Given the Portland Trail Blazers’ proclivity for inconsistency and sporadic effort so far this season, tonight’s mundane 115-98 victory likely came as a relief for most Blazermaniacs. For once, nothing unexpected or frustrating distracted observers, and the Blazers casually out-executed an overmatched opponent.
The decisive turn came in the third quarter, when the Blazers outscored the Hornets 30-18 to establish an 18-point lead. Damian Lillard finished the game with 27 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists, and Allen Crabbe chipped in another 21, including a career-high tying 8 free throws.
One-time Blazer Nicolas Batum put up a nice stat line of 18 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists, but failed to significantly assert himself despite being covered by Lillard and CJ McCollum. Kemba Walker, who was selected by the coaches for the Eastern Conference all-star team, led the Hornets with 22 points.
Tonight’s result may look pretty, but the first quarter was anything but. The Blazers opened by missing their first eight shots before Lillard connected on a three-pointer three minutes into the game. The Hornets failed to capitalize on Portland’s poor shooting - both teams were content to jack up long jumpers and the Blazers lead only 15-14 with 3:45 to go in the quarter.
At that point Roy Hibbert, starting in place Cody Zeller, checked out. Despite moving about as well as Andre the Giant, Hibbert had impeded the Blazers inside scoring. His replacement, Spencer Hawes, did not protect the paint. Lillard, especially, drove relentlessly on Hawes. A three-pointer from Crabbe with 10:42 to go pushed the Blazers lead to 13, 37-24.
After trading baskets for several minutes, Batum and Walker started hitting and helped pull the Hornets to within 6 at the half (56-50).
The third quarter started as sloppily as the first - the two teams combined to shoot only 3-for-14 from the field over the first four minutes. And then McCollum took over - on three consecutive possessions McCollum drove on Batum and either found Mason Plumlee inside or nailed a shot. His last play of the sequence, an elbow jumper with 7:09 to go, stretched the lead to 65-52.
From there the Blazers defense dominated by shutting down any inside the paint offense from the Hornets. Plumlee and Vonleh chased Walker out of the paint on switches, and Lillard and McCollum did their part to harass Batum on the perimeter. Sprinkle in some offense from Lillard and the Blazers were in control.
The Blazers clinched the victory with 3:08 to go in the third: Meyers Leonard, fresh off the bench, sprung Lillard on a curl with a bone-crushing screen, and Dame used the daylight to knock down a triple. Blazers lead 78-60. From there the teams traded baskets en route to a 115-98 Portland win.
Much of the Blazers 2016-17 season has played out like an episode of The Walking Dead - repeated moments of gratuitous onscreen horror and braindead decisions from the protagonists have threatened to permanently alienate fans. But viewers keep tuning in waiting for the high-end promise of the show/team to materialize.
Tonight, however, the team looked like a police procedural: A competent (if unspectacular) plot executed reasonably well resulting in a generally satisfying conclusion.
Specifically, the players competently executed a gameplan that took away Charlotte’s strengths and maximized Portland’s advantages. The Hornets, for example are one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the league, but the Blazers thumped them on the boards. Portland lead the rebound battle 42-29 after three quarters, and finished with three players in double figures on the glass. In a game where both teams hovered below 40 percent shooting until the final period, the extra possession gave the Blazers a major advantage.
On offense the Blazers also identified weaknesses and repeatedly milked them for extra points. Crabbe used his insanely fast stop-on-a-dime jumpshot to draw multiple in-the-act fouls from Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, leading to his career high in free throw attempts. Lillard and McCollum honed in on the Zeller-sized hole in the Hornets’ defense and had no problem driving to the rim. Together, McCollum, Lillard, and Crabbe scored with ease, combining for 42 of the Blazers’ 56 points first half points.
On the other end, the Blazers continued their strong play that made them a top-10 defense for the month of January. The Hornets shot only 33-for-83 for the game (39.8 percent) and struggled to score for several long stretches. With most of the Hornets flagging from the outside, Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams shot a combined 4-four-14, the Blazers were able to pack the paint and prevent easy buckets.
McCollum, and to a lesser degree Lillard, also did a nice job of limiting Batum’s impact on the game. Meanwhile, Evan Turner either made Walker work for his points, or the Blazers bigs (e.g. Plumlee and Vonleh) jumped out on Walker before he could get a full head of steam and forced him to dribble around the perimeter. The defense on those two wasn’t always perfect, but holding Batum and Walker to 40 points while the rest of the Hornets struggled was more than sufficient to get the win.
In the end, this all added up to a rare routine wire-to-wire victory for the Blazers over a hapless opponent. Portland continued to build on the defensive promise it has shown over the last month, and rode their hottest players on offense to 115 points. Overall, tonight’s contest showed that the Blazers are continuing to trend upward.
With that said, it’s also important acknowledge an uncomfortable reality: Nobody’s every going to put a police procedural in the same class as The Wire or Breaking Bad. They can be fun entertainment for an hour, but ultimately the repetitive stories and shortcuts in the plot undermine any Emmy aspirations.
Similarly, while the Blazers won tonight, many of their season long faults were still on display. Despite the improved defense, several players, most notably Leonard, still fail at basic rotations. Opponents are left open too often for jump shots - Williams’ 1-for-7 effort from three alleviated that tonight. Against a more assertive player than Batum (sigh) playing McCollum and Lillard together tonight would have been impossible. And, perhaps most concerningly, the offense has taken a backslide (hovering around no. 20 for the month) and looks discombobulated at times. As Dave Deckard pointed out after the victory over the Celtics, and Dan Marang pointed out after the loss to the Warriors on Sunday, the Blazers have improved, but major flaws continue to limit their upside potential.
Mason Plumlee continues his dominance on the boards - 11 rebounds tonight. He also did a decent job chasing Frank Kaminsky out to the perimeter. Plumlee wasn’t needed as a playmaker, but had several nice cuts to the rim that resulted in points.
Noah Vonleh had 4 points and 10 rebounds. In the first half he looked intimidated by Roy Hibbert, but he came out with fire in his eyes in the second half and made a difference on the boards and defensively.
Evan Turner did his best to chase Walker around the perimeter, but was entirely absent on offense. Four points on 2-for-7 shooting and 3 assists in 22 minutes.
Al-Farouq Aminu also finished with 10 rebounds along with 7 points. He’s getting bolder with his ballhandling and drives to the basket. Sometimes that turns out well, other times it does not. With other players doing decently well on Batum, Aminu’s services were not really needed tonight. His poor three-point shooting (1-for-4) will continue to hamper his effectiveness in these types of games.
Meyers Leonard was hit or miss. He made some nice defensive plays, but also some boneheaded ones. His screens freed up offensive players on several occasions, but the Hornets also closed out on his glacially slow jumper.
Eric Griffith | @EricG_NBA | GoBlazers87@gmail.com
Blazer’s Edge Kids Night 2017
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