In the NBA there are no "must win" games outside of the last week of the season. That said, tonight's contest between the Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks came as close as you can get as far as the Blazers were concerned. Dallas owned a 2-0 series lead coming into the evening, having secured the tiebreaker between the two teams with a victory on Sunday afternoon. The opponents were separated by only half a game in the standings. Had the Mavericks prevailed they would have pulled ahead of Portland in the Western Conference playoff race and the Blazers would have spent the next few weeks trying to leapfrog them, trying to stay above the yawning, 9th-place pit that will swallow a playoff hopeful in April. That didn't happen. Instead Portland rode good defense, a monster performance from Ed Davis, and free throws to a 109-103 win, finally proving they could beat Dallas and holding on to the 6th spot in the West accordingly.
The evening opened with a new wrinkle for the Blazers; Moe Harkless started at power forward in place of Noah Vonleh. Dirk Nowitzki made everybody nervous about the changed matchup when he canned a couple jumpers in the opening minutes but he'd end up with a 9-16, 21 point total for the game. That's a good line, but hardly the 40-point tour de force he displayed Sunday. Harkless would shoot 5-13 for 14 points. That doesn't look overly impressive on paper, but consider:
1. Harkless' 14 left Nowitzki only a 7-point edge.
2. Portland's small-ball lineup was more successful getting around the court and sticking close to Dallas shooters, including Dirk. The Mavs committed an uncharacteristic 5 turnovers in the first period alone on their way to 17 total.
3. 14 points is roughly 18 times what Vonleh averages.
All in all, the move was a success.
Also highly successful: Ed Davis in the first half. Phys Ed made the Mavericks look like children, beasting on the glass and scoring off of the ensuing putbacks. He'd finish with 9 rebounds and 16 points on 6-7 shooting in just 21 minutes of play. When he took the court every loose ball belonged to him. No arguments.
Even with unexpected forwards prospering the Blazers couldn't shake their problems entirely. Deron Williams and JJ Barea made hash of the Blazers in the middle portions of the first half and Wesley Matthews went plum loco as the second quarter waned. The former Blazer alternated between three-point shooting and posting smaller defenders on his way to a 22-point outing, 6-10 from distance. For all the strategy changes and heroics, guard defense continued to plague the Blazers. Portland led 28-26 after one and 57-53 at the half. Like an off-brand mid-sized sedan, the margin was nice, but hardly comfortable, and you never knew when it might break down.
Any delusions the Mavericks might have harbored about bullying their way into another win got blown away in a third period in which the Blazers showed poise and grit beyond their years.
On Sunday Dallas center Salah Mejri had an out-sized influence on the game: scoring, rebounding, and intimidating Portland into tentative shots in the lane (or no shots at all). Mejri scored and rebounded well tonight, proving once again the Blazers are incapable of dealing with talented players over 7 feet tall. But his defense didn't materialize in the same way. Instead of shying away and retreating to comfortable three-point attempts, Portland probed and dished, moved the defense, then struck quickly into the lane for conversions that the bigger, slower Mavericks couldn't catch up to. Most everybody expects the Blazers to score; few expect those points to come easily and in the lane. That's exactly what happened in the second half.
The Blazers flipped the script on the other end of the court too, packing the lane and rebounding with ferocity. They all but dared the Mavericks to shoot outside. Matthews flourished against that defense; everybody else crumbled. Dallas guards who had converted simple 2-footers in the first half now found 22-footers spraying off all sides of the rim. Just as importantly, Dallas' flow of free throws slowed to a trickle while Portland's remained strong. Matthews' marksmanship and a few Portland turnovers kept the Mavs from going under but the Blazers led by 10, 83-73, after the third.
The pro-Portland trend continued through the early parts of the fourth quarter. Dallas' paint defense alternated between fairly poor and downright rotten. The Blazers kept the Mavericks from easy shots on the other end. Occasionally a miscue or three-pointer would pull Dallas back within 7 or 8 but within a couple possessions later the Blazers would stretch the lead to double-digits again. Nowitzki's shots were good--the Blazers still had no firm answer for him--but they came too infrequently, usually after contested passes.
Slowing Dallas' ball movement and dribble attacks half of a tick was enough to turn a matchup that has gone into overtime twice this season into a regulation win for Portland. Because the Blazers are congenitally incapable of putting away any team until the final horn--let alone the thorn-in-their-side Mavericks--Dallas went on a late game run that took the margin down to 2 possessions. Portland overcame by converting intentional-foul free throws. With the initial margin healthy, foul shooting was enough to keep the Mavs at bay and secure the 6-point victory.
Having suffered defeat at Dallas' hands twice already this season, the onus was on Portland to make changes tonight. They did. Starting Harkless is the kind of move you'd see in Game 3 of a playoff series and the Blazers played accordingly. Dallas wanted to make the game about size and physicality. The Blazers made it about mobility and energy, both of which they displayed willingly and often.
The Blazers won because they brought out an aggression that the Mavericks lacked. Twice this season Dallas has run smart marathons with Portland, drafting behind and letting the Blazers expend themselves with strong kicks, then cruising to pass in the final legs of the race. That approach suited Dallas' age and their veteran sensibilities. Tonight the Blazers took the lead as usual, but they never let Dallas pass. Every time the Mavs crept up, Portland ran a little harder. They made Dallas look older and more ground-bound, not smarter.
The paint became the arena in which Portland's aggression was displayed. Davis was incredible. He took the brunt of Dallas' physical challenge and gave back far more than he absorbed. But Portland's point guards and wings deserve credit too. Portland's 27 three-point attempts were just about average for them. (The percentage was lower...7 makes for a 26% rate.) But they didn't hoist a lot of threes off the dribble, or even off single passes, tonight. They made the Mavericks move laterally and defend inside. Lane probing became the equivalent of body blows sapping the opponent's energy. The knockout head-shot threes never came for the Blazers, but when the bell rang for the 15th round the Mavericks didn't have enough energy to complete their own comeback. Dallas' guards looked spent and their shots didn't fall.
The Blazers did a masterful job of reminding Dallas that the same strengths that bring them victory (size, experience, knowledge that the Blazers like to shoot threes) can be turned into weaknesses. Talent is the foundation of any strong effort, but this game centered around brains and drive.
As expected when these teams meet, most stats ended up relatively even, including the final score. Two deserve underlining.
1. Committing 17 turnovers is unusual for the Mavericks. They take care of the ball better than anybody in the league. Portland's defense had something to do with it but the turnovers--especially early in the game--also reflected the different approaches between the teams. Dallas played more lackadaisically, like they had the game in hand already. The Blazers played with verve that never quite bordered on desperation, but also never had to.
Dallas gives up 7.5 steals per game normally, a fairly low number. The Blazers poke away 6.5 steals, even lower. Portland had 12 steals tonight.
2. The Blazers shot 22-25 from the foul line. 6 of those attempts were possession-induced, coming in the game's final minute. Still, the Mavericks only shot 11 free throws, hitting 10. 3 of those came on an "oopsie" foul with 12 seconds remaining; for most of the game the Mavs were stuck on 8 foul shot attempts. Dallas fans are going to scream about that. Their players and coaches would agree; they drew a pair technical fouls for harping on the refs tonight on their way to 4 for the evening. But the Blazers were the aggressors most of the evening, especially early in each half. Portland set the tone and the whistles followed.
Besides...25 free throws - 6 intentional - 3 (preventable) techs = 16 "regular" attempts for Portland. That doesn't look quite so bad against 11 for Dallas.
Ed Davis was filthy tonight. 16 points, 5 offensive rebounds, 9 total rebounds, 3 steals, and 2 assists against 3 turnovers and 3 personal fouls in 21 minutes. He was taking this game and nobody was getting it back from him. Dallas didn't know how to handle him. When they played finesse he bulled over them. When they got physical he liked it even better. Remember that demi-lich at the end of Tomb of Horrors that just got stronger the more you hit him? Of course you don't, but that was Ed Davis tonight anyway.
Moe Harkless demonstrates how to be a veteran in this league even though he's 22 and only in his fourth season. Moe's been in and out of the lineup all year. He's had a few bad games but mostly when he's been inserted, he's played well. He could be forgiven for thinking he hasn't gotten enough time or a fair chance to prove himself. But every time he takes the court, he's trying to make a difference. Given the starting nod tonight he put on his track shoes and proceeded to scuff up the floor. He missed all 4 of his three-point attempts but scored 14 points anyway with a block and a steal in 25 minutes.
Despite Portland's commitment to get to the rim, Al-Farouq Aminu had a rotten 3-12 evening from the floor. He didn't repeat his 12-three-point-attempt effort from Sunday's game but he did shoot 7, missing all but one. How do you make up for that? How about 10 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 2 steals in 36 minutes? Someday the Blazers may need a more offensively-reliable small forward but they will never, ever get tired of what Aminu is bringing them this season.
Oh yeah...the starting guards played too. Damian Lillard shot 9-19, 4-9 from distance for 27 points plus 6 rebounds and 6 assists. He also committed a glaring 7 turnovers. CJ McCollum struggled through a 5-14, 14-point performance. Keep in mind that Dallas' main focus on defense is to keep Portland's guards under wraps. They seem willing to sacrifice almost anything to do it. That's usually a sound strategy. Tonight the supporting cast played well enough to make them regret it. That's the story more than any guard deficiencies.
Mason Plumlee tallied 10 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals, and 2 blocks. As we noted above, Mejri had another good night with 14 points and 12 rebounds. But Dallas' center also had 4 turnovers. Again, the Blazers made athleticism and energy count over size in this one. The Plumlee-Mejri matchup is one of the main exhibits.
Allen Crabbe had a quiet night with 6 points, a steal, and a block in 21 minutes. He attempted only 4 shots, hitting both of his three-pointers.
Gerald Henderson looked at a Mavs defense committed to stopping the three-point shot and said, "Okey doke." He took the ball into the mid-range or post and earned 10 points because of it.
If you're counting, that's 7 Blazers in double figures. Nice.
Links and Such
Watch CJ McCollum and Deron Williams get into it after McCollum grabs Williams' leg on a jumper.
Mavs Moneyball will be talking about the refs tonight.
The Trail Blazers' 37-35 record keeps them in 6th place in the West, 1.5 games ahead of 7th-place Dallas and 8th-place Utah. The Rockets fell to 9th place with a loss tonight and sit 2 games behind the Blazers.
Portland will face the Los Angeles Clippers in the Staples Center Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. Pacific.