The Portland Trail Blazers took a step closer to their preliminary goal of making the 2015 NBA Playoffs tonight, defeating the Denver Nuggets 120-114. The victory puts the Blazers on the verge of securing their ticket to the post-season. They will earn a spot in the bracket tomorrow night if the New Orleans Pelicans lose to the Minnesota Timberwolves, or Monday night if the Blazers defeat the Phoenix Suns. Since the Oklahoma City Thunder also lost tonight, Portland's magic number to clinch the Northwest Division and its guaranteed 4th-place playoff seed stands at 3. It was a good night for the guys in scarlet and black.
For all the seeding significance, the game itself turned out to be, well...if not pedestrian, at least unnecessarily precarious. The 28-win Nuggets weren't on their best behavior on either end of the court but they still managed to hang with Portland until the wee minutes of the closing quarter.
The Blazers started the game fast, daring the Nuggets to stay with them. They poured in layups and jump shots, playing at ease. "At ease" also describes Portland's interior defense, as J.J. Hickson squirted around defenders for chip shots. Denver also managed to corral their own misses, putting Portland's defense in double jeopardy, tried twice for the same crimes. Despite an impressive offensive display by the Blazers, the score stayed neck and neck through much of the first.
Dissatisfied with that turn of affairs, Coach Terry Stotts put on his best Christopher Walken impression with, "I've got a fever and the only prescription...is more cowbell." Naturally "cowbell" equated to LaMarcus Aldridge, who began to show the Nuggets how mismatch big-man basketball is really played. 3 buckets from Aldridge as the quarter closed--echoed by 3 from Chris Kaman (who also knows that big man tune)--left the Blazers up 31-25 after one.
The second period saw both teams drift towards the perimeter. Guards still managed layups but big-man scoring gave way to the three-pointer. Jameer Nelson and CJ McCollum started the parade, but before the quarter was through 5 players would combine to hit 7 triples (with various misses scattered between). Kaman put in an excellent showing in this period as well, captaining Portland's rebounding brigade. Aldridge again rode to the rescue at the end of the period with a couple buckets.
Aldridge also made the inbounds pass on one of the nicest plays of the year. The Blazers had the ball with 2.5 seconds left in the half but had to throw the length of the court. They ran a modified Statue of Liberty play in which Aldridge heaved the ball to Nicolas Batum over a collapsing Denver defense. Batum then flicked it to the corner to Arron Afflalo for a buzzer-beating three. This would cap a 7-10 first half by Afflalo and leave the Blazers up 58-53 at intermission.
Tonight was the birthday of Trail Blazers mascot Blaze. Several of his mascot friends came to celebrate. The best-received were the Oregon Duck and Benny the Beaver from Oregon State, plus the Seahawks mascot down from Seattle. Houston's bear appeared to resounding chorus of boos, after which he heeled it up admirably. Tonight's halftime entertainment consisted of a dance-off between the Blazer Dancers and the mascot crew, which frankly was executed better than either team's defense. The two sides told a story via dance that would have put the Sharks and Jets to shame. (If you think that's a multi-sport reference, get some culture on ya.) The mascots finally won when they disrobed to Nelly, scaring away all the dancers.
In most ways this was more entertaining than the third period. Aldridge once again carried the Blazers, but Portland couldn't put the Nuggets away because their pesky guards kept getting free. Randy Foye continued the three-point onslaught while Will Barton, Ty Lawson, and Wilson Chandler scored from mid-range and in. This was the third different way the Nuggets had made free with Portland's defense and it was getting kind of old. Aldridge was superlative but the Blazers almost wasted his feisty, heart-felt effort. They did eke out a double-digit lead, 86-76, as the quarter closed, but...
...they gave it right back again as the fourth quarter commenced and Nelson, Barton, and Jusuf Nurkic scored six ways from Sunday. 2:30 into the period, the lead was down to 3. Fortunately Kaman came to the rescue once more. During the latter part of the fourth, the Blazers finally turned up the defense, converting misses into easy opportunities. Denver couldn't return the favor. Portland withheld a desperation charge late, wiped their brow, and celebrated the 120-114 win.
As has been their habit lately, the Blazers placed too many turnovers--and attached points--into the hands of the Nuggets tonight. They got them right back, but that's hardly comforting considering the different rosters, positions, and aims of the two teams.
Rebounding almost became a serious issue as well. Aldridge was great, as usual. But had Chris Kaman not thrown his weight (and height) around, the Blazers might not have stopped the Nuggets at all. Kaman actually turned the tide a couple times...a huge outing for him.
Not defending Denver that well until the latter stages of the fourth put the Blazers on shaky ground. Again, you can point to Portland's 56.5% field goal percentage. But that's how you expect the Nuggets to defend. Denver appeared to be headed for a 50% shooting night themselves until the fourth. That could have been a disaster.
Still, you can't argue with 120 points, nor with Portland's ability to outplay the Nuggets no matter which way the style went. Inside play, three-pointers...Denver couldn't take the game anywhere the Blazers didn't have an edge. Particularly impressive are Portland's 52 points in the paint. It would have been easy to turn this into a sloppy, run-and-shoot affair. Instead the Blazers stayed calm and took their points where they came. Discipline and execution on offense carried the day. When the Blazers are on offensively, few teams do it better.
As you might gather, I was in attendance tonight. It was my son's first in-person Blazers game. He had a great time in the first quarter taking it all in. Then in the second half he really got into the chants. I told him the Blazers needed him to be loud and he was. It didn't hurt that the team surged right about then. He left the arena plenty excited and ready to go back Monday.
Since I was able to watch the players live, I'm going to deviate from the usual format a little. Instead of giving you a complete rundown of players, I'm going to share what I noticed most.
LaMarcus Aldridge is just flat-out amazing. He is close enough to unstoppable to make them B.F.F.'s, perhaps headed for more. His turn-around isolation moves should be in picture frames. He's an automatic mismatch. Opponents have to double him or suffer.
Arron Afflalo looked more comfortable tonight that I've seen him. I'm not sure if that was an in-person change or a reflection of his 8-11 shooting night. I suspect the latter. But defensively he's still not there.
Neither is Damian Lillard. He is putting in more effort on the initial move, particularly getting around screens. But by the fourth dribble of the guy Lillard is guarding, there's trouble. That said, he has become a master of getting down the lane. It got to the point where I could turn to my boy and say, "Watch! He's going to do it!" before Damian had taken a single step forward.
Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez had moments. You can tell when their switch is flipped to "on". But there weren't enough of them. Both players faded to the background of the story even when their strong suits were needed. Batum emerged at the right time and hit almost every shot he took. Lopez used his body well and his offense looks butter-smooth now. But these guys are going to need amping up when the Blazers reach the post-season.
Chris Kaman was all over the interior. I understand he doesn't do it every night, but tonight he was back in that Sixth Man of the Year form. It makes a huge difference for the Blazers when he plays well.
Dorell Wright also played well, to the point that I remember his contributions more than I remember CJ McCollum's even though McCollum had a superior statistical game. In some ways Wright has become the step-up replacement for Wesley Matthews even though Afflalo has the role by position and minutes.
Steve Blake was a little fumbly tonight but he did what he needed to do. It's glorious to see him hit a three or weave his way to the perfect pass.
It's also fun to hear how organic and joyful the Moda Center crowd is nowadays. You could sense the energy in the building, just waiting to be released. Good job, Portland.
The Blazers take on the Phoenix Suns on Monday at Blazer's Edge Night. 1151 guests will be in attendance that night, courtesy of this website's readers and listeners. Stay tuned!
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