The Portland Trail Blazers faced a tough prospect tonight when the Charlotte Hornets came to town. Charlotte's 22-24 record, 6-16 on the road, didn't reflect the potential pitfalls that awaited the home team. The Hornets take and make as many three-pointers as the Blazers do. They've got tough rebounders, a sparkly point guard, and small forward Nicolas Batum was returning to face the only team he ever suited up for before this season. Plus the Hornets were getting a boost in the perimeter defense and self-confidence departments as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was slated to play his first game of the year after returning from a shoulder injury. Besides, who could forget the 105-94 pasting the Hornets hung on the Blazers on November 15th, a game in which Batum scored a season-high 33 points while his former team looked impotent?
Apparently the Blazers could forget it, and a lot of other things besides. The Hornets played tough tonight, frustrating Portland early with three-point shots and good defense, but the Blazers handled the situation with aplomb. They waited out Charlotte's hot streak, trusted in the ability of their guards to score, and fought tooth-and-nail in the paint. When the dust cleared the Blazers had earned a comfortable 109-91 win and another step forward in their quest towards respectability.
The Hornets looked like they would take control of this game early. Kidd-Gilchrist and company did an admirable job shutting down Portland guard CJ McCollum, forcing the 20-point scorer to miss all 6 of his first-quarter attempts. Charlotte clogged up the key on both ends, content with a battle of attrition in which both teams attempted precarious passes and crowded shots in the lane. Meanwhile the Hornets made 5 three-pointers in 8 attempts, a rate the Blazers couldn't match. Murmurs of, "Uh-oh" started rippling through the Blazers faithful.
Even so, Portland exposed a weakness which would plague Charlotte throughout the evening, ultimately proving fatal. The Hornets couldn't keep their starters in all the time. When the second units started to filter in, Charlotte's scoring power evaporated. This made whatever defense (or lack thereof) the Blazers chose to play immaterial. The opponent was going to miss shots. If the Blazers could rebound, they'd be in business. Anyone who's seen the Blazers play this season knows that rebounding is one of their strongest features. Business was good.
Meanwhile Portland suffered little or no scoring drop-off with their second unit as Allen Crabbe proved just as dangerous as Damian Lillard and McCollum. Meyers Leonard played strong offense as well, keeping defenders on a yo-yo string with distance shots and step-ins.
With Charlotte's offense falling off a cliff and their defense futilely chasing crustaceans and 7-foot jump shooters , the Blazers bench made up for the early shortfall. They closed within 25-21 despite Charlotte's torrid three-point shooting. As the second period opened a suddenly Kidd-Gilchristless McCollum blew the doors off the joint with 5 points and 2 assists in a little over 3 minutes of play. After that the floodgates were open. Lillard, McCollum, and Crabbe would shoot a combined 23-50 for the game, scoring 59 points. Their Charlotte counterparts settled for 11-39. Cue the sad trombone.
With the backcourt demanding so much attention, Portland's big men had a field day against rotating defenders. The starting frontcourt combined for 11 offensive rebounds and 36 points. The former number isn't wholly surprising, though it should be noted that Charlotte is a very good defensive rebounding team. Three dozen points is half again what Mason Plumlee, Noah Vonleh, and Al-Farouq Aminu average. Charlotte's defense is pretty good, but they had no hope of handling a five-pronged attack plus a capable bench.
As a result the Blazers turned their 5-point first-quarter deficit into a 5-point halftime lead. They kept their foot on the gas in the second half, repeating their earlier experiments with better results. The Hornets never recovered their three-point shooting mojo and the Blazers never stopped running, rebounding, and attacking the lane. An 18-point win against a fairly capable opponent was the result.
The Blazers should be proud of this win. They responded to adversity with unhurried, energetic play. It was as professional of an effort as we've seen from them this year, hearkening back to 2014-15 more than the early months of 2015-16. When their initial advantages didn't play out, they just pumped the well harder and it worked.
Note that "pumping harder" didn't mean throwing up more three-point shots...a bad habit when the Blazers fall behind. The Blazers attempted a relatively modest 20 threes. Instead of relying on the long ball they played the defense against itself. Kidd-Gilchrist and Nicolas Batum are long and rangy, but not quick. They can close on three-point shooters. Their arms are hard for shorter guards to shoot over in single-man defense. Instead of stepping back and bombing, Portland's guards took their bigger defenders to the rack, making each play about lateral quickness instead of length. Bingo! The Blazers scored in the paint, everybody shot a high percentage, and rebounds fell like rain into Portland's hands.
As is their wont at home, the Blazers played up-tempo tonight. 16 Charlotte turnovers helped the cause. The Blazers gave back some of those but still scored 17 on the break, 21 off of miscues. What do you do when a defense is bigger (and in many ways better)? Score before they get there.
The Blazers play bad games. The Blazers lack energy sometimes. But Portland seldom plays a dumb game. They know the opponent's weaknesses and they have the versatility to exploit them. It was worth a nice "W" tonight.
Mason Plumlee was active in this game from the opening minutes and never stopped. You can tell when he's ready to take over the floor and when he's just playing along. Tonight was one of the former occasions. He dominated the always-critical Exclamation Point Ratio on the game notes that form the basis for these recaps. When a player makes an usual contribution (or unusual for him, anyway) I note it with an exclamation point. Plumlee owned 80% of those tonight, and that's with a Lillard dunk and a McCollum drive getting triple exclamation points each. Plumlee darted around both ends of the floor and his transition play was sharp. 13 points, 12 rebounds (6 offensive), 5 assists, 2 blocks, and 2 steals. This may have been his finest game all year.
CJ McCollum scored the fewest points of the Big Three guards, shooting 7-16 for 17 total. He was the barometer, though. Charlotte decided they were going to take out one leg of Portland's dynamic duo. They forgot that it was a trio and they didn't have enough defensive chutzpah to contain McCollum for 48 minutes anyway. The Blazers suffered when CJ's offense lagged. As soon as he broke through Charlotte was out of options.
Damian Lillard stayed quiet early, ducked his head in when it looked like the team needed him, then marched triumphantly through the second half like Santa Claus coming at the end of the parade with gifts for all the good girls and boys. He scored 22 on 9-19 shooting with 6 assists, 5 rebounds, and 3 steals. Kemba Walker has given him a hard time in the past but Damian repaid him tonight in spades.
A fast-paced game with plenty of inside play suited Al-Farouq Aminu well. He committed no turnovers, shot 7-13, scored 17, poked away 2 steals, and grabbed 12 rebounds.
Noah Vonleh, on the other hand, found the same happy opportunities with the running game that Aminu did. He may not have been better than his Charlotte counterparts but he was faster and more athletic. He shot 3-6 for 6 points and 6 rebounds in 19 minutes.
Allen Crabbe played 32 minutes off the bench tonight, destroying the Hornets with 20 points on 7-15 shooting. He was just as tall as his defenders and his game was altered least by their presence.
Meyers Leonard scored 9 points on 4-6 shooting. The Hornets had clearly been schooled about closing out on his three-point shot so he faked it and stepped in for the relatively easy two. Smart. Also smart: 4 assists.
Ed Davis had a relatively pedestrian 4 rebounds in 19 minutes. Gerald Henderson shot 1-6, proving there's one in every crowd.
The Blazers went with a 9-man rotation tonight...perhaps a preview of their playoff plans?
Links and Such
Blazers fans will be relieved to hear that the Nicolas Batum who scored 33 back in November was nowhere to be found tonight. Batum shot 1-11, scoring 3 points. See if this sounds familiar. He became so focused on passing the ball instead of shooting that the offense became predictable and Portland's defense keyed in on it. Batum did net 8 assists but they were paired with 6 turnovers. I'll just quote comedian Chris Rock as he described the white tiger attacking Roy Horn of the famous Las Vegas stage act Siegfried and Roy: "People say that tiger went crazy. That tiger didn't go crazy. That tiger went tiger!" People will say that Batum played poorly. That Batum didn't play poorly. That Batum played like Batum.
At The Hive will be happy about Kidd-Gilchrist's play, but not about the result.
We are sending 2000 underprivileged kids to the March 28th Trail Blazers-Kings game! Time is running short. We have only a couple weeks left to reach that goal. PLEASE celebrate tonight's win by providing tickets to those kids so they can get the same great experience we do. It's easy! Just donate tickets to the cause through this link:
Promo Code: BLAZERSEDGE
Ticket Costs range from $7-13 (There is a $5 processing fee per order.)
You can also call our ticket rep, Lisa Swan, directly at 503-963-3966. You will need to indicate to her that you are donating the tickets you order to Blazer's Edge Night.
We're counting on you, Blazers fans!