The Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Sacramento Kings, 100-99, at the Moda Center on Wednesday night, improving their record to 51-28.
Put "Dorell Wright's Final Minute" next to Crazy Bird, Steel Hawg, Mumbo Jumbo, Goliath, and El Toro on the list of the biggest, baddest rollercoasters around.
With 14.8 seconds remaining in what Damian Lillard would call a "junky" game against one of the West'st weakest teams -- a team made weaker by injuries to Isaiah Thomas and Rudy Gay -- Wright was seated on the bench, beating himself up over another poor shooting night. Signed last summer as a designated floor-spacer and open shot maker, Wright had hit just nine shots total in his previous eight appearances, dating back to March 24. He had gone 0-for-4 against the Kings, dropping him to 24.3 percent over the last two and a half weeks. There are few basketball fates worse than that of a slumping shooter.
"Sitting over there, being mad mad at myself," is how Wright recalled the moment.
Mo William was given the night off to rest, though, which opened up a spot in coach Terry Stotts' smaller late-game lineup. The other options -- the seldom-used Earl Watson and the shakier Will Barton -- weren't any better equipped to keep an opposing defense honest than Wright. So, coming out of a timeout down 99-97 and looking to run a high pick-and-roll with Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, Stotts elected to call Wright's name.
"Because [Wright is] a threat," Stotts said, explaining his decision. "He's been a threat throughout his career. Every time he shoots, I think it has a good chance of going in, no matter what's happened before. The odds are -- he's going to make one."
The play began with Wright clearing to the left corner and Matthews clearing to the right corner, as Lillard and Aldridge set up at the top of the arc.
"I know that play, Dame likes to go to his right hand so he can get to the basket," Wright said.
He knows the play, I know the play, you know the play and anyone who has watched a meaningful amount of Blazers games this season knows the play. There are options depending on the defense -- Lillard can step back, drive, find Aldridge for a jumper, or try to hit Aldridge on the cut -- but the two All-Stars make up the primary action, and for good reason.
Burly Kings forward Reggie Evans knew the play too. When Wright cleared to the left corner, Evans left him entirely to take up a rim-protecting position in the paint, as Lillard struggled to turn the corner on DeMarcus Cousins at the three-point line. Whether the gamble was fully calculated or not, Evans was inviting Lillard to find the open man while clogging the middle and preventing a pass to Aldridge. After working his way down to the right baseline, Lillard rose in the air and, with Aldridge totally covered and no other available options, he flung a pass in Wright's direction.
"The play was for me and L.A. to come out in a pick-and-roll, make something happen," said Lillard, who finished with 19 points (on 6-for-11 shooting), 10 assists and five rebounds. "Everyone knows in basketball, if someone drives into the paint, it's the right thing to float to the corner. [Wright has] been in the league a long time. As soon as I turned that corner, got my head around, I saw him sliding down."
About three weeks ago, Wright told Blazersedge that he sees himself making his living, in part, by feasting on mismatches with traditional fours. "Their instinct is to protect the paint," he said at the time, referring to bigger power forwards.
On this play, Sacramento had no backside defender because Nicolas Batum had drawn Derrick Williams with him to the top of the key. Evans, a rebounding and screen-setting specialist, was still stuck in the paint as the ball approached Wright. Even with the maddest of dashes, he wasn't going to make it to the corner in time.
"That's a prime example of what I meant," Wright said Wednesday. "When I see a mismatch like that, you just start licking your fingers because you can either knock down shots or get guys with pump fakes."
Lillard added: "Me and [Wright] always talk about that. When he's in at the four, big men find their way into the paint, they always end up sucking into the paint. It happened on that last play, he ended up wide open in the corner."
Portland has placed the ball in Lillard's hands repeatedly late in games this season, and he welcomes the responsibility. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this sequence was that Lillard opted for the safety valve option rather than forcing up a tough shot, looking to draw contact, or attempting to squeeze a path through to Aldridge. A lot of bad things could have happened when Lillard found himself shadowed towards the baseline, especially once he left the ground. Instead, he made exactly the right play.
"It was a good decision by Damian to find [Wright]," Stotts said. "It showed trust. You have to take what the game gives you."
Lillard's pass was low, but Wright reached down to his ankles to snare it anyway. His feet were placed perfectly and he had a wide stance; he was totally ready.
"Dame made a great pass," Wright said. "Since I used to be an All-American first baseman, it didn't matter where he threw it."
That comment later sent the media room scrambling through online databases in hopes of confirming Wright's high school baseball credentials, to no avail. Regardless, the moment had been set: ball in hand, defense scrambled, and no obvious candidate for an extra pass. It was time to shoot, even if Wright was one of just two scoreless players out of 18 who had seen the court.
"I was so mad, because pre-game I was making all of my shots," Wright recalled. "I got out here tonight and I couldn't make nothing. It goes like that sometimes. Shooters shoot, that's all I try to do."
Wright's catch was clean, he got into his shooting motion quickly, his form was nice, he released the ball with a good look at the hoop and, like Stotts noted, it looked pure as soon as it came off of his fingers. Batum stood near the logo at center court, raising both arms shortly after the release. The shot swished through with 7.6 seconds remaining, giving Portland a one-point lead.
"Dorell picked a good time to make his shot," Stotts quipped.
"That was crazy," Wright said, with a wide smile. "It still feels fake to me. That was pretty cool right there."
Lillard might not have raised his arms like Batum, but he felt sure of the result when the pass left his hand.
"I wouldn't have passed it to him if I didn't think it was going in," he said. "I probably would have forced it to L.A. who was going to the rim. He's a shooter. I'm not surprised by him making the big shot."
There was only one problem left: the tiny matter of those final 7.6 seconds. Stotts went with the standard defense-for-offense substitution by inserting center Robin Lopez for Wright, who went back to the bench where he had been seated so glumly just seconds before. Instead of kicking himself for a poor shooting night, Wright left the court this time hoping his heroics wouldn't be immediately erased by the Kings. His only thought, he said later: "Get a stop!"
Portland did get a stop, dodging a bullet when rookie guard Ray McCallum missed a deep jumper in the game's closing seconds. That left the Blazers the lucky winners of an uneven game, but more importantly it put Wright in a situation he hasn't been in for at least a decade.
"That was my first one since high school," Wright said of his game-winner. "I've never been in that situation [in the NBA]."
His last game-winner was so long ago that Wright, who made the preps-to-pro jump, said he couldn't even recall the specific details of the play. After the buzzer on Wednesday, he found himself mobbed by his teammates, including Batum, who delivered a professional wrestling style elbow to his back in celebration.
"It's fun," Aldridge said of their bouncing pow wow at mid-court. "It builds a good team chemistry, camaraderie."
Once back in the locker room, the Blazers began razzing Wright, calling him "Big Shot" and "Little Robert Horry" and "Little Ray Allen." After facing his largest media crowd of the season, Wright laughed and joked with Thomas Robinson and Will Barton, and the three players took turns passing around the game ball.
"Now I don't have to hear nothing bad from my six-year-old son," Wright cracked. "He would have told me that I lost the game for us [if] I didn't make that shot."
Wright didn't linger for too long, but he continued to caress the ball as he left the locker room headed for home.
"Of course," Aldridge said, when asked if he had noticed Wright leaving with his object of pride. "As he should! Game-winner. I have two or three at my house."
Stotts admitted that Portland's overall play on Wednesday likely wouldn't have been sufficient to win a playoff game, prompting many to react by striking "likely" from that summary. There are no arguments here. Portland played fairly lethargic defense, got killed on the glass down the stretch, didn't protect the ball very well, and never ratcheted up enough intensity to put themselves in the clear.
Those facts didn't obscure the lesson of the night for Wright, who finished with three points (on 1-for-5 shooting), four rebounds, two assists and two steals.
"In the playoffs, guys are going to sit on the strong things you can do," he said. "For [Lillard] to make that play, not being afraid to pass it, it gets us ready for the playoffs."
If we were to chart Wright's rollercoaster from that final minute through to his departure from the arena, it would go something like: frustration, anticipation, joy, nervousness, relief, elation, pride, giddiness, contentedness and reflection.
Bull riding can keep its "8 seconds." Wright just ran the whole gamut in 7.2.
Random Game Notes
- The attendance was announced as 20,002 (a sellout). It looked like a fair number of people skipped this one.
- Full game highlights are right here.
- The Blazers can call Dorell Wright "Big Shot" or "Little Robert Horry" or "Little Ray Allen" all they want. He's the "Big McMuffin" is my book. Just seconds before Wright's shot, I joked on Twitter that this was exactly the type of situation in which the Blazers miss Luke Babbitt, considering a three-pointer would not only win the game but also deliver free food. Boom. What do you know? Wright steps up and drains the three, delivering McMuffins to everyone. The Chalupa King is dead. Long live the McMuffin Master
- I will be disappointed If this doesn't end with Wright shaving McDonald's arches into his hair as part of a multi-channel sponsorship deal.
- Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews connected on quite an ambitious alley-oop over the top of the defense. To the naked eye, it looked like it had no chance of succeeding, but Matthews found a way to get it home.
- DeMarcus Cousins (30 points on 14-for-29 shooting, 12 rebounds, three steals) posted another big line against the Blazers. LaMarcus Aldridge gave Cousins a nice endorsement: "Everybody knows he's good. He can make mid-range, post-up, either hand. He's pretty dominant down there. He changes the game, easily, by coming on the floor. As he wins more and gets more opportunities to be in the playoffs, as his team does more, people will notice him more."
- Cousins drives me as crazy as the next guy but when you can throw down a dunk, block a shot at the rim, dribble the ball up the court and sling a dime for another basket -- all in less than 20 seconds -- it's understandable why the Kings backed up the Brinks truck for him.
- Aldridge (22 points on 9-for-20 shooting and eight rebounds) really owes Wright one for saving his bacon. Twice Aldridge opted for his left hand while going one-on-one late in the game, and twice he came up empty. Damian Lillard does, too, as he committed a turnover on Portland's second-to-last possession.
- Wright's through-the-legs backwards assist to Thomas Robinson on the break might have been the play of his season, at least until the closing seconds happened.
- A whole bunch of fans had paddles with Robin Lopez's face on them. It looked pretty cool actually.
- Here's a great crowd view of Wright's winner via Tim Brown of OregonLive.com.
- Yung Jordan has posted audio of his "Welcome to Rip City" song which rhymes "Aldridge" with "Steel Bridge."
- Both teams for this week's high school Hoop Summit were in the building on Wednesday. I got a chance to watch the World Team practice on Monday and there are a few interesting prospects.
- Karl Towns (6-foot-11, Dominican Republic) is a big guy, and you can definitely see why just about everyone compares him to Sam Perkins. Huge frame, soft touch, good range, versatile game. Damien Inglis (6-foot-9, France) reminds me a lot of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist: very long and muscular arms, good quickness and strength, and capable of defending multiple positions. Trey Lyles (6-foot-9, Canada) is a skilled, multi-dimensional offensive player. Emmanuel Mudiay (6-foot-5, Democratic Republic of Congo) has nice size for a lead guard, was very smooth on the ball, and had consistent shooting form.
- Those observations came from about 90 minutes of observation time from one practice. I wish I had more time this week to check out both teams, but Saturday's game should be fun as always. Full details on the game here.
- Aldridge said playing Reggie Evans is like "running uphill for 48 minutes straight." He also noted: "[Evans] pulled the chair on me. I haven't had that happen all season."
- "Portlandia" did a pretty intense Twitter takeover of the Blazers' account and the words "free vagina pillows" somehow came down the pipeline.
- Portland's win kept them two games up on No. 6 Golden State in the West standings and moved them to within 1.5 games of No. 4 Houston.
Terry Stotts' Post-Game Comments
That was an exciting way to win a game. Dorell [Wright] picked a good time to make his shot. Sacramento did what they do well -- the way they rebounded the ball in the second half in particular really hurt us. Turnovers hurt us. For me, it's good to get one of these close wins. It's been awhile since we won some close ones. No matter how it comes, it gives us a little momentum.
In that situation you have L.A. and Damian in a pick-and-roll. They've got to make a play. With Nic, Wes and Dorell out there, they have to make a decision. Reggie Evans was guarding Dorell, he was protecting with L.A. on the roll, and Dorell was open. It was a good decision by Damian to find him. It showed trust. You have to take what the game gives you, and Dorell knocked it down.
Why go with Dorell when he hadn't scored all night
Because he's a threat. He's been a threat throughout his career. Every time he shoots, I think it has a good chance of going in, no matter what's happened before. The odds are -- he's going to make one. He's got a lot of nicknames by the way now. You'll have to ask him. He's got a few nicknames now. You can ask the players. No, [I didn't give him any nicknames], I just got in on the tail end of it.
It's a little bit of everything. Poor decisions, a little of good decisions, it's kind of a mixed bag.
Resting Mo Williams
We had talked about it a couple of days ago.
Before the game, you said you were going to use the same rotation.
Yeah, I did. You didn't ask me if Mo was going to play. You don't have to be in on everything. Plus, I didn't want to answer all of the questions before the game. Now, anybody want to ask me about Mo.
Is Mo healthy?
He's fine. He's resting. He was a little sore. I just felt like giving him an extra two days -- it would be good for him.
You said you wanted to sharpen up for playoffs
I don't know if we would have won a playoff game tonight. We showed signs of good basketball. Offensively we moved the ball. We ended up with 26 assists, that's good to see. We held them below 44 percent most of the night. The only thing that really, from a defensive standpoint, was our rebounding. We did a lot of good things. My biggest concern going into the playoffs is sustaining the quality of play for basically the whole game. We had our ups and downs. We did a lot of good things on both ends of the court. We just have to sustain it.
Damian Lillard -- 11 shots and 10 assists
I think it's a credit to him -- when I subbed him out in the first quarter, I don't even know if he had scored yet. I think it's important that he, like anybody, picks his spots, when to be aggressive. One of the things we were doing when L.A. comes out, bring him in with a spacing lineup, creates opportunities for him. I was pleased with the assists. Obviously the last one, his 10th assist was the best.
Does role player hitting big shot do something for the team?
I think there's something to that. I think it builds trust within in the teammates. We're used to Damian, L.A., Wes and Nic hitting the shots. When Mo comes back, the most important thing we've done all year, and one of the reasons we've been successful offensively is the trust that we've had. When you have someone come off the bench and make that shot, I think that just adds to it.
-- Ben Golliver | email@example.com | Twitter