The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Denver Nuggets, 102-96, at the Moda Center on Saturday night, improving their record to 41-18.
You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink, they say, and these depleted Nuggets looked absolutely aquaphobic down the stretch. Portland charitably offered opportunity after opportunity for Denver to make things interesting, only to watch as the Nuggets turned tail for higher ground.
Staging a totally stress-free late-game meltdown is no easy task but that's basically what unfolded in this one. Portland maintained a cushy lead throughout a dreary, foul-heavy game, only to have its offense sputter to a halt with four minutes remaining in the game. LaMarcus Aldridge, playing in his first game back after missing time with a groin injury, committed a turnover and missed three straight jumpers in those final minutes. Nicolas Batum threw away one possession with a bad pass in the backcourt and ended another one prematurely with a loose ball foul during a rebounding situation. The Blazers' starters, who had contributed to a smooth 32-point first quarter, failed to score a single point for 3:56 late in the fourth, a run that was snapped by a pair of Aldridge free throws with just seconds to play.
Did any of that matter in the slightest? Nope. Portland began its drought with a 13-point lead and ended it with a six-point victory that looked closer than it actually was, as Denver was simply unable to generate any offense or strike any fear. Their best chance to make things interesting -- down six with 20 seconds to play -- ended with two final bricks from deep on a night that saw the Nuggets shoot poorly in every facet (39.8 percent overall, 30.4 percent from deep, 65.7 percent from the free throw line). Ultimately, the Blazers could only be of so much help to a Nuggets team that seemed so determined not to help itself.
"That's our defense," said Blazers guard Wesley Matthews, who scored eight points (on 3-for-8 shooting) and added four rebounds. "Through this five-game winning stretch, we haven't played well offensively. We scored points but it was our defense that won games. None of these games were pretty, other than Brooklyn. That was the only good-looking win of this stretch. We're proving it to ourselves more than anybody that we can play well defensively."
That Portland cruised was entirely unsurprising, as Denver was without its motor (Ty Lawson, injured), its polished wing talent (Danilo Gallinari, injured), its soul (Nate Robinson, injured), its around-the-basket length (JaVale McGee), its brain (Andre Miller, traded at the deadline), its solid interior presence (Kosta Koufos, traded last summer), its defensive stopper (Andre Iguodala, departed last offseason), its proven coach (George Karl, fired for no good reason) and its shrewd GM (Masai Ujiri, bailed for more money with the Toronto Raptors). Add up the bad moves and the bad luck, and team president Josh Kroenke might as well write a "How to lose games and bore people" manifesto about this Nuggets campaign.
Absent an adequate level of competition, Saturday wound up serving as a series of mini checklist items for the Blazers.
Of primary importance was working Aldridge back into the lineup. All good on that front. The All-Star forward finished with 16 points (on 7-for-15 shooting), seven rebounds and three assists in 30 minutes; his playing time was limited slightly by coach Terry Stotts as a precaution.
"I felt good, a little tired," Aldridge said. "For the most part, my body felt good and my conditioning felt good. I'm not going to put a percentage on [my groin]. I played and I felt fine. I wasn't hesitant or second-guessing myself. ... I had no problem playing with the guys. The major thing was just getting my timing back, trying to get back in the flow."
Although his shot did desert him down the stretch, Aldridge looked just fine from the get-go. He knocked down a turnaround from the left baseline less than two minutes into the game, not missing a beat following a hiatus that lasted for more than two weeks.
"[Aldridge's return] seemed pretty seamless to me," Stotts said.
Next on the checklist was the return of reserve center Meyers Leonard, whose ability to reenter the rotation in a meaningful way was delayed by an ankle injury following the All-Star break. Leonard tallied eight points (on 3-for-6 shooting) and five rebounds in 16 minutes, the most playing time he's seen in nearly two months.
In a flat contest that lacked any major runs and saw the teams combine to shoot an eye-gouging 12-for-51 on three-pointers, Leonard might have laid claim to the two best highlights of the night. On the first, Mo Williams pushed the ball up in transition late in the first quarter, finding Nicolas Batum running hard on the left wing. Rather than attempt a full speed layup, Batum shuffled the ball back to a trailing Leonard, who packed the dunk with authority.
A few minutes later, Leonard cleared a defensive rebound to Williams, and the Blazers were again off to the races. With the threat of Portland's shooters stretching Denver's defense side to side, Williams smartly drove into traffic, collapsing the remaining defenders, before dishing back to Leonard, who was charging hard down the middle of the paint without interference. The result of this second transition opportunity was the same as the first: an emphatic dunk.
"I had just tipped out a rebound, hit it right to Mo," Leonard told Blazersedge. "I knew I was going to have a chance because it was going to be four-on-three, depending on how we spaced the floor. I believe both of our wings ran to the corner, which opened up the middle. Mo took that next defender and I was able to finish."
I happened to attend Wynton Marsalis's "Jazz at Lincoln Center" concert at the Schnitz on Friday, a fast-paced show that paused only briefly between numbers, time that Marsalis filled with vignettes about old Jazz musicians and with personal remarks about legends like Duke Ellington. Murmurs of appreciation could be heard from the older folks in the crowd during these trips down memory lane.
I digress in this way only because watching a seven-footer run hard and get rewarded for it by his teammates always makes me murmur in old-school appreciation. For a player whose season has been an uphill battle and whose recent injury couldn't have come at a worse time, these were satisfying sequences. Satisfying not only because they put to use the athletic tools that made him a lottery pick, but also because they showed a level of timing and awareness that is far from a persistent element of his game.
"[The second dunk] was about reading and foreseeing what's going to happen," Leonard told Blazersedge. "It was set up by my teammates and Mo hit me."
That was exactly it: thinking ahead and capitalizing, rather than over-thinking, or second-guessing, or playing in a reactive manner. He didn't over-run the play, as is easy to do in those situations, and he didn't give up by stopping short, and he didn't knock himself off stride by bobbling the catch or being surprised by the delivery. During a performance that saw some defensive lapses, these were worthwhile moments to build from for Leonard, who figures to get meaningful run in the short-term.
The last major item on Saturday's checklist: seeing whose minutes would give to accommodate the returns of Aldridge and Leonard. To no one's great surprise, Victor Claver saw his role reduced considerably (just six minutes). Of greater interest: Stotts decided to stick with Will Barton (seven points on 2-for-2 shooting in 13 minutes) rather than CJ McCollum (DNP-CD) as his fourth guard.
"I just felt like [Barton] had had two out of three pretty good games, and he deserved to stay in the rotation," Stotts explained.
Portland is fortunate to have two more cushy home games against depleted opponents -- the Los Angeles Lakers and Atlanta Hawks -- on tap this week; any result worse than this controlled, start-to-finish victory would be a disappointment. Those two games potentially offer Stotts the opportunity to continue giving real minutes to his reserves, who generally looked stable, even if their shooting lagged a bit. If you're seeking a better sense of who might be in and out of the rotation come playoff time, it's probably wise to circle upcoming road games against the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs.
After two down years, the Blazers enter March as one of the teams capable of stomping with relative ease upon less fortunate squads who are simply counting down to season's end. Saturday's win secured Portland's first .500 season since 2011, it marked Portland's fifth straight victory, and it served as evidence that it's time to mentally prepare for another 5+ of these cakewalks over the next six weeks. A few seasons stuck in the slog can make one forget that the tanking battlefield looks totally different from 10,000 feet than it does at ground level.
Random Game Notes
- This game was announced as a sellout (20,068). Another one that looked way short...
- Here are the game highlights via YouTube user portlandtrailblazers...
- This was very much a "taking care of business before getting on with the show" Saturday night home game. You could tell by all the party pants in the locker room. CSNNW.com got a shot of Wesley Matthews' gold and zebra stripes look, which was wild.
- Nicolas Batum finished with nine points, a career-high 16 rebounds and six assists. He said afterwards that there was no magic formula to his rebounding effort: "Just try to go get it. Especially with what happened last game [on Tuesday against Denver, conceding] 27 offensive rebounds. Just try to go out and play big inside."
- So many signs during this game: "Marry me Meyers," "Rolo's Block Party," "Woot Woot," "Will the Thrill," "We are hungry, fry the Nuggets," "Bust a Bucket," "It's my 21st bday" and It's not my bday" (two guys sitting next to each other), "All I want 4 my birthday is LaMarcus," "O's got it," "Nuke the Nuggets," "Keep Calm and Swish On," "Blazers eat Chicken Nuggets," "Rip City's Biggest Fan," "Go Ro Lo," "Rip City, Win City," and "Just like the Broncos, the Nuggets have no chance."
- Then, in perhaps the strongest show of support in sign form for Blazers owner Paul Allen that we've seen in I don't know how long: "Paul Allen: Ur my hero."
- The Seattle Seahawks cheerleaders -- the SeaGals -- attended the game in a luxury box. I say this not to be mean but as a point of fact: they made more noise cheering for the BlazerDancers than we've heard from the entire building all season long.
- Portland ran its hook-and-ladder play at the end of the second quarter, with LaMarcus Aldridge bombing a pass to Nicolas Batum, who shuffled it off to Damian Lillard for the finish. Always love that.
- Lee Jenkins is at the very, very top of my list of favorite writers. He was a guest on a podcast hosted by Paul Flannery of SB Nation. I can't recommend listening to it enough. They talk hoops, go through some of Jenkins' biggest NBA pieces of the last year, and then dig deep into the nuts and bolts of the writing and researching process. If you're interested in sportswriting as a craft or as a profession it's definitely worth your time.
- I cracked a joke about Robin Lopez making his wig jump up and down the other night. On Saturday, a fan was actually wearing a Lopez wig, which was awesome.
- This guy in a technicolor suit sitting courtside drew all sorts of attention from those in attendance and he eventually made it onto the JumboTron. He was all in, I'll give him that.
- Meyers Leonard picked Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" as the pre-game warm-up song. "He's a legend," Leonard said of Jackson after the game. "I love that song. That's probably not the typical warm-up song but I wanted to go with it." Two thumbs up.
- Speaking of man in the mirror! This J.J. Hickson quote -- via Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com -- was music to the ears: "At a certain point, I had to look at myself in the mirror and ask, ‘Damn, was I the problem?'" Hickson reflected. "I mean, I did the best I could in that situation. It was kind of hard to see that, but I think that’s just human nature after a team doesn’t make the playoffs and then the next year, you’re gone and they make the playoffs. It was a little difficult."
- Robin Lopez led the Blazers with a team-high 18 points (on 5-for-9 shooting) and nine rebounds. He had some inspired pivots along the way. Lopez on his scoring: "[The Nuggets] were being really aggressive [defending] our guards and L.A. [so] I was just open under the bucket a couple of times."
- Portland was +12 rebounding on Saturday after going -23 on the glass in Denver last Tuesday. Lopez: "We attempted to gang rebound last game, it just didn't come out our way. [Tuesday] was kind of just a freakish spike in the trend, things evened out more tonight."
- Wesley Matthews on bringing Aldridge back into the mix: "I think it was pretty smooth. We still put up over 100 points, our defense got better dramatically. We got another win, we'll take that every time."
- Aldridge on the team's 4-1 play in his absence: "It was great. Guys played really well. Guys did what they had to do to help us win, that's going to make us better down the stretch. ... I'm not going to call [individual] guys out, but guys played great. Everybody did more. Whether they were rebounding, scoring, everyone played better."
- Aldridge said he plans to play on Monday even though he didn't commit to being back at 100 percent health.
- Meyers Leonard on his ankle: "It's fine. I don't have any more swelling. Didn't have any tweaks or anything. That's good. I'll wear a compression sock tonight to make sure it doesn't swell up on me."
- Leonard on how he was able to beat the two-to-three week timeline he initially had for his return and come back early: "It was my rehab schedule. I was focused on getting back as soon as I can. With Joel [Freeland] out and [Thomas Robinson] down for this game tonight, it was to my advantage to get back as soon as I could. I was able to come back tonight, I felt good the last couple of days. But my rehab schedule is what helped me the most, getting the swelling out, really testing it and seeing how I felt."
- Former Blazers guard Erick Barkley allegedly attacked a parent at an AAU tournament. TheBigLead.com has video of the incident.
- Sarah Hecht of Blazers.com has posted a photo of the team's "Game of Thrones" inspired "Playoffs Are Coming" t-shirts.
- I didn't make it to MIT's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this year but my SI.com colleague Matt Dollinger has a one-stop rundown of the top quotes and developments from the weekend, if you're interested.
- The Blazers hit 100 points on a sensational layup by Damian Lillard, but there were no other updates on the Chalupa/McMuffin front.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
That was a solid win for us. Did a lot of good things. Felt like we were in control of the game for the most part. The fourth quarter we had too many turnovers, second half we had too many fouls, gave up too many free throws. It was good to get LaMarcus back, obviously, and get him into the groove. It was good to get another one.
I like his energy, I like the way he runs the court, I like his length. I think he has good feel for the game, good sense. He played like Will plays but he played within the context of the team. I just felt like he had had two out of three pretty good games, and he deserved to stay in the rotation.
He's got good length and good hands [defensively]. More than anything he's got good energy. He's out there with Mo, Mo is picking up [full court] and picking up the energy and Will is alongside him, and he adds to that.
Winning rebounding battle big
After the game in Denver, it got our attention. It was a focus. For us to get 43 rebounds and for them to get 10 offensive is a pretty impressive rebounding night.
LaMarcus Aldridge's return
It seemed pretty seamless to me. It seemed pretty seamless. I thought it looked good. We kept his minutes at 30. I don't know what going forward what the plan is. For those of you asking tomorrow, I won't know tomorrow either.
Lots of points in the paint
We scored a lot of points in the paint against them before. I want our guys to take what the game gives them. If they can get to the rim, get to the rim. If they're open at the three, shoot the three. It's important to play with a good feel and not force things.
It was good. We missed some shots. We moved the ball well. The shot didn't necessarily go. We're trying to get back on track with that.
I thought he played well. For the time that he's missed. Not playing a lot at the time, anyway. I thought he played a good game. He was physical inside, he got some fouls being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I thought for his first game back he played well.
Bench points, a benefit of playing short-handed in previous games?
Yeah, plus the bench played more minutes than they usually do too. I don't think there's any question, the five games that [Aldridge] missed and Meyers missed, the players who got a chance to play are a little more comfortable out there, they earned more minutes. It helped me. Will [Barton getting] in the rotation, Victor [Claver] getting out there, Dorell [Wright] at the four, that's part of our scheme. We wouldn't have necessarily gone to that if [Aldridge] hadn't gotten injured.
Nic is always funny because everyone wants him to be aggressive, so now he got 16 rebounds. He does everything. Career-high rebounds. It would have been nice if he could have gotten a triple-double. I don't know how many times it in a year and a half, he does a little bit of everything.
Sweep the Nuggets this year after trailing them in standings last year
Probably not very much. They're not the same team that they were last year. They have a lot of injuries. I don't know how much you can read into that, comparing the two teams. I like where we're going. Injuries is a big part of this game. [Danilo] Gallinari, [Andre] Iguodala and [Ty] Lawson were very instrumental in their success last year.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter