I listen to a lot of 90s hip-hop. It might be from that, or the residual effects of my quite unpopular New Years' playlist why the glaring image I have repeating in my mind following Sunday's bounce-back victory in Denver is Eminem's sleazy faux-talk show persona, commandeering a television set to sarcastically beckon "Hi Kids! Do you like free throws?!"
Whether you're a fan of basketball's most fundamental shot or not, had the Blazers not came out on the winning end Sunday, the display would not have been very pleasing. Unlike the up-tempo and free-flowing 110-103 contest between the same two clubs back on Wednesday at the Moda Center, tonight's match-up had completely the opposite pace, largely influenced by 80 total free throws - that's right, eighty - on 34 fouls.
Both teams shot 'em, and both teams shot 'em poorly, with Portland barely getting the edge shooting 22/32 (69%) to Denver's 31/48 (65%).
Nevertheless, despite the peculiar flow (and atrocious FT%), the Blazers actually had a rather successful night offensively and looked competitive again following a listless performance against Utah on Thursday.
It was teased throughout the day that All-Star guard Damian Lillard would make his return to the lineup after being sidelined for the previous six contests with plantar fasciitis - it did not end up being case, as the Blazers continue to be cautious with the injury.
With no Lillard, CJ McCollum again was tasked with picking up the slack, and again he followed through. He set the tone early, mixing up dribble-drives along with his silky-smooth outside jumper for a balanced attack. He had seven points and three assists in the first quarter, nicely driving the offense.
When McCollum went out, it was a much different story - Allen Crabbe struggled with his shot for most of the first half and Mason Plumlee was rendered totally ineffective by the bigger and bulkier combination of Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic. Plumlee was held without a single rebound on the night and was consistently muscled out of the paint by the sizable duo.
With Wednesday still fresh on the mind, both coaches seemed determined to not get burned on the fast-break, and adjustments showed with the tempo. Guards were pressured on the inbound, bigs crashed boards and a majority of possessions took place in the half-court.
Personnel may have dictated some of the flow as well, as the Nuggets tonight had the services of Danilo Gallinari, who started and likely ate into the minutes of Will Barton, Denver's best transition playmaker. Barton, who had a monster game in the last meeting, suffered a bit of an off-night, missing 8 of 10 shots and scoring only five points.
Portland primarily matched up Gerald Henderson against Barton and he did his job well, hardly yielding any daylight to the shifty ex-Blazer.
After a slow opening period, the whistles started to flow. Portland picked up six fouls within less than two minutes, and it would prove to be telling for the remainder of night.
The officials called it tight, but that's not to say many of the calls were not earned. At times the Blazers were downright sloppy, leaning on ballhanders, reaching and conceding unforced turnovers which resulted in fouls to prevent giving up fast-breaks.
Denver didn't shoot particularly well but made up for it by dominating the offensive boards - at least for three quarters. Jokic, Nurkic and Kenneth Faried were all relentless crashing loose balls; usually Portland's specialty, and kept the Nuggets in the game while the Blazers shot the lights out.
Coach Stotts elected to give McCollum an extended rest during the second, holding him out until just about the 3:30 mark, and it looked to be a smart move. CJ re-entered and immediately went on a tear - scoring 11 points to close the half and give the Blazers a 61-56 lead heading into the locker room.
The hack-fest continued on - at one point 7 different Blazers had four fouls or more, and only nine had appeared in game. Luckily, Denver couldn't make Portland pay at the line.
It was in the fourth quarter where Stotts perhaps made the adjustment of the night - matching the Nuggets' larger, rebounding lineup with extended minutes for Noah Vonleh and Ed Davis. The paring was exceptional - as the two completely flipped the rebounding battle and suddenly gave the Blazers new life.
After not letting much go for the first 36 minutes, the officials finally let them play, and the fourth quarter was an entertaining and physical back-and-forth battle. I think by now we can pretty easily tell which style best suits this team.
Now seemingly every miss would have Davis or Vonleh's hand somewhere on it before it would hit the floor. Some back-tips even were sent with such authority they sailed right past the back lines and out of bounds - maybe a bit too much hustle, but the effect was contagious. Portland began the final period on a 7-0 run and never looked back.
Denver didn't have an answer for Crabbe and Henderson, who both suddenly caught fire. Henderson looked to be frustrated by a few non-calls he felt victim to, and used his anger proactively, canning back-to-back jumpers down the stretch extend the lead to nine and put the game away for good.
All-in-all, another good win without Dame and one that featured some all-around contributions.
CJ McCollum was The Man again, scoring 25 points and dishing 7 assists on 10-17 shooting. His only blemish might be his five turnovers, which is something he had been able to take care of up until this point during his stint as point guard. Still, it's not enough to detract much from another superb outing. He's getting more and more dangerous each day.
Gerald Henderson had one of his best games as a Blazer, scoring 19 points and playing some stiff defense against Will Barton. Also a team best +11 on the evening.
Allen Crabbe made only one field goal during the first half but came on strong during the fourth quarter - scoring 9 points with McCollum on the bench to help seal the game. He finished with 14.
Maurice Harkless was impressive during the first half, scoring 10 points mixing in outside shooting with some strong drives to the basket. He disappeared in the second half as Stotts went with a bigger lineup.
Al-Farouq Aminu had a quiet but effective night with 14 points,on 5-8 shooting. His three-point shot looked to be on-point and he's staying a bit more within himself with the ball in his hands. Although, he didn't do much to prevent Danilo Gallinari from going off (29 points).
Meyers Leonard played 22 minutes but only scored 7 points, as Denver accounted for him fairly well on the outside. He flashed again a nice two-dribble, spin-move foul-line fadeaway, which will continue to be an important weapon when teams chase him away from the three-point line.
It was good to see a strong night from Ed Davis again, who has been featured less in the lineup since his return from injury. He's proven that he's the team's best rebounder and a guy you can count on when the game gets physical. He scored 5 points and hauled down 9 big boards.
Links and Such
Denver Stiffs are probably thinking about the Broncos making the playoffs.
Blazers return home for the second leg of a back-to-back to host the Memphis Grizzlies Monday at 7 p.m.
We're planning on sending 2000 underprivileged kids to see the Blazers play the Sacramento Kings on March 28th and we need your help. You can 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.
PLEASE consider sending a child or two! Donations have been strong but we've had a LOT of requests and we're not to 2000 yet. Help if you can.
-- Ryan Rosback | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter