Everybody can exhale. Portland hasn’t looked great these last few games, starting with a give away against the Thunder, a too-close-for comfort win against arguably the worst team in the league in the Toronto Raptors, and a third game that at this point we should all forget and never speak of again. With that record on their backs, I’m sure that more than a few Blazer fans came into Tuesday’s game against the once mighty Detroit Pistons expecting the worst. And for moments, they were almost right. Portland came out hot, something they did during their 3-0 start, then stopped doing immediately after, but let the Pistons’ bench make it a game in the second quarter.
Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon, not to mention Tracy McGrady, are the kind of guys that had their moments at one time or another, but now just don’t seem to have it. Tuesday night, it was this unit that closed an 11-point lead to a single point. When that happens, foreboding may not be a strong enough word. This was, at times, a game that Portland could have easily lost. What happened? Well, a few things. First, and foremost for the rest of the season, the Blazers played defense. Every Detroit shot was contested, every Detroit possession went deep into the shot clock. Second, Portland started crashing the boards, Nicolas Batum was all over the offensive and defensive glass, the Blazer guards turned long rebounds into run outs. And finally, Portland started running. Led by Armon Johnson, Rudy Fernandez, and Wesley Matthews, the Blazers started getting up and down the floor, attacking the hoop, and finally scoring some easy baskets. The result: the first top to bottom blow out of 2010-11. Portland held the Pistons to fewer than 20 points in the third and fourth quarters, and a team that touched the Blazers up for 25 points in the first period managed only 78 for the game.
Defense won on Tuesday, but it was offense that made this maybe the season’s best game so far. Saturday against the Raptors buckets were hard to come by, against the Lakers they were non-existent. Portland’s 36 points in the opening quarter were a season high, and though the 70% from the field didn’t carry over, the hot start was an offensive confidence booster. When Detroit made their final push in the fourth quarter, Portland wasn’t shy about shooting jump shots. A few clutch jumpers were exactly what the Blazers needed to stave off a final early push, and cement the blow out.
The Blazers outscored the Pistons 26-15 in the night’s final frame, making it look like they were just getting started. That’s good, because Portland’s going to need to maintain and build on this momentum for their upcoming three-game swing featuring Memphis, the undefeated New Orleans Hornets, and a chance to get one back in OKC against Kevin Durant and the Thunder. For now, though, we can breath easy knowing that the Blazers can win games, and can win with a flare they had yet to really unleash. With all that’s been happening in the early days of this campaign, I can find nothing wrong with that.
Some of my thoughts about tonight:
- LaMarcus Aldridge. As soon as you are ready to write this guy off, for maybe the 90th time in his career, he comes up with a huge game on both ends of the court. Again LA started on fire, scoring eight points in the first quarter. When he cooled off, and couldn’t buy a bucket before halftime, he continued to attack the rim. In the second half LaMarcus planted himself in the lane, changing shots, and better than that, snagging rebounds. LA finished with 19 points and 17 rebounds. 17 REBOUNDS, that’s what I’m talking about. Here’s a telling statistic: LA has four games this season with more than 10 boards, in those games the Blazers are undefeated. I’m sure every Blazer fan is with me when I say: “LaMarcus, please REBOUND!”
- Portland may have finally found a solid running unit. Armon Johnson, Rudy Fernandez, Wesley Matthews, and Dante Cunningham. Throw in a big, likely Greg Oden when he comes back, pulling in boards and throwing outlet passes, and hot damn these boys could be dangerous. Of course going this small is a liability on defense, teams with strong forwards and big guards will have an advantage at every position, but for 10 or 15 minutes a night that unit can change the face of any game.
- If I were to give out an award for my favorite performance of the evening, it would go to Dante Cunningham. I know that Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus had better games, but I feel like at this point that’s going to be basically the norm. Cunningham in a lot of ways is an X factor. When he plays well, I feel like he gives Portland a chance to get a lot of wins. Tuesday he stepped out and hit a few key jumpers in the fourth quarter. Also, he threw down a thunderous jam on a great fast break run by Armon Johnson. Cunningham has the tools to do that kind of thing every night, what he needs to work on is his consistency. His development as a second year player is something we should watch closely.
- Some of Portland’s numbers that should jump out at everybody and make them smile. Points in the paint: 46. Fast Break Points: 27. Blazers in double figures in scoring: 5. Rebounds: 45 (+12 on the deferential). Assists: 26. Shooting: 50% from the field and 43% from three. Improvements all over last week’s games.
I’ll speak briefly before I close this out about Brandon Roy. Right now I’m slightly confused. Before the season he spoke at length about wanting the ball more, then today he told reporters that he might be ready to have his minutes cut back. Tuesday Nate McMillan responded by playing Brandon only 21 minutes. Brandon played fewer minutes than every other starter, and fewer minutes than Wesley Matthews and Rudy Fernandez, only one minute more than Dante Cunningham, and only three minutes more than Armon Johnson. Sean Marks, Luke Babbitt, and Patty Mills were the only Blazers that saw significantly fewer minutes than Brandon, coming in to play out the final 2:15 of garbage time. After the game Mike Rice theorized that Nate was sending Brandon a message, that message being if you don’t want to play you won’t play. Brandon never got into rhythm, taking only seven shots in his limited minutes, and while he was in he looked tentative. Sure Detroit turned into an easy win, and Roy could use the rest, but I really think this team needs Brandon on the court to beat good teams and to be taken seriously. My hope is that he figures out what he wants. He won’t be playing only 20 minutes in New Orleans, I can guarantee you that.
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