Are we at the point of the season where we can say, "Another day, another win for the Portland Trail Blazers"? If not, we're getting pretty close. After 37 games, the Blazers now own a shiny 29-8 record courtesy of a victory over the Orlando Magic, 103-92.
The story of this game was a masterful first-quarter defensive performance by the Blazers. They held the Magic to just 13 points, forcing Orlando into long-range shots and rebounding with impunity. It was the rare period where every Blazer who took the floor--starting unity and bench alike--moved their feet, stayed in good position, and helped out. Portland showed no defensive weaknesses and no mercy. It was as good of a 12-minute stretch as we've seen all season on that end.
When headed the other way the Blazers ran the ball into quick offense, scoring before the mobile Orlando defenders could set up. Portland's Big 3 of LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, and Meyers Leonard plastered 21 points on the Magic. Including Leonard in the group is no exaggeration either. For one quarter we got to see the guy the Blazers drafted 11th in 2012. Subbing for the foul-plagued Chris Kaman, Leonard hit a three, a post-up move, and even held his own on defense with just a little help. When Meyers is going plum loco you know the stars are aligning in Portland. The first-quarter light was blinding.
But if you've followed the Blazers at all this season, you know they don't like to do things easy. That was true again this evening as the Blazers let the Magic revive fully from a 19-point deficit. But that 26-13 first quarter changed Portland's script to "fall behind by 10 then streak past in the fourth quarter" to "let the opponent just barely catch up then run away again in the fourth quarter". Tonight's version was nicer, making the fourth-quarter labor easier and leaving the game less in doubt.
Orlando made their run in the middle quarters behind the scoring prowess of Nikola Vucevic (whom the short-handed Blazers had a devilish time guarding) and some amazing backcourt defense. Orlando's ball-hawking guards made the Blazers slow down and take contested shots. They also forced bucket-loads of turnovers, turning the tables on the running game. As Portland lost their rebounding and fast break edges, the scoreboard soon reflected same. Kaman continued to look out of it. Leonard must have read his first-half publicity at intermission and swallowed it whole, because he played like he was atop a parade float instead of in the middle of an NBA battle: getting out-rebounded by point guards, giving up on plays, and defending with all the ferocity of your average Bundt cake. Orlando punched a hole through all of that and staged the big comeback.
After the Magic pulled back even the game stayed nip-and-tuck until 6:18 remained in the fourth, when Lillard hit one of his patented "You're going home now" three-pointers from the far side of the Mississippi. That put the Blazers up 85-80 and seemed to break the will of the Orlando's defense. The Magic would tie the game again at 85 but Portland's guards made hay from that point on, hitting shots or drawing fouls by beating their men. Vucevic couldn't hit anymore; the Magic couldn't dodge whistles. Orlando ran out of goodness before the clock ran out of seconds and the Blazers prevailed.
Once again we saw tonight how mercurial Portland's center position is right now. Kaman paid tribute to the early career of comrade Joel Freeland by picking up a personal foul every 2.5 nanoseconds he was on the court. Leonard went way up in the first half and crashed like a drunken mayfly in the second. Thomas Robinson had a nice 7-minute run with 6 points and 2 rebounds but couldn't keep his hand out of the cookie jar, letting defense get away form him and picking up 2 fouls. The Blazers are spinning a roulette wheel with every big man except Aldridge. If LaMarcus were one whit less than spectacular this team wouldn't be winning. (Maybe the guy should get more All-Star credit? Hmmm?)
We also saw Portland's guards prove their vulnerability to pressure and tight defense. The Blazers committed 20 turnovers. If the backcourt wasn't coughing up the ball directly (Lillard 4 turnovers, Wesley Matthews 2, you can add in Nicolas Batum with 3) they were dumping to the big men and not giving enough outlets. When the Blazers took care of the ball they played fast and loose. When they didn't they were slow, tight, and the turnover problem cascaded.
On the other hand we saw Portland's stubborn excellence from beyond the arc on full display. The Blazers shot 10-26 from distance, never fearing the shot even after multiple misses. It's almost as if the Blazers say, "You might force us into a few bricks, but you're not going to stop us all night." When the critical moments came Matthews and Lillard drained triples once again, putting the Blazers into the driver's seat.
Portland's three-point defense also looked good tonight. They were aided by Channing Frye missing 7 of his 8 attempts, many of which were open. But other than that, they closed on and/or kept contact with Orlando's shooters. They gave up single-coverage points to Vucevic (34 on 15-23 shooting) in the process but many of those were mid-range attempts. When his shots stopped falling, Orlando's threes never materialized to make up the difference. Orlando shot 3-21 from the arc tonight. They average the same percentage as the Blazers on the season. I'd say this defensive plan, however imperfectly executed sometimes, was pretty smart.
The Magic defended LaMarcus Aldridge fairly well but his shooting ability is incessant. How many turn-around fade-away shots have to drop before you have to say, "No matter what we do, this guy is money?" Aldridge is officially in Dirk Nowitzki territory now. He's unique and you're not going to be able to keep him from his due. 25 points on 10-22 shooting, 6 rebounds coming from chasing around mid-range shooters instead of playing close to the basket.
Damian Lillard had a rough night everywhere but the foul line, where he shot 8-10. Elfrid Payton put on some filthy defensive moves out there, plus Portland's offense got discombobulated after that early start and Lillard was left going 1-on-1. He scored 16 points on 3-10 shooting with 5 assists and 4 turnovers.
Wesley Matthews was the star of the game down the stretch. Not only did he hit the long ball, he put his own filthy defense all over Victor Oladipo. Matthews ended the game with 4 steals, 8 rebounds, 4-6 three-pointers hit, and 18 points. He was the hero.
Nicolas Batum was quiet on offense for the most part, though a sweet give-and-go down the baseline with Aldridge provided one of the highlights of the fourth quarter and helped pushed the Blazers into winning position. But Batum was a lion on the other end, grabbing 10 rebounds and blocking 4 shots, helping Portland shut down the lane when they desperately needed to.
Chris Kaman hit 5-8 shots for 10 points but he was half zombified in this game, collecting 5 turnovers and 5 personal fouls in 20 minutes of play. He has not looked as good in the starting lineup as he did off the bench. Expectations and needs are different with the first unit; his ability fits better with the second.
Meyers Leonard ended up with 11 points on 4-7 shooting plus 6 rebounds in 20 minutes but his second-half play made Coach Stotts pop a vein so hard that he required 40 stitches and a blood infusion.
We haven't mentioned Dorell Wright's solid upsurge enough, so consider it mentioned. Over the last couple weeks he's played his best ball of the season and contributed in key moments. It's seldom obvious: a rebound here, a triple there. But he's found ways to contribute positively.
As mentioned above, Thomas Robinson was his usual combination of positive and negative. The Blazers couldn't absorb much of the negative in a tight game.
The league is on to Steve Blake again, inviting him to dribble then playing him for the pass exclusively. He's still doing fine as a reserve point guard but he's less effective than he was earlier in the year.
Blake did hit Will Barton for a mighty alley-oop slam, the pass coming from halfcourt. That was Barton's highlight in 9 minutes of play. CJ McCollum pretty much flat-lined his 11 minutes save that his defense looked pretty good.
The Blazers play the return match against the Los Angeles Lakers tomorrow evening in Staples Center.
Instant Recap with web reaction to this game.
Orlando Pinstriped Post covers the Magic end of things.
Check out our In-Arena Report covering the view from the Moda Center including Meyers Mania and bad date stories.