. "We just didn't show up tonight."
They were punished for the no-show, as Portland's small ball orientations strung together sequences that recalled the team's early season successes. Portland moved the ball one and sometimes two steps ahead of the defense, they found opportunities to turn defense into offense, they outworked Brooklyn in every facet of the game, and they accumulated numerous highlight plays along the way.
Barton catalyzed with his passing and he finished with his slamming. He was a veritable one-man highlight reel, lasering a pass to Nicolas Batum through traffic, throwing down a two-handed putback dunk off of a missed layup in transition, and completing multiple alley-oops. Portions of the Moda Center were cheering his name by the game's conclusion.
"I like to think I'm the people's champ," Barton grinned. "I think the fans really love me here and I love them back."
There are times and places to discuss the shortcomings in Barton's unpolished game or to bemoan the up-and-down nature of his contributions in a limited role during his two-year career. This is not that time and place. Instead, the day's focus should remain on his uncanny ability to free himself for backdoor lobs, as those actions distill his highest basketball virtues -- length, leaping ability, instinct, and fearlessness -- into an action-packed three-second burst. The backdoor lob is one of the game's highest-risk, highest-reward concepts, and it's no surprise that the Baltimore-bred Barton is so magnetically drawn to the idea and so adept at its execution.
"Most of the time guys are falling asleep," Barton told Blazersedge, explaining that his spidey senses start to tingle when Portland enters high pick-and-roll situations. "[Defenders] get caught in that high pick-and-roll, guarding the guy that's dribbling or the big man that's either popping or rolling."
Weakside defenders tend to cheat off of him because he's an unproven offensive threat and because his three-point stroke is woeful. Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, for example, memorably left Barton open by 10 or 12 feet last season, daring the rookie to make him pay for his cheating. It's a sound approach in theory but Barton has developed a counter: rather than knock down an uncontested face-up jumper, he zips to the basket on a timing route looking for a pass over the top.
"Once I see my defender looking at the ball, as soon as I see that, I go right back door because I know he's not looking at me," Barton continued. "It happens a lot."
Twice Williams found Barton for lob finishes behind Brooklyn's defense on Wednesday. Both plays developed so quickly they were over as soon as they had started. After the first lob, Blazers center Robin Lopez, who was sprawled out in front of the team's bench, rode an air bicycle with his legs and pumped his arms to celebrate.
"Thrill said, 'Throw it up, Gotti, I'ma go get it,'" Williams wrote on Instagram after the game, alongside a photo of the two guards chatting during the game.
That cavalier, fun-loving approach was shared by all 11 Blazers who took the court. Claver saw time as a center and a number of Portland's wings played the power forward position thanks to the absences of LaMarcus Aldridge (groin), Thomas Robinson (knee), Joel Freeland (knee) and Meyers Leonard (ankle). The Nets are the league's second-worst rebounding team and do not have All-Star center Brook Lopez, who was lost to a season-ending foot injury; the Blazers' ultra-small approach was therefore able to produce tempo and ball movement without sacrificing much of anything on the inside.
"We had nothing to lose," Blazers guard Wesley Matthews told Blazersedge, when asked how Portland was able to play so loose despite the injuries. "We looked like an AAU team out there. We didn't have any size other than [Lopez]. No one was playing their true positions. We had nothing to lose. Just playing off ball movement, chemistry and it's working for us."
Damian Lillard added: "We've been really spacing the floor and moving the ball. Playing that way has made it easy for a lot of guys who haven't been in the rotation until now. We're just swinging the ball, attacking, playing aggressive. It's easy for us to play that way. We really started to click. ... [When we go small], we just have to fly around a little bit more. On defense, you have to be a little more scrappy, try to get steals, try to get out in transition so that teams can't get set."
How often the small lineups see the court together remains an open question. It's still not clear yet when Aldridge and Robinson will return, and Stotts told reporters that he will revert to his previous minutes allotments once his main rotation guys are back healthy. The coach added that he will feel "comfortable" going small should the need arise, even after some of his troops are healthy again and even though he admitted right off the top on Wednesday night that he didn't see Portland's dominant performance against Brooklyn coming.
"To me, just go out there and ball," Barton said, when prompted for his approach to the juggling lineups. "That's how I came up playing basketball. We never worried about your size or your height or your weight. We just went out there and played."
Here, the Blazers went out and ran their unmotivated opponents completely off the court.
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced at 20,015 (a sellout). Brooklyn owes everyone a refund. The fans who stayed until the end gave the Blazers a standing ovation.
- Here are the game highlights via YouTube user PortlandTrailBlazers.
- Blazers coach Terry Stotts can clinch the first .500 season of his six-year head coaching career with a win on Saturday against the Denver Nuggets.
- The in-game JumboTron stuff was heavily Robin Lopez focused as Wednesday marked the Dairy Queen-style glass giveaway bearing his likeness. There was a skit in which he named his favorite things: Fruity Pebbles, "The Simpsons," cats, etc. There was also the "Robin Lopez Hair Cam" -- where the JumboTron panned the crowd as a cutout of Lopez's hairdo was superimposed over a fan's head. There were also a ton of Lopez signs in the crowd.
- Signs: "Rim Rockin' Robin," "Give Rolo a Reason to Dance," "Robin, we're happy to call you a Blazer," "It's Lillard time," We [Heart] Rolo," "Sing to me, Robin," "Batum and Robin," "Cut the Nets," "Can I please have your shoes after the game?" "I want a kiss from a Trail Blazers player," "Damian's Da Man," and "Rolocop."
- There is old school and then there is old school. Gotta love Earl Watson giving the foul with 6.9 seconds and a 45-point lead so that Marquis Teague couldn't sneak in a late garbage bucket. Teague split the free throws, which was his karmic price for not dribbling out the clock. The things you do when your PER is 3.7.
- Jason Collins, who recently became the first openly gay player in the NBA, played seven garbage time minutes for the Nets. He entered the game without a personalized announcement from the public address announcer and there wasn't any major response from the crowd. I came into the night thinking he might receive a standing ovation under the right circumstances.
- In light of this week's developments, I'm so glad I never went to the Indigo...
- Blazers guard Wesley Matthews used the phrase "Make a team sit down" to describe Jason Kidd pulling his starters early. I like it.
- Here's Will Barton on Victor Claver's ability make a makeshift center: "Victor is a big guy. People don't realize: he's 6-foot-10. He's got some muscle. He's not a thin guy like me. He down there, he can bang. He did a lot of great things. He's so versatile, it's fun playing with a guy like that. He can pass. He can shoot it. Defend. I can't say enough about him."
- Barton said he was "killing himself" after a scoreless outing against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday and that he entered Wednesday thinking, "If I get in the next game, I'm going to make the most of it."
- Under corporate instructions to significantly increase web traffic, The Oregonian -- which has dropped daily coverage and announced plans to unveil a more compact paper format -- seems to have ramped up the quantity of its Blazers-related content recently.
- One post that went up Wednesday from Sports Editor Seth Prince was entitled "5 Raymond Felton Memes" and included punchlines such as, "Arrested? His wife must have taken the last doughnut," which definitely would have been funny three or four years ago. In response to the post, Jason Quick of The Oregonian wrote on Twitter: "Really? Shouldn't we be above this?"
- Julian Reed of Rip City Project assesses the job done by Blazers GM Neil Olshey: "Although it's hard to say that Olshey definitively missed on any of his major moves, his image as the orchestrator of the best Portland team in years is probably overblown. Lillard aside, he's never made what might be called a needle-moving move."
- Congrats to Joe Swide of Portland Roundball Society for getting some well-deserved love from the Willamette Week for his entertaining game recaps.
- I spent some time analyzing the last 10 years worth of second-round picks right here if you're interested.
- I enjoyed a nice lunch with Tim Bontemps of the New York Post, one of the top up-and-coming beat writers in the league, on Wednesday. His gamer is right here.
- The National Anthem and the halftime show were performed by Jordan Brand-sponsored violinist Lee England Jr. He was a big hit. His website can be found right here.
- Matthews appeared to suffer a right knee injury early in the game but he eventually walked off the court under his own power. After the game, he said the injury was no big deal and nothing to be concerned about.
- The team is doing a lot of scoreboard watching after games now that the playoffs are approaching so quickly. All eyes were on Rockets/Clippers after this one. A Houston loss enabled Portland to move back into the third seed in the West.
- Nothing new on the Chalupa/McMuffin front. One of these months...
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
I didn't see that coming. It was a good effort by everybody who played. I thought the turning point of the game was the second group in the end of the first quarter. Mo [Williams], CJ [McCollum], Will [Barton], Victor [Claver] and Wes [Matthews] really picked up the energy, got aggressive. We were undersized but we did a lot of good things during that stretch. We were able to keep going from there. That group really did an important job for us in the first half.
Rebounds, turnaround from last night
Well, Denver's an exceptional offensive rebounding team. That's their strength. I don't know how many shots they missed in Denver, they missed 65, 70 shots, there were a lot of rebounds to be had by both teams. I would have liked to have gotten a few more. Tonight, Brooklyn is not necessarily a strong offensive rebounding team but the fact that they had only one offensive rebound at half was important. I liked the fact that at halftime we had five or six guys with three or more rebounds. Everybody was very conscious of having to rebound the ball. We continued with that. Last night in Denver, it was a good lesson for us. Playing with this lineup, this shorter lineup.
Victor is a smart player. They went small a lot but even when they had [Andrei] Kirilenko and [Andray] Blatche, in a big lineup, I thought Victor is very smart and defensively he very rarely makes a mistake. He's in the right place at the right time. He's very alert to what's going on, he sees the game. I thought Victor had a terrific game. There weren't too many guys who didn't have a terrific game tonight.
Confidence in using small lineups going forward
I think it's been a mixed blessing as far as being forced to play this lineup. We hadn't played it much. When we did, before L.A. got hurt, it really wasn't outstanding because we hadn't played it much and it required a different mindset. The fact that playing Dorell [Wright] at four and Nic [Batum] at four, it's opening up the court a little bit, this was really the first game that that lineup has been really good offensively. Surprisingly, that lineup has been better defensively than offensively. It's something that in the future if we need to go to it, we can, and feel comfortable about it.
More confidence in reserves like Will Barton
I'm confident in using them. The thing of it is, I'm very confident in the starters. The starters got us off to a 24-5 start. I was very confident with them too. I was never not confidence with [the bench players], just the opportunity wasn't there. When the opportunity is there, they'll get the opportunity. Can I use 'opportunity' one more time in a sentence? If I have an opportunity to.
Ability to move forward rather than tread water without LaMarcus Aldridge
The stretch isn't over. We have a lot of home game and we're playing some teams -- Brooklyn is a playoff team -- but we're playing some teams that are under .500. To get four wins in a row, San Antonio was a close game, getting wins at any time is important no matter how you get them. We have been extremely fortunate for 53 games to start the same lineup and not really be struck by injuries. We're dealing with something now that a lot of teams have had to deal with from the beginning of the season. It's just important to figure out how to win games.
What have you learned about the team while they are playing without LaMarcus Aldridge?
You love asking me that question. You're such an insightful guy, you want to know what's going on. I don't have a new [answer]. I feel like I have a pretty good handle on the team.
Have you learned anything about Will Barton over this stretch?
No. No. Will loves to play basketball. He's a dynamic player. I've said it before, he's made tremendous strides from last year. He's becoming a better player. He's becoming a good pro. Two games ago, Thomas Robinson had a terrific game. I have confidence in these guys. Also -- when L.A. comes back ... L.A. is going to play, I think L.A. is going to play a significant amount of minutes. Those minutes are going to come from somebody else who is playing right now.
Have you learned anything about L.A. since he's been on the bench?
I'm learning a lot about you guys right now.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter