Fresh off playing spoiler for Blake Griffin’s professional debut on Wednesday, the Trail Blazers were given the opportunity tonight to crash another highly-publicized party: Amar’e Stoudemire’s first home game at Madison Square Garden. And they just managed it, pulling out a 100-95 win over the Knicks in much the same fashion as their first two wins this season: a hot start, shaky middle quarters, and a late run. This has been the pattern so far for the Blazers, although their performance tonight had the most obvious flaws of any of the three so far.
The Blazers came out firing on all cylinders in the first quarter. They double-teamed Stoudemire early and often, leaving the Knicks to throw up bad three-pointers. Their offense was balanced, with Nicolas Batum, Brandon Roy, Andre Miller, LaMarcus Aldridge, Fabricio Oberto, and Wesley Matthews all contributing points, and the Blazers cruised to a 26-19 lead at the end of the opening quarter. The Knicks looked as bad as the Miami Heat in their season opener against the Celtics–their offense was unfocused, and the Blazers had no trouble having their way with the New York defense.
The second quarter belonged to Wilson Chandler, whose back-to-back three-pointers a little over halfway through the period lit the fuse for the Knicks, who dominated the offensive glass and hit key shots for which Portland had no answer. Aldridge in particular struggled, going 2-for-6 from the field in the quarter and missing three of his four free-throw attempts. On the night, Aldridge was 4 for 10 from the line and 8 for 20 from the field. The free throws he missed came in key spots, and he looked particularly lost in the low post, resulting in one of the least-encouraging 20-and-10 performances you’re likely to see all year. The Blazers were up by 12 at one point in the second quarter, and gave it all away to the Knicks in the form of bad shots and avoidable turnovers, and the teams entered the half tied at 44.
The third quarter was more of the same for the Blazers, who played sloppy defense and let the Knicks run amok on the offensive boards. At least they made some shots this time around–Roy and Aldridge got it going offensively and kept the Blazers in the game more or less by themselves. It helped that Stoudemire was banished to the bench about halfway through the quarter after picking up his fourth foul. Despite looking thoroughly outplayed the entire period, the Blazers somehow came out of the quarter tied with the Knicks at 74, making up for their anemic rebounding with a scoring burst from Roy.
The Knicks built their lead to nine early in the fourth quarter before the Blazers went on a 17-3 run to close out the game in what is quickly (and worryingly) becoming their normal fashion. Even this run was plagued by some crucial missed free throws on the part of Aldridge and Miller, but Miller’s stellar, unselfish play down the stretch (with five fouls, no less) allowed Roy (who led all scorers with 29 points) and Matthews (who had a strong shooting night after struggling on Wednesday against the Clippers) to get to the basket. But the real story of the fourth-quarter run was the Blazers’ improved defense, which essentially shut the Knicks down in the final six minutes of play.
The turning point–the moment when this moved from one the Blazers would have to hope for some lucky breaks to win to one that we started to feel like they would win–came with Portland up 96-95 with 25 seconds left. Raymond Felton took advantage of Matthews’ slip and used the opportunity to drive to the basket, only to be met by both Camby and Batum. The block was credited to Camby, but he told the bench after the play that it was really Batum who made what turned out to be the game-saving play. A couple of Portland buckets and an Amar’e Stoudemire turnover later, the Blazers were looking at their first 3-0 start since the 1999-2000 season and no less than an even split of this opening road trip, which will take them to Chicago on Monday before concluding in Milwaukee the following day.
While this is the kind of close road win that separates 50-win teams from 55-win ones, the Blazers simply cannot afford to win too many more games in the fashion that they did tonight. The late runs look impressive on highlight reels, but they shouldn’t be necessary. In all three of their games so far this season, the Blazers have been the better team on paper, and they’ve begun each game playing as such. But their tendency to fall back on lazy jump shots and let opponents destroy them inside in the middles of games is going to come back to bite them. They’ve proven they can turn it on late against high-lottery-to-low-playoff-caliber teams, but against the Lakers, Celtics, Magic, Heat, and Thunder, that probably won’t be enough. We can chalk up their pathetic performance on the offensive glass tonight to Camby’s foul trouble, but until Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla come back, that’s likely going to be a recurring issue for them, and it will hurt them. Enjoy this win, be happy that they are guaranteed to be above .500 the next time they take the floor at the Rose Garden, but there is work to be done.