The regular season is upon us, and that was most evident in the middle of the fourth quarter of tonight’s season opener. With the Suns hanging around, riding great games from ageless guys Steve Nash and Jason Richardson, the Blazers were playing with four guards on the floor, and a missed jump shot by Hedo Turkgolu fell into the hands of Jared Dudley who was not being blocked out by anybody. It was one of only seven offensive rebounds for the visiting team on the night, and Dudley easily knocked down the resulting 17-footer. A week ago, in the preseason, it would have been disappointing to see Portland giving up offensive boards, failing to finish a defensive play, and letting a team they should be running away from take a late lead, but it wouldn’t have felt like the season was on the brink of falling apart.
Phoenix’s largest lead in the fourth quarter was only six, and although Portland didn’t look great throughout the course of the evening, they had some pretty good stretches. That being said, there were definitely a few minutes on Tuesday night when those questions from last week about whether or not Portland would come to play when it really mattered had finally been answered, and that answer was NO. What changed? What happened to put Portland over the top and escape Tuesday night with their first win of the season? Two names: Andre Miller, and more importantly Nicolas Batum.
With Portland trailing 90-88 with 5:43 left on the evening, Miller checked into the game. In just over a minute he had scored a bucket and assisted on two more, making the score 95-91 in favor of the home team, and shutting the door on the Suns. Portland pushed their closing run to 18-to-1, and of those 18 points, 11 came from Batum. In the final 3:14, Batum connected on three three-pointers. Those people around the NBA that weren’t familiar with the Blazers third-year French winger before Tuesday better take notice. Nic’s coming to your town soon, and he isn’t messing around. Batum finished with 19 points in just under 27 minutes, and was the difference maker tonight like he will probably be many times in 2010-11.
Here are a few thoughts I had on tonight’s game:
- For many Portland fans that didn’t have a chance to make any of the preseason home games, this was their first chance to catch a glimpse of Armon Johnson. Johnson, who didn’t exactly run Jerryd Bayless out of town but played a hand in his being shuffled off to New Orleans, played just over nine minutes, and for the most part looked like he’s earning that back-up point guard spot. Johnson looks great on defense and runs the break better than every Blazer not named Andre Miller. Johnson was able to take Suns back-up PG Goran Dragic to the hole almost at will on his way to finishing with six points and three assists. Under 10 minutes is not really back-up minutes, but Johnson may be ready to take that spot for real sooner than some might think.
- Speaking of the back-up PG and the problems that come with having a rookie at that spot, there were times when Portland’s three guard set didn’t look great. That set was Brandon Roy, Wesley Matthews, and Rudy Fernandez. True it was their first time playing any significant minutes together, but over a few possessions none of the Blazer’s shooting guards seemed to know how to initiate the offense. Like Johnson’s skills, the three shooting guard back-court will come together over time.
- Roy started Tuesday with three three-pointers. He didn’t look like he was rushing his shot as much as he was during some of the preseason games, and he finished with a team leading 24 points. Again it took him 20 shots to get to 24 points, but overall his game looked a little more like what should be expected.
- LaMarcus Aldridge was the opposite. After easily the most consistent preseason, Aldridge came out flat on Tuesday finishing with only eight points. For long stretches of the game LA was being guarded by Hedo Turkoglu. Instead of taking advantage of the smaller defender, who also happens to not be much of a defender at all, LA spent too much time shooting jump shots instead of attacking the rim. LA also struggled all night with double-teams. Aldridge has seen plenty of doubles in his career, and if he wants to really contribute this year, he has to figure out a way to effectively play against them.
- Nate McMillan gets the stat of the night: 10 Portland players say action in Tuesday night’s FIRST QUARTER. Every Blazer in uniform played in the night’s opening period except for Luke Babbitt and Patty Mills. All of the newest addition to the Blazers Febricio Oberto’s three minutes came in the opening quarter.
- Some big pluses for the Blazers: Batum +10, Miller and Roy +14, and Matthews +22.
- Steve Nash led all scorers with 26 points, to go with six assists. Nash also managed to turn the ball over nine times. Jason Richardson scored 22 points and the only other Phoenix player to hit double figures was Hakim Warrick who added 10 points
In other NBA news, the Miami Heat opened up the LeBron James era with an 88-80 loss in Boston to the Celtics. This may have come as a surprise to some, especially those that picked Miami to finish 2010-11 without a single loss, but there was at least one person who saw this coming. Evidence.
Portland is out on the road for the next four games, starting tomorrow night in Los Angeles against Blake Griffin and the Clippers.