One of the hallmarks of a good team is the ability to win when not playing your best. By that standard the Portland Trail Blazers qualified as a good team tonight. They vanquished the New Orleans Pelicans 99-90...no small feat considering how much the Pelicans--battling for the final seed in the playoff bracket--wanted the game. It was an odd night for the Blazers. Steady performers looked shaky; shaky performers rode to the rescue. How well Portland played depended on which stretch of the game you were watching. Somehow it added up to a win, which is all you can ask.
This was your classic game of runs. The Blazers and Pelicans might as well have played rock-paper-scissors out there. One or the other was clearly winning at any given time, with any draws resolved quickly.
The Pelicans got the jump on Portland early, mostly by pouring guards down the heart of the lane. No Portland players stayed in front of their man on the perimeter, big men offered no effective help. The Pels pounded inside until the well was dry, then flicked the ball to the perimeter on a collapsing Portland defense for open jumpers.
On the other end New Orleans forced turnovers and prospered. Damian Lillard committed 3 miscues in the first period. While Portland passes looped slowly, Pelican players ran fast. New Orleans also did a credible job of forcing LaMarcus Aldridge to shoot high-arcing fade-aways. They got up 16-6 before 5 minutes had elapsed.
That's when Portland's bench rode to the rescue...one of the few times those words have appeared in that particular order this season. Chris Kaman, Steve Blake, and CJ McCollum combined inside-out offense, adept passing, strong rebounding, and shockingly good defense to spur their team back to relevance. Game flow reversed. Now the Pelicans played slow in the halfcourt, settling for bad jumpers. The Blazers took the ball to the hole and made free with their offense.
The fantastic bench performance would continue through the remainder of the half. Coach Stotts kept second-unit players in the game at all times, mixing them with starters in various configurations.
In the second period each team took turns exploiting mismatches: the Blazers going at Ryan Anderson and the Pelicans picking on smaller Portland guards. But Portland got the better end of the deal, enforcing their superiority inside and using it to open up good looks the way the Pelicans had earlier. By halftime the Blazers had turned that early 10-point deficit into a 12-point lead, 56-44.
The Pelicans stopped messing around in the third quarter, though. They distilled everything that was good about their first-half offense (read: making Portland's defense look stupid via penetration) and ran it non-stop. The Blazers offered so little resistance the guys over at Elias Sports Bureau started researching the Meissner Effect, just in case. Tyreke Evans notched 4 layups in the period by himself, part of 14 points scored by the Pels right at the cup. With Portland scoring only 19 total in the frame, that wasn't good. As "Rotation" and "Close Out" became dirty words in Portland's dictionary, the Blazers lost the foul-line advantage that had buoyed them in the first half. The Pelicans erupted for a 20-4 run, spurring a 28-19 period that cut Portland's lead to 3 as the third quarter closed.
Unfortunately Portland's bench couldn't repeat their first-half heroics with the game on the line. Their contributions amounted to a Meyers Leonard jumper and a Kaman put-back. But the New Orleans reserves weren't doing that well either. An Anderson three pushed the Pelicans to an 81-77 lead with 8:23 left but they couldn't sustain their scoring. Portland's defense tightened, the opponent couldn't respond.
As the period wore on Anthony Davis slowed down, missed shots, and generally looked fatigued. The Blazers took advantage inside, particularly on the offensive glass. Portland earned second shots; the Pelicans couldn't find good looks on their first attempts. The game turned Portland's way.
The last hurrah for New Orleans came at the 4:22 mark when Davis grabbed an offensive rebound and scored, tying the game at 85. On the next play Nicolas Batum hit a typically-improbable three. Damian Lillard was fouled on a three-pointer right after and sank the ensuing free throws. Pushing the lead from 0 to 6 in less than a minute broke the Pelicans' backs. Their shots became increasingly desperate, Portland's increasingly easy. The last 3 minutes of the game remained stress-free and the Blazers cruised home for the 9-point win.
This was one of those rare games where you could see exactly what each team did well. The Pelicans ruled fast breaks 13-2. 11 of those points came in the first half, however. When the Blazers shut off the flow in transition the Pelicans lost one of their lifelines. Limiting turnovers was the key. Portland committed 10 total, but half of those came in the first quarter.
The Blazers dominated the offensive glass, grabbing 18 offensive rebounds, doubling up New Orleans in that category. Portland attempted 23 free throws, the Pelicans 10, resulting in 16 extra points for Portland over the course of the game.
The Pelicans shot impressively from the three-point arc, hitting 7-16 for 44%, edging the Blazers slightly (6-16). But the Blazers edged New Orleans 48-44 in the paint, keeping the balance even.
But make no mistake, the game would not have turned out as it did without the bench. Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge did their star turns but neither shot well. Nicolas Batum played like he had a game-long hall pass. Robin Lopez struggled everywhere except under the glass. Arron Afflalo shot 2-6 for 5 points in 33 minutes. With everyone else playing mediocre or worse, Kaman, McCollum, and Blake were the heroes of the evening. (Meyers Leonard didn't look too bad either.)
Portland's starters shot 20-54 for 60 points in 168 combined minutes. The reserves shot 16-30 for 39 points in 72 combined minutes. That's 37% shooting and .36 points per minute for the average starter, 53% shooting and .54 points per minute for the bench players.
The collective effect recalled the famously-overrated "Home Alone" series, wherein Macaulay Culkin is abandoned by his parents, only to face menacing home invaders in the form of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. Out of nowhere little Macaulay made quite the stand; so did Portland's bench. Well done.
CJ McCollum took only 9 shots, hitting 4 for 10 points in 26 minutes, but the effect was greater than his numbers. He was the guy who kept the Pelicans off-balance, who made sure they couldn't ease off anybody to double-cover. Since the New Orleans defense is predicated on help, McCollum became a thorn in their side.
Chris Kaman is having an incredible run lately. Tonight may have been his best effort of the bunch. He scored 16 on 7-10 shooting with 11 rebounds, 6 offensive in 21 minutes. Add in a couple of steals and you have quite the outing. Kaman is Portland's favorite pair of work overalls: not pretty, fairly worn, but full of all kinds of useful stuff that helps you get the job done.
Steve Blake showed some offensive aggressiveness tonight, hitting 3 of 7 shots for 8 points in 14 minutes. He was cutting across the court with the ball, moving fast and pulling the defense. 3 assists and 3 rebounds complement his evening.
Meyers Leonard hit a three-pointer and 2-4 shots for 5 points and 4 rebounds in 11 minutes.
LaMarcus Aldridge had a tough time dealing with Anthony Davis until Davis slowed down. Aside from a couple nice layups, Aldridge never got on track offensively, hitting 7-18 for 21 points. As usual he helped in other ways: 12 rebounds, 2 steals.
Damian Lillard didn't fare well either, appearing to force his outside offense. He was pure gold when he got into the lane but he couldn't manage that enough. New Orleans guards had no such trouble. 7-19 shooting, 19 points, 4 assists.
Scoring 5 points didn't even begin to make up for Arron Afflalo's defensive deficiencies tonight. And Nicolas Batum was lucky that he hit that key three in the 4th period, else his evening could have been described as "horrible". He wasn't a factor on either end.
6 offensive rebounds spoke well of Robin Lopez's efforts but he's just not having the wire-to-wire impact we're used to seeing. Either he's not recovered from his injury completely or he's tired or he's just melding into the background.
Portland remains in the 4th seed in the West by virtue of their Northwest Division title. They're deadlocked with the Los Angeles Clippers (5th) and San Antonio Spurs (6th) in the loss column with 26 apiece. The Blazers cannot slip below either team but they'd like to remain at least tied, securing homecourt advantage in the event of a 4-5 matchup in the first round. Portland trails 3rd-place Memphis by 1 loss and 2nd-place Houston by 2.
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