When I was a kid we had a Siamese cat who loved to go outside. We prefer our cats to stay indoors but the little guy longed for fresh air so much that we used to put him in a harness and take him out for walks. He loved doing this, particularly when we visited the Mt. Tabor reservoir near our home in Portland, Oregon.
One sunny afternoon we were walking Kitty around the reservoir path when we spied a short man with a large German Shepherd coming our way from the opposite direction. I looked at my mom and she looked at me, concerned. The path was narrow and the guy was moving fast. There was no practical way to avoid the encounter. I picked up Kitty and held him in my arms, praying that our stroll wouldn’t end with him becoming a glorified Lunchable.
Our worst fears came true as the man approached and we realized his huge dog was not on a leash. I froze in place and said a silent prayer, holding Kitty tighter as it charged up to see what I had in my arms. Just as its face got level with us, my cat lifted up his head, looked down at the intruder with disdain, and smacked it right on the nose with its very declawed front paws. Instead of barking or biting, that huge German Shepherd whimpered, turned around, and ran right back to its owner. The cat settled back in my arms and looked up at me as if to say, “Ready to go?” I shook my head and we continued our walk without further incident.
The Sacramento Kings are hardly the war dogs of the Western Conference, but with them on a four-game winning streak, the Portland Trail Blazers having lost six straight, DeMarcus Cousins throwing his weight around nightly, and Damian Lillard in street clothes, they looked awfully German Shepherdish as they bounded into the Moda Center tonight. Like a cat curled up in the arms of their fans, the Trail Blazers stared down Cousins and the Kings, bopped them right on the nose, and walked out of the arena with a 102-89 win. In the bigger perspective it was no big deal, but given the circumstances it was quite the victory.
Anyone watching the first half of this game without the context of Portland’s recent play would have wondered what all the fuss was about. The Blazers handled the Kings competently, executing with energy and intelligence. After both teams exchanged a barrage of mid-range shots in the opening minutes, Portland settled down into a recitation of their Greatest Offensive Hits. Mason Plumlee and CJ McCollum triggered the attack, McCollum threatening off the perimeter dribble while Plumlee set screens and operated in the center of the court. Together they anchored a multi-threat offense that yielded three-pointers or dunks. When the Blazers missed, their bigs fought for offensive rebounds. Everything Portland wanted, they got. Superb use of screens provided an extra bonus, enough to propel the Blazers to twin 30-point quarters and a 60-point total at the half.
Aside from perfect picks (and the absence of Lillard) 60 points from the Blazers at intermission wasn’t that unusual. Allowing just 44 points to Sacramento during the same span was. Portland’s Defensive Plan A wasn’t original but it proved effective. They double-teamed DeMarcus Cousins, forcing other players to pick up the slack. Cousins did his best to facilitate, ringing up teammates for potential assists off of open shots. Most of them sent his calls straight to voice mail. Rudy Gay didn’t suit up. The next two leading scorers after Cousins were Garrett Temple with 14 and Matt Barnes with 13. That wasn’t going to cut it. Portland spent half the night closing effectively on shooters and the other half watching those same shooters miss anyway. Getting back in transition proved a bonus, taking away Sacramento’s chance to sneak into the contest. Portland held a 60-44 lead at the half and didn’t look intent on giving it up.
And surprise...they didn’t! The Kings shaved off a few points from the lead but were never able to threaten seriously in the second half. Both teams settled into a grinding slop-fest of a third quarter, mustering 19 and 15 points respectively. Since they were protecting a lead, that suited Portland fine.
As the game wound down the Kings tried to come back from the arc. Those points never materialized. Cousins, in particular, seemed infatuated with the perimeter and allergic to the paint. The Blazers spent the closing minutes praying he wouldn’t wake up. He hit a couple buckets but it wasn’t enough. He failed to bruise Portland in the lane. His teammates couldn’t hit open shots when the Blazers overplayed towards him. First the Kings ran out of will, then they ran out of clock. Portland’s 13-point victory ended up fairly comfortable and certainly well-earned.
What magic formula allowed the Blazers a victory tonight when wins have otherwise been rare?
- They picked a defensive plan, stuck to it, and played hard on most every possession. They didn’t have big lulls.
- They played a team with one scorer, making the choice and execution of said plan so obvious that even a Caveman could do it.
- Mason Plumlee and Meyers Leonard helped lead the charge on both ends. Neither one of them revealed anything new; they are who they are. But they played their games with confidence and purpose, causing Sacramento to at least think about them. Too often Portland’s non-Lillard/McCollum players have let themselves become deferential afterthoughts. Plumlee rebounded and passed while Leonard shot aggressively. Neither sucked. That was enough to keep defenders close to them, freeing up the rim for Portland’s forwards to cut, which kept the perimeter players in single coverage (or wide open), which kept Sacramento’s defense chasing all game long. The Blazers not only opened cracks tonight, they exploited them with multiple players.
- Speaking of bigs...Portland REBOUNDED. 5 offensive boards is a sparse number but they threatened on multiple possessions, keeping the Kings from taking rebounds for granted and running out (one of the ways in which Sacramento could have manufactured points to make up for their general lack of scoring power). Also the Blazers kept the Kings off the offensive glass, allowing only 6 offensive rebounds. At no point did Sacramento control the bucket or the lane, ergo at no point did they control the game.
- Screens! Screens! Screens! Portland set and used them really well in this game. That’s not their usual M.O. This was the hidden key to victory.
- The Blazers also got back in transition, often with three men against a single Sacramento dribbler. This may have been more symbolic than determinative but that symbolism was huge for a team whose defense ranks at the bottom of the league. They’d let the Kings get points tonight but they wouldn’t let those points come easy.
- Cousins didn’t help by staying outside all night long. 11 of his 19 shots came from the free-throw line or beyond. Portland’s defense was partially responsible, but he also didn’t seem to be trying that hard to get inside until it was too late. 28 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists is a nice line but Boogie wasn’t his usual dominant self.
- Shooting 47% from the floor and 48% from the arc sure didn’t hurt Portland’s chances. Again, remember that was with Lillard in street clothes...not something to be taken for granted.
Mason Plumlee was Mr. Everything for the Blazers tonight. His screens were solid and well-timed, as was his passing. He kept in front of Cousins and contained him long enough for help to arrive...a far more realistic goal than is usually put on him playing Sacramento and one he achieved well. Plumlee led the rebounding attack with 14 and scored 12 on 4-6 shooting besides.
Meyers Leonard scored 16, chiefly by hitting 3 of 6 three-pointers, and stepped up when the Blazers needed him on both ends. He wasn’t as consistent as Plumlee but he was aggressive and confident. That is GOOD to see.
Maurice Harkless hit 5-7 shots, 2-3 triples, becoming the antithesis of Sacramento’s supporting cast members. When the Blazers needed him to hit an open jumper, he was there. Plus he finished a pretty alley-oop and helped close on perimeter shooters on the other end.
Ditto Al-Farouq Aminu whose 7 rebounds and close-out defense helped leave Cousins on an island.
Allen Crabbe surfaced from his funk tonight, bowling strikes with his jump shot and keeping the Kings off balance thereby. 4-8 shooting, 3-4 from distance, 13 points.
You know the supporting cast did well when we’re six players in before mentioning CJ McCollum. He did well enough as a point guard, matching 7 assists against 2 turnovers and keeping his head up through the offensive sets. His shot was off (6-18, 2-6 from range) but Sacramento concentrated on him to try and throw the Blazers. He didn’t rattle and it didn’t work.
Evan Turner shot 5-8 for 11 points with 6 rebounds and 4 assists. His 5 turnovers accounted for 1⁄3 of Portland’s total but he looked like a fish in water as Sacramento’s defense broke down around him and he was left to manufacture points and plays.
Even the odds-and-ends guys had good nights tonight. Noah Vonleh got around the floor for 3 rebounds, a block, and a steal in 17 minutes and looked more in tune with his environment than usual. Shabazz Napier viewed Lillard’s absence as permission to shoot (appropriately so) and contributed 6 points on a pair of three-pointers in 13 minutes.
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SactownRoyalty will be disappointed with this result.
The Trail Blazers will have their new-found unity tested on Friday night at 5:30 Pacific as they face the San Antonio Spurs in Texas.
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