Playing the Sacramento Kings without DeMarcus Cousins is like playing the Muppets without any hands up their backsides. No matter how you look at it, it just won't be the same experience. But the Kings still managed to make the Portland Trail Blazers sweat a little this afternoon, taking advantage of stellar guard play, turnovers, and transition hoops to make a game out of what should have been no contest. In the end, though, the Blazers had enough interior muscle and star power to put away the Kings 110-99, The play may not have been consistent, nor the win that pretty, but it still counts the same at the end of the day.
Portland's first quarter tonight evoked the same feeling as meeting a potential romantic partner online. For a while, everything seemed perfect. The Blazers turned nice defense into even nicer offense, pressuring the Kings into poor shots and turnovers, then flipping the ball around like a hot potato for open attempts of their own. Portland's rebounding mastery forced Sacramento to play perfectly if they wanted to keep up. They didn't and they couldn't. The Blazers led 34-23 after one.
Like actually meeting that internet partner in real life, the second-period bench shift killed momentum dead. Steve Blake, Meyers Leonard, Chris Kaman, Arron Afflalo, and Wesley Matthews turned out to be the equivalent of a pot-bellied, balding, conscientious-shower-objector posting a two-decade-old photo of himself on Match.com. Careless turnovers, painfully forced offensive possessions, an utter lack of defense, and paucity of rebounding had Terry Stotts excusing himself to powder his nose, then making an emergency call to his BFF get him out of there. Having spent the entire first period struggling to put together coherent possessions, the Kings cut Portland's lead to 4 in the first 4 minutes of the second.
Fortunately Stotts' bail-out call came through. Not only did he get out of the bad date, his chauffeur brought along a better looking one in the back seat: Robin Lopez, Damian Lillard, and LaMarcus Aldridge. That trio slapped some quick interior points on the Kings, then Alonzo Gee came through with some nice defense and a sweet three in his first meaningful minutes in a Portland uniform. (See our piece on why Blazers fans shouldn't sleep on Gee's contributions here.) The Blazers pulled ahead again despite the horrible start to the quarter. Portland led comfortably, 64-50, at the half.
The third period unfolded in fits and starts for the Blazers. Turnovers and Kings run-outs became common sights. At the same time Lillard went crazy to the tune of 10 points, backed up by 8 from Aldridge. But those spectacular numbers they came in the non-flow of a largely constipated offense. Matthews accounted for the only other Portland points in the period, a single three. Sacramento scored far easier than the Blazers and outstripped Portland 25-21 in the period despite the star explosion. Still, Portland led 85-75 as they made the turn for home.
But then, like a life-sized display from the Dating Disaster Hall of Fame, Dr. Boogerpicker Stankypits showed up once again, begging for a second chance. Before you could say, "Oh God, No!" Portland's bench let the lead slip again, this time back to a single point. The Kings scored on 6 of their first 7 possessions while the Blazers managed 4 points total in that same stretch. At the 8:20 mark the score read 89-88, Portland.
Sanity returned as Lillard resumed his scoring streak and Robin Lopez pounded the center-less Kings inside. The Blazers cut back on their turnovers, amped up their work on the glass, and put the Kings back where they belonged...slowly, but this time for good.
Sacramento trailed by only 4 with 3:50 remaining but 4 interior hoops over the next 2 minutes for Portland would put them away. The 110-99 final score looks slightly more comfortable than the game actually was. As we said in the intro, looks don't matter, only the win does.
It'd be hard to overestimate how badly the bench played in this one. We're used to seeing a Meyers Leonard gaffe or CJ McCollum rushed shot, but today Kaman's defense was poor, Blake's offense looked fractured, and Afflalo spent his whole first shift pushing dribbles that just weren't there. A couple happy minutes from Gee would redeem the second unit somewhat, but it was still an abysmal outing.
The Blazers couldn't seem to get away from turnovers in this game either, except when they settled for keeping the ball in the hands of their two stars.
We shouldn't even mention the transition defense. Oy.
Speaking of defense, Lillard's on-ball performance (or lack thereof) was once again the neon monkey jumping on the davenport. Portland's bigger defenders were left shrugging their shoulders with a, "What can I do if you let a guy get that far down the lane that fast?" expression. Every time they tried to help, Sacramento just whipped a pass around the closing defender for a dunk. As we've said before, Portland's length allows them to build an effective wall of defense inside. But that strategy is predicated on them having some time to set up. There's a difference between channeling a dribbler towards help and giving him an unlimited FastPass to the rim. Lillard was brilliant scoring 31 in this game, but he also needed to be.
That said, the Blazers came just shy of 50% shooting, fired 42% from the arc, and ended up too much for the Kings to handle. They smartly took advantage of Sacramento's hole in the middle, scoring 50 in the paint. (They gave up 52, but oh well...) When their lead was threatened the Blazers calmed down, got the right personnel on the floor, and took care of business. Rebounding and interior scoring provided a platform from which they could snag the win. They took advantage of those edges like pros and got the right result. Props for that.
We should stand in awe of Damian Lillard's 3-5 performance from the arc tonight because he was getting most of those off of tough looks. His 31 points on 11-20 shooting and 7 assists also deserve applause. His offensive game looked smooth and phenomenal at the same time...a masterful performance.
LaMarcus Aldridge continues to struggle on the offensive end, courtesy of a mix of thumbs and George Karl sending double-teams after him. He shot only 9-25 but 8 free throws pushed his point total to 26. Aldridge's other main contribution was 15 rebounds in a game where nobody else reached double figures. The funny thing about that is, he's quiet doing it. If you just read impressions on the defensive end, you'd probably say Aldridge had 8 or 9 boards and managed well enough on defense. Instead he posted 15 rebounds and was one of the few guys not getting burned.
Robin Lopez deserves monster credit for his performance, especially in the fourth quarter. He almost played go-to guy down the stretch. The Kings didn't have anybody to deal with him once he caught the ball down low. He made every rebound he was near tougher for Sacramento to get. 7-9 shooting, 15 points, 8 rebounds, and 1 flagrant foul pushing Reggie Evans with a full, two-hand shove after Evans did some jersey-tugging underneath. Even when the Blazers didn't seem that fired up, RoLo was.
Wesley Matthews played a more conservative offensive game than has been his wont of late. He spotted up, posted up a little, but basically functioned as an outlet rather than initiator. He attempted only 8 shots but hit 6 of them, including 3-5 from distance. Maybe I'm a stick-in-the-mud, but this seems to me more Matthews' game than the dribble and shoot star turn he sometimes takes. 17 points on 8 shots is just fine with me. In fact it's hard to imagine the Blazers losing when Matthews produces so compactly.
Nicolas Batum, on the other hand, was anything but compact. He had 5 assists but he spent most of the night over-passing and missing decent shots. His form looked better on his jumper (less hesitation) but a 1-6 shooting rate didn't show it. 2 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds.
Alonzo Gee had a steal, a turnover, a personal foul, a triple, and a free throw make in 6 minutes. You could tell the instant he stepped on the floor, not just because he looked new, but because he looked determined to make something happen. Since he was just about the only bench guy whose game didn't resemble week-old sweatsocks tonight, full marks to him!
Joel Freeland was on the active roster and saw his first 2 minutes in months.
We mentioned Arron Afflalo pushing way too hard in the offense, especially with the ball in his hands. 4 turnovers were the result. He hit a nice three-pointer, but that and a single assist comprised his entire offensive night. He moves well on defense, though.
Chris Kaman hit 3-5 shots but managed only 3 rebounds in 18 minutes and looked helpless on defense at times.
Steve Blake had an wholly uncharacteristic 5 turnovers in 12 minutes.
Meyers Leonard hit a three but also got one capped hard because his release unfolds like a loading dock crane. He's fine if he doesn't hesitate but even a split second of indecision takes away his opportunity to triple. Also 3 fouls in 8 minutes is more Old Leonard than new.
There's a possibility that the bench shift has thrown the balance (or at least security/confidence) off for the entire reserve corps. Let's see if they get more used to each other over time. But first, I suppose, we need to see if they have more time to get used to each other now that the playoff seeding battle is nigh. If I'm Coach Stotts, I don't look at many more performances like this before deciding that having too many reserves out there at once is still a bad idea for this team.
With this win, the Blazers' "magic number" to clinch the Northwest Division from the Oklahoma City Thunder stands at 16. The Blazers will get a rare couple days off between consecutive road games before facing the Clippers on Wednesday night.
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SactownRoyalty probably won't be too disappointed with the way their team played considering no DeMarcus Cousins and no Darren Collison.
The deadline to purchase tickets for underprivileged kids to attend the March 30th game versus the Phoenix Suns is next Monday. We're down to a couple hundred tickets left to donate. Here's how to help out!
This year's Blazer's Edge Night Game will be March 30th against the Phoenix Suns.
Tickets can be purchased through this link: www.rosequarter.com/blazersedge Promo Code: BLAZERSEDGE
You simply click on the gray bar that says, "Donate Tickets" and follow the prompts. NOTE: The delivery option will say "WILL CALL". That's fine.
Ticket Cost ranges from $13-16 each this year. Remember...even one ticket counts.
You can also mail order tickets using the pdf below, which contains all the info you need. Or, if all else fails, call Lisa Swan at the Blazers' office: 503-963-3966
If you work with underprivileged kids and would like to be considered for tickets, e-mail me at this address. We say yes to all kinds of requests, big and small, so don't be shy.
Thank you everyone for helping to make this dream a reality for so many.