Tonight's Good News: The Portland Trail Blazers halted their 3-game skid, defeating the Sacramento Kings 98-94 in a game that stayed nip-and-tuck into the final minute.
Tonight's Bad News: In the process they lost LaMarcus Aldridge to a hand injury. Trail Blazers PR indicated that x-rays are negative, but further evaluation awaits.
Tonight's Middling News: How the Blazers won the game.
Even with Aldridge playing in the first quarter this game started out janky as unwrapped Halloween candy. Neither team could hold onto the ball to save their lives. It looked more like a fast-paced, intermediate-level rec league game than an NBA matchup. Both squads interspersed three-pointers with turnovers. Sacramento beat the Blazers down the court more often than Portland beat them. DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay had their usual unstoppable explosions. The Blazers allowed 30+ in the first period yet again, trailing 31-23 after one.
Fortunately the Blazers bench is familiar with slightly chaotic situations. Between the Aldridge injury and the Keystone Cops routine the Kings were pulling, opportunity shined ahead of the reserves. They took it, forcing Sacramento into even more turnovers and capitalizing on easy shots before the defense could set up. The bench turned the tide enough to give the starters a purchase when they returned. Energy remained high throughout the second quarter. But absent Aldridge (and Robin Lopez and Joel Freeland) Portland's interior defense sprouted weeds instead of wings. Sacramento redeemed themselves at the rim as the quarter closed and after a fairly successful period the Blazers only took 3 points off of the Kings lead. The score stood at 56-51 at the half. It felt like the Blazers were building a sandcastle. It seemed that even their prettiest moments would get eroded by a stiff breeze and demolished by a strong wave.
Fortunately that wave never came. The Blazers tightened down the defense and managed to hold their own on the boards in the second half....no small feat considering their injuries and Sacramento's prior performance. Even more forced turnovers swung the scoreboard into equilibrium. In the process, Coach Terry Stotts was forced to throw every spaghetti strand against the wall. Victor Claver started the second half in place of Aldridge. Thomas Robinson, Meyers Leonard, and Will Barton got critical minutes. Robinson responded with elbows-first defense against Cousins, the only thing that stopped DeMarcus all night. Barton had a couple nifty scores. Together with some muted heroics from Damian Lillard, it proved to be enough. Though the game remained tight and unpredictable to the end, the Blazers made a couple more plays down the stretch than the Kings did and escaped with the 98-94 victory.
The bench was a huge bright spot for the Blazers in this game. Called into emergency duty, they responded well. It helps that the game ran in fits and starts, as their mistakes didn't look out of place and didn't cost the team. Regardless, they played at a higher level than usual and that preserved this win for the Blazers.
When things were going bad for Portland, though, they went shockingly bad. First-half rebounding and middle-quarter interior defense looked inept, at least compared to what we're used to seeing. It's hard to knock the team for that. Lopez, then Freeland, now Aldridge? There's no more heart to rip out of that frontcourt. The Blazers ran on sinew and gristle, praying to close their big-man gap before the Kings blitzed through it. Understandable or not, it's shocking to see this team getting handled on the glass and in the paint. That's a tribute to how well they've played this year.
16 steals and 20 fast break points highlighted Portland's nice list tonight. Chief on the naughty list: 17-26 (65%) free throw shooting. This has happened to the Blazers a couple times in the last month. Free throws have been a near-given for this squad, making them extra dangerous. Losing that edge isn't pleasant.
The Kings also held Portland to 40% shooting overall, 31% from the arc. Most of that is attributable to a guard-heavy offense. Neither Lillard nor Wesley Matthews shot well, combining for 13-39 shooting, 4-21 from distance. If Aldridge is out for an extended period, we're probably going to see their offense suffer. As we've said all season, this team isn't centered around talent but synergy. Aldridge and the backcourt feed each other perfectly. Matthews and Lillard will need to find another gear if they're forced to serve themselves.
Let's take care of Lillard (6-19, 2-9 from distance, 22 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists) and Matthews (7-20, 2-12, 17 points) first. They helped save the game with their offense. They also generated 3 steals apiece against the fumble-fingered Kings opponent. The confident, steady look we're used to seeing from each was nowhere in evidence tonight. Not that they were tight. They did their usual poses and smiles on the court after made buckets. But the lines of their bodies, the pace of their shots, and their place in the offense all looked off-kilter. Lillard even missed critical free throws down the stretch. Chalk this game up to "not their finest hour, but good enough".
Nicolas Batum tried to rise to the occasion but couldn't.
Chris Kaman was hopelessly overmatched and looked even farther underwater tonight than he's been.
Aldridge had 10 points in 14 minutes before leaving the game.
It's not often that we get to spend more time discussing the bench than the starters, but that's the kind of game it was.
Thomas Robinson's "I will rip apart the fabric of the universe with my teeth" approach was just what the Blazers needed in the fourth quarter. DeMarcus Cousins was running over them like a semi-truck over a bunny rabbit. Robinson came in and put a stop to it, mostly by being physical as hell. He elbowed, chucked, trampled, ripped, and threw every available part of himself against the big Sacramento center. Cousins spent most of his time complaining that all these plays were fouls. Most of the time he was right but the refs didn't help him out a bit. (Perhaps a case of reputation following a player...) It was sad for Sacramento because Cousins was having a masterful game. He played incredible defense and his final fouls were pretty cheap. Either way, what amounted to psychological warfare from Robinson (delivered with the force of a battering ram) took Cousins out of the game--spiritually first, then literally--and ended up as decisive a turning point as the Blazers had tonight.
What Robinson did for the late defense, Will Barton did for the offense. He scored 6 points in 6 minutes to start the fourth period, beating the Kings down the court the way they had beaten the Blazers prior.
Meyers Leonard's defense kept him out of crunch time, but prior to that he hit 4 of 5 shots, bouncing back from his tough night against Memphis.
Dorell Wright and Steve Blake proved the Batarang and Grapple Gun in Terry Stotts' utility belt tonight, holding the team steady when everything around them was falling apart. They're about the only two players who looked normal in this game. Normal was good: 5-10 shooting, 14 points, and 6 assists between them.
About the only bench player who didn't get a cookie after the game was Victor Claver. He played 7 minutes and picked up 2 personal fouls. He did hit a 3 and nab 3 rebounds though.
The Blazers face the Suns in Phoenix on Wednesday night and welcome Boston to the Moda Center on Thursday.
Aldridge Injury Video and Injury Update
The In-Arena Report from the Moda Center
I'm not sure how Sactown Royalty will feel about this one. Probably better check out their recap to see.
For those of you wishing for Jeff Green during trade speculation over the last couple weeks, he'd sure look good in a Blazers uniform now. Water...bridge...underneath...(sigh)
--Dave email@example.com / @DaveDeckard / @Blazersedge