You can let that one soak in a little. Stretch your arms out, roll your neck a little, enjoy a beverage and enjoy the soft landing after the four-day plunge into mischief and madness. For now, all eyes are back on actual basketball. How sweet it is. Nectar-y, even.
This wasn’t Portland’s masterpiece, but it is a great example of a team buying into what they had been practicing during a break between games. Many team’s will come into games after a lengthy layoff looking rusty and out of rhythm — the Blazers did just that last week — but tonight they looked prepared and cohesive.
While the oft-used line about teams built around elite scorer’s is that you can afford to let them score, you just don’t want the “other guys” beating you, the Blazers went in the opposite direction. Where in games past they have relied on the, often very good, one-on-one defense of Nic Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge to stop Dirk Nowitzki — a strategy that worked more on a possession-by-possession basis than in the context of the entire night, Dirk being Dirk after all — Nate McMillan and Co. went the way of the kitchen sink, throwing zone looks, earnest double teams, fake double teams and general crisp rotations at Dirk all night.
Don’t focus on Dirk getting 15 points as a result, but on him getting 13 shots in 41 minutes. When you are dependent on isolated defenders stopping Nowitzki, you are counting on your defense getting him to miss shots. But when you limit his looks, you are counting on his teammates being less efficient than he would have been. This worked out alright for Dallas for some time, but relying on Caron Butler to hit jumpers after multiple-fakes and Brendan Haywood to capitalize on post-ups wasn’t sustainable. Butler had 25 points but didn’t score in the final 10 minutes, a stretch where Portland outscored Dallas 21-11.
In that last ten minutes, Dirk didn’t attempt a single field goal (two free throws). Digest that for a minute. In the last ten minutes of what was a two-point contest, a game that had playoff implications for both teams, Dallas’ best player didn’t get a single official shot in the air. That’s bloody well brilliant.
Schemes don’t win you games, however. The Blazers brought it, and they brought it hard (NSFW). Defensive rotations, that is. While Portland’s occasional zone struggled dealing with inbounders and, at times, backdoor cutters — typical shortcomings of the defense — they were Johnny on the Spot in terms of speed and perimeter awareness. The bigs swung out to stop shooters and the guards would stop paint cutters by sinking into the passing lane, but better yet the weakside defenders were playing the type of arms up, head-swiveling protection against ball movement that everything held together.
The Blazers might have had more impressive defensive nights statistically or with highlight-reel blocks and steals, but I don’t think we can find many better examples this season of them playing as a unit for such an extended period of time. If that was a preview of how they’ll play defense in the playoffs, then Blazer fans have reason to be hopeful about First Round victories.
The offense wasn’t equal to the efforts on the other end, but still solid. 112 points per 100 possessions isn’t much more than the 107 per 100 Dallas typically allows, but they were a tad more efficient than that taking into account Marcus Camby‘s 1-of-6 at the foul line. While the assists teetered off after 10 in the first quarter — 25 on 40 field goals in total — the rule of the open shooter applied for most of the night, give or take a couple third-quarter stretches of isolation offense.
Two things stuck out the most. One, that there was less settling for mid-range jumpers. It was still an issue, but when you have Camby passing up a free-throw line look to drive and get fouled, something is a little different. Secondly, the Blazers were passing up open looks in favor of even more efficient open looks. The best example of this came in the third quarter, when Aldridge had the ball on the left block and kicked out to Rudy Fernandez on the wing. Rudy faked, let the defender fly by and stepped in for a 18-foot look off one dribble that he doesn’t hit a high percentage of. Instead, Rudy swung the ball to the right wing, with the defense recovering to the left, where Batum was sitting open for three. The shot missed, but it was the best shot possible, and the sequence was not an isolated incident.
Portland is now tied with San Antonio at 10.5 games back — they hold the tie breaker — but are behind in percentage points due to a difference in total games played.
And those of you that were at the game, well done representing for Kevin Pritchard with the signs and chants. You did your city, and your fellow fans, proud.
Batum was effective defensively both in his minutes on Dirk and as a help defender, not only for his two come-from-behind blocks that have now seemingly infected Brandon Roy‘s consciousness like the Borg . . . Roy only took seven shots as he dealt with added defensive attention, but he made five shots and had seven assists and came through with five minutes to go when Nate finally called his one-on-one number . . . Aldridge looked better than 20-10-5. The passing numbers raise your eyebrows a little but his rebounding was exceptional, especially out of the zone looks which are notoriously tough to finish possessions with. Dallas only had seven offensive boards all night, and credit goes to Aldridge and Camby . . . Andre Miller ran the offensive show with 19-10 and, on this night, looked like a better point guard than Jason Kidd . . . Rudy shot 2-of-6 but probably had his fair share of hockey assists . . . Juwan Howard slowed down the zone in the first half, but actually cut off Dirk from getting to his spot a couple times to make up for it . . . Solid shifts for Jerryd Bayless (eight minutes) and Martell Webster (10 minutes) each, Bayless showing good clock awareness at the end of the first quarter to get a layup with 0.1 on the clock, and Webster running an effective fast break immediately after finishing one off with a driving layup.