On most nights over the last two seasons it has been the Portland Trail Blazers that have come into gyms depleted by injury, lacking important pieces of their offense, and hoping to catch a break somewhere at some time that would lead to a win. Over those many nights, the wins have been hard fought, and the defeats have brought the fans right up to the edge of chucking it all and starting over. What didn’t happen too much last season, and hasn’t happened at all this season, were the games when it was Portland opposition that was short handed, and then were run out of the gym.
Monday night, the Milwaukee Bucks rolled into Portland short a few of their more potent offensive weapons, and it showed. Portland also maintained the bulk of the energy that has carried them through the last two home wins that have been a little too close for the Rose Garden crowd. The difference-in energy, execution, overall basketball playing-between the two teams was by far enough to produce the Blazer’s first real wire-to-wire blowout of 2010-11. After nearly handing a last-second win to the Warriors on Saturday, I can’t think of anything Portland needed more than a thorough beat-down on an over-matched, under-manned team.
Wesley Matthews was the catalyst Monday night, as he has been many nights this season, producing one of the more memorable runs of recent Blazer memory. On three straight possessions, Wesley found himself open on the perimeter, and as easy as falling off a log, he knocked down three straight threes. At one point in the first Portland led 23-9. Although 3:19 left in the first is a little too early to call a game, and Milwaukee did make a few spirited runs, this game was over early.
Short Brandon Jennings, Carlos Delfino, and Corey Maggette, many of the Bucks’ jumpers were well short. Milwaukee’s one remaining offensive weapon, center Andrew Bogut, never got going. And more than that, the Blazers never really let up. Portland hasn’t quite shaken the offensive droughts that have plagued them in almost every game of this season, but Monday night Portland’s offense scored 19 points in their lowest scoring quarter, the third, and a 19 point quarter was not going to be enough to let this one go.
LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Fernandez were difference makers once again, and along with Wesley Matthews are quickly becoming greater than the sum of their individual parts. Rudy didn’t let early struggles from deep keep him from taking open threes. A week ago he did, and that’s the difference between his play then and his play now. Rudy needs to take his shots, even if he’s missing, it’s consistently taking those shots that then opens him up for drives to the hoop. Speaking of drives to the hoop, in the last few outings Rudy has cut down dramatically on his off-balance one-footed floater in the lane. His controlled drives to the rack make him look like the talented play maker that he could possibly be. The spacing on the floor, the movement of the ball, and the overall energy Portland is playing with right now plays right to Rudy’s strengths. I don’t want to understate this, but Rudy is playing great. He is not only scoring, but he is passing well, and hustling on defense.
All would probably have been for naught Monday night without the effort of LaMarcus Aldridge. Well probably not all for naught, but LaMarcus came to play, and when he comes to play Portland can win every night. LaMarcus is a beast, a freak of nature athlete with a truck load of basketball skill matched by basketball IQ. Throughout his career he’s been a subject of ridicule for playing soft, not trying at times, shrinking from a staring role. In LA’s last four games, he has scored 35, 36, 17, and 29. The 17 was against Golden State on Saturday, a true team win, but every other night of the last four LaMarcus has been an individual phenomenon. It’s starting to seem like we shouldn’t be shocked when LaMarcus has a big night, he looks like he wants to have big nights every night. LA dropped a poster on Michael Beasley on Friday, and did it again to Andrew Bogut on Monday. LaMarcus Aldridge of old didn’t drop the hammer quite like that or with such regularity; he’s starting to get comfortable in beast mode, and that’s great for the future of this team.
Apart for Portland’s newest big three, the role players came through once more. It’s getting hard to call them role players though, or to identify a second unit. In fact the only real question as Monday night wound down with Portland up a double saw, was which Blazers were going to get garbage time minutes. Sean Marks played 24 minutes, Patty Mills and Luke Babbitt both played nearly 18 minutes Monday night. I don’t care how big a lead is, those aren’t garbage time numbers. The best thing about this last stretch of games: when Marcus Camby, Joel Przybilla, and Brandon Roy come back, the three injured Blazers that will come back, guys like Marks, Mills, and Babbitt will have some big minutes under their respective belts. One major shocker that is coming through in spades, for all that Sean Marks lacks in skill and polish, he can come out and contribute. A few more reps in practice, and he might even be able to knock down that mid-range jumper with a little bit of regularity.
Portland has earned its next four days off, and will roll into Golden State on Christmas Day one game over .500. Last season on Christmas Day Brandon Roy put on a show against the Denver Nuggets. It’s unlikely that Roy will post 41 like he did last year, it’s unclear as to whether or not he’ll even be on the court, but Portland should feel good about the way things are going. Smart money would say to look for LaMarcus or Wesley or Rudy to be the Blazer that breaks out this Christmas Day.
Winning at home is great, and much needed at this point. It’s going to be winning on the road that’s going to be the true test for what’s left of this team.
Some real brief thoughts:
- Dante Cunningham started at center for his second night in a row. DC looked great for a little more than four minutes before going down with a sprained ankle. Dante stayed on the bench, keeping loose on the exercise bike that’s kept court side. Dante probably would have come back had the game ever gotten too close for comfort. Cunningham is starting to get his confidence back, and he is an important piece of this team. Hopefully his injury won’t be too severe.
- Portland looked better spaced, and played with more ball control then we’ve seen in quite a while. On more than one possession the ball touched all five players before an actually open man was found, usually under the hoop, and an easy basket was scored. Without a guy like B Roy on the floor, it’s ball movement that’s going to break down defenses. It worked on Monday, and will probably keep working going forward.
- Monday was the kind of game that produced a ton of positive stats for Portland. The best far and away were the 19 rebounds collected by LaMarcus Aldridge. Other good stats: 50% shooting from the field, nine and seven assists for Andre Miller and Rudy respectively, 27 assists for the team. Overall it was basically all good.
- One of my favorite stats is the sometimes totally arbitrary plus/minus. Monday’s was great for basically everyone in a Blazer jersey. Top plus/minus for Monday: Dre +28. Other high plus/minus: Wesley +25, LA +21, Rudy +20, Nicolas Batum +17. Low plus/minus of the evening: Andrew Bogut -23.