Dr. Pepper used to advertise its Diet version with the slogan, "Tastes more like regular Dr. Pepper!" Perhaps the NBA should follow suit. Whatever version of the Sacramento Kings showed up to play the Portland Trail Blazers tonight did not taste a thing like the original. DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, Rajon Rondo, and Marco Belinelli all sat out under the nebulous designation of "rest". That left the Kings with an artificially-sweetened starting lineup of Darren Collison, Seth "Not That" Curry, Omri Casspi, Quincy Acy, and Kosta Koufos. Don't even ask who they brought off their bench. (OK, Willie Cauley-Stein was awesome, but you can tell that just by his cool name.) The result was an utterly predictable 105-93 victory for Portland which was nowhere near as close as the score sounds.
The story of this game was simple. Portland toyed with the Kings in the first period, playing almost no defense and letting them score at the rim off of drives and offensive rebounds. As a result, Sacramento's no-name lineup managed 32 points in the period. The Blazers made up for their defensive deficiencies by scoring 37 and taking the quarter comfortably.
Then Sacramento's bench checked in.
The Kings' first-rate lineup has managed only 29 wins this season. With the usual guys out, they started the second unit tonight with modest success. You can imagine what happened when the third string came in. The Blazers took advantage of turnovers, missed shots, and lousy defense to rattle off a 31-20 second period and take a 68-52 halftime lead.
How many Portland reserves an opponent has to guard in order to find success remains an open question. Some players off the Blazers' bench don't score very well. Even so, it's a good bet the answer is more than "zero". The Kings might want to take note.
When Portland won the third period 23-11 things got downright ugly. Leading 91-63 as that quarter came to a close, the Blazers put a new twist on being mean. They wouldn't even let Sacramento beat them in the "fielding the worst lineup of the evening" contest. Coach Terry Stotts satisfied Backup Quarterback Syndrome sufferers everywhere by inserting Pat Connaughton, Luis Montero, Cliff Alexander, Brian Roberts, and Noah Vonleh to play the latter half of the fourth. Portland lost the period 30-14 but it hardly mattered. The win had been in the bag since midway through the second.
As might be expected, every Portland player outside of that final, 8th-string quintet did well. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum attempted only 22 shots combined. (That total wouldn't be unusual for either of them singly.) Their 7-11 clip from long range led the Blazers to a 14-29, 49% evening from beyond the arc. This freed up the middle of the court for Maurice Harkless, Ed Davis, Gerald Henderson, and anybody else who cared to dive towards the rim. Portland scored only 28 points in the paint but they were authoritative points. Harkless had a reverse-spin dunk that has to be seen to be believed, and might not be believed even then.
The evening really belonged to Allen Crabbe, though. The Kings who remained standing after the Restpocalypse must have been too busy seeking bottled water and shelter to read the scouting report. They played off of Crabbe as if he, too, were going to spin and jam it down their throats. He did no such thing. Instead he drained 3 of 4 three-pointers on his way to an 8-10 evening, spitting 21 points of pure fire, tying Curry for high-scoring honors.
Crabbe's heroics would complete the story of this game were it not for one more note. As most of you know, 2000 less-privileged kids and their chaperons filled the Moda Center tonight because of donations from Blazer's Edge readers. I was told privately that it constituted a new record for such efforts, but that hardly matters (other than you all should feel good about it). The evening wasn't just about numbers, but hearts and opportunities.
Prior to the game, Lisa Swan, our amazing ticket agent with the Blazers (and an incredible representative of everything that's good in the organization) arranged for some of our kids to spend an hour shooting around on the Blazers' court. As an example, some of the participants tweeted this:
I was talking to one of the chaperons of that group as the kids played. He gave me plenty of hugs and thank-you's (Not very well deserved since you guys did it, not me. I accepted on your behalf though. Here's a hug for each of you... :::hug::: Pass it on.) Amid the hugs, he said something profound. "It's not tickets and kids. Each and every kid is a story." That's so true. We told 2000 stories tonight, or rather allowed those kids to tell their own story in a new way which now included, "Saw a Blazers game in person and watched them win!"
Walking around the arena concourse tonight I saw plenty of groups wherein dozens of young folks crowded around a few adults...sure signs of our ticket recipients. Some were older, some younger. There were boys and girls, big groups and small. The commonality between them all: everybody was laughing, smiling, or having a good time. You can guess how many opportunities like that come along in the lives of these kids or in the lives of people who work with them. That we were able to provide one more--to connect them to a larger group full of cheering and faith and love--made everything worth it.
Every year we get cards from the groups who attend. This year is no exception; they've started already. I'll share this one with you:
Just in case you can't read it fully, here's the text:
We've been dreaming of a day that we could see the Blazers play
We're so happy for your donation. We give you a standing ovation.
Our teacher asked us to "earn" the tickets by reading 500,000 minutes
80 of us worked together from September to the end of December
We met our goal and now we're here to support the Blazers with our cheers
McCollum, Aminu, Harkless, Plumlee...we hope you can hear us scream with glee
And to our favorite, Damian Lillard, we think your threes are really killer
Lindsay and the 7th graders of Walt Morey Middle School in Troutdale
We're not including a photo of it because some kids used their full names, but that card was signed by all of them.
And here's the aftermath...
You're welcome, Dad. And Lindsay. And everyone who got to go. It was our pleasure. If it's that simple to make a life a little brighter, count us in.
The 2000 stories created tonight are why we say thank you to everyone who donated tickets for this event and to everyone who came. Special thanks go out to Lisa Swan of the Trail Blazers and Dan Son, our tireless ticket coordinator who helps us organize the event every year.
Well done, all.
Don't miss former Blazer's Edger and current SI staffer Ben Golliver on the latest edition of the Blazer's Edge podcast.
Bonus Pic: Many of the Blazer's Edge staff were able to attend tonight's big even. Here we are in all our glory, populating the middle two rows of this picture. Those people in the deep background are likely some of the kids who came tonight.
With the win the Blazers further secure their hold on 6th place in the Western Conference playoff bracket. They're 1.5 games ahead of the 7th-place Utah Jazz, 2.5 ahead of 8th-place Houston and 9th-place Dallas.
The Blazers face the Boston Celtics on Thursday night.