The happiest road trip of the season rolled on in fine fashion for the Portland Trail Blazers tonight as they pounded the New York Knicks 104-85. That the Blazers beat the hapless Knicks isn't surprising. That the victory brought a 3-0 start to this long, late-season road trip is slightly more so. Never has a 33-28 record been more significant to this franchise. With the win the Blazers assure themselves of no less than a .500 finish to this critical road stretch and an absolutely fine shot at making the post-season. In a crowded field of mediocre teams trying to secure a bottom-bracket position, the Blazers are proving themselves a notch above average...a fantastic accomplishment.
In the two previous games of this trip, Damian Lillard removed all mystery from the proceedings by posting huge first-quarter totals. No 15- or 20-point explosion would be forthcoming in this one. Instead the first period became an extended feeling-out process. The Blazers began the game with the ultra-questionable strategy of letting non-guards shoot jumpers. Noah Vonleh provided the only relief from painful misery, putting home a couple of offensive rebounds. (But he also contributed to the perimeter clank-fest.) As the period progressed the Knicks tried to post up smaller Blazers defenders. Portland returned the favor by using quickness to jet into the lane. Lillard scored 6 points late, helping Portland finish the quarter strong and staking them to a 27-25 lead.
The second unit seemed to pick up on the trend early in the second period, scoring nicely in the paint. But as the minutes ticked off they drifted farther to the perimeter with decidedly mixed results. (As in, "bird poop mixed with Brussels sprouts".) Once again an offensive rebounder came to the fore, this time Ed Davis. But the game remained back-and-forth until Lillard checked in for his end-of-half shift. As it turned out, "end of half" pretty much equated to "end of the game" as Lillard poured in three triples in short order. The Knicks have some of the smartest fans in the universe and at a certain point, they went mum for their own team and started applauding Lillard for reminding them what actual basketball looks like. Portland led 58-50 at the half.
Any aspirations of a New York comeback died as CJ McCollum rumbled through the arena like a subway train in the third. While the Knicks were busy keeping a lid on Lillard, McCollum hit 6 shots for 13 points. The wind went out of New York's sails. All that remained to the New York faithful was chanting wildly for Coach Kurt Rambis to insert 10-day-contract refugee Jimmer Fredette. With 3 minutes remaining in the game, he did. Fredette hit 4 free throws but the game was long over. The 19-point win earned a huge thumbs up from former Blazer Robin Lopez as he exited the court and left another jewel in Portland's crown.
They're the Knicks. What are you going to do?
Maybe that's not the complete story, but it's awfully close. Despite starting the evening with the ostensible game plan of using size to bull their way to easy shots, New York finished 37.5% from the field, 28.6% from the arc. Plus they only drew 18 foul shots, a third of those coming in the last 2 minutes of the game. The Knicks couldn't build a rebounding advantage over the Blazers and Portland doubled them up in blocked shots. All the stats that you'd suspect would go to a bigger team either ended up tied or went to the Blazers. Plus Portland hit their shots (42% overall but 40% from distance).
Carmelo Anthony had a good night, shooting 10-20 for 23 points and 10 rebounds. The Blazers will take that, though. He didn't score a lot of extra points: no three-pointers and only 3 free throws. Aron Afflalo, also using his size against smaller defenders, shot 6-9 but he only scored 13. It was the same story as Carmelo: no extra points to his game. Repeat the story for Robin Lopez, who hit 4 of 5 but only managed 8 points. Beyond those three, the Knicks section of the boxscore features a bunch of 0-fer and 2-fer efforts. Whatever your perceived advantages are, when they only result in 85 points they didn't matter.
Credit once again goes to Al-Farouq Aminu for his defensive game. Tonight he was joined by both of Portland's starting guards. Lillard and McCollum didn't take chances and didn't get out of position, even when a switch-heavy defensive scheme left them matched up against bigger opponents. New York's utter lack of ball handling kept them from driving into the lane, which helped. Portland's backcourt only had to deal with stationary players. But they still manned up against those players and kept the scoring attempts hard, so full marks there.
The Knicks barely weathered Damian Lillard's 8-18, 30-point performance. While they were reeling, CJ McCollum's 10-19, 25-point night took them out. If Portland's guards got to defend stationary players, New York's defenders had no such luck. Time and again Lillard and McCollum made like slippery eels, evading coverage and earning layups or trips to the foul line. Give them an inch and they'll take a mile; give them half a step and they'll take you out.
Meyers Leonard had a particularly impressive evening, playing reasonably well on defense and taking advantage of the Knicks all but leaving him alone on the perimeter. He shot 4-8, 3-5 from distance, for 11 points. He got a little silly with his hands, picking up 5 personal fouls in 25 minutes.
The lithe and active Ed Davis also prospered in this game, shooting 4-4 for 8 points and 9 rebounds. He was one of the few Portland bigs who never got caught up in ill-advised shots.
Mason Plumlee remained active on defense and blocked a couple of shots...his standout moments of the evening.
The bigger Portland guards didn't fare as well, with Allen Crabbe shooting 2-7 and Gerald Henderson 2-8. Other than the offensive rebounds, Noah Vonleh had a tough night.
Moe Harkless got back into the rotation with 5 points and 2 assists in 13 minutes of play.
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Posting and Toasting has been through this before.
The Blazers face the Boston Celtics tomorrow at 4:30 p.m. Pacific. That test is a little tougher but the Celtics like to run. Could the Blazers out-sprint them to four in a row?