Dante Cunningham has been a key contributor off the bench as of late. Photo courtesy of the AP.

Game 31 Recap: Blazers 96, Jazz 91

LaMarcus Aldridge rolled, and Portland followed, winning in Utah for only the 15th time ever. Photo courtesy of the AP.

NBA season version 2010-11 has not been easy for the Portland Trail Blazers. There have been far too many bad losses, not enough good wins, and enough speculation about the future of the franchise and its players to make even the most passive Blazer fan squeamish. The woes and ups and downs may be far from over, but when we look back on this season, one thing will be certain: winning short-handed, on the road, at Utah is pretty freaking incredible. Monday night doesn’t erase the loss at Washington, or the atrocious performances against the Lakers and at home against the Hornets and these same Jazz, but it does prove to the league, the fans, and most importantly the players that Portland can beat anybody, and can win in any arena.

Before we get too deep into patting ourselves on the back, let’s take a look at why this happened. One thing Portland did Monday night that proved to be effective early was cutting through the lane without the ball. Especially in the second quarter, when Monday’s was briefly the Rudy Fernandez show, Portland got a handful of easy layups on dive-cuts to the hoop. In November, when Utah played one good quarter of basketball and managed to crush the Blazers’ dreams in the Rose Garden, Portland relied far too much on jump shots. It’s hard to start cutting to the basket in the fourth quarter when for the first three you’ve been standing around launching J’s. Utah, like a lot of teams in the NBA, is without what you might call a traditional shot blocker. Because Portland is also without a back-to-the-basket center, the way to score points in the paint is by cutting. Rudy was the best, scoring 11 points in the second quarter and helping Portland get both feet in the game, but Dante Cunningham, Patty Mills, and Andre Miller all made strong cuts to the lane at one time or another.

Reason number two Portland was victorious in Utah for only the 15th time in franchise history goes by the name of LaMarcus Aldridge. LA struggled in the first half, but found both his rhythm and his confidence late in the game. With Brandon Roy down, possibly out, the Blazers are in need of a go-to guy. Wesley Matthews is probably Portland’s most dynamic offensive weapons, I will go as far as to say on his good nights Wesley is Roy-esque, but against great perimeter defense, Wesley was most shut down. LaMarcus needs to be the guy that can catch the ball inside and make something happen on his own. He’s been seeing double-teams for five seasons, and he needs to be able to adjust to all kinds of defenses. Monday night he did, and he did it in a big way. The loss in Dallas was LA’s breakout game, but Monday may have been his most important of this big-time stretch he’s currently on. LA said as much after the game to Blazer play-by-play man Mike Barrett. This is the first time LA has played a good game in Utah with the team winning. It’s one thing to drop 36 in a home win against the lowly Minnesota Timeberwolves. It’s something altogether different to come up huge against one of the elite teams in the league, and do it in a way that gets the job done for your team. This is LA’s best stretch as a Blazer, and in the process he is winning the hearts and minds of many Portland fans.

The third reason the Blazers won on Monday was the bench. Rudy Fernandez I’ve already mentioned, but Dante Cunningham and Patty Mills also contributed. DC especially. Cunningham has been streaky, sometimes nonexistent, this season. Monday he did a few things that I like, and hope to see more of going forward. One thing especially; he shot the ball. DC is a solid, not great, mid-range shooter, but when he is on the floor with guys like Rudy and Wesley, he is going to get A TON of open looks. He won’t knock them all down, but as long as he is taking his open shots he deserves to be out on the floor. Dante also brings a lot of energy on the defensive end, and Portland needs every ounce of defensive energy they can get at this point. Patty didn’t get a ton of time, but he played well when he was in. Patty hit two big threes, and with each passing game he looks more comfortable both shooting and handling the ball. The problem with Patty is he really can’t guard Deron Williams. Not a lot of people can, but if he wants to get consistent minutes at this level, Patty needs to learn how to at least contain point guards of that size.

The final reason Portland beat the Jazz: free throws. The last 40 seconds and change were practically unbearable, but Andre Miller and Wesley Matthews stepped up to the line and put down a bunch of super clutch free throws. With the score the way it was going into the closing portion of the fourth quarter, it would have taken a complete melt-down for Portland to lose. Not even trying to guard Deron Williams wasn’t a great strategy, but it would have been double trouble if they couldn’t stick their free throws. Big time respect for Andre and Wesley. It wasn’t pretty, but they did what needed doing.

Portland continues their three game road trip Tuesday night against the Nuggets in Denver.  The Mile High City is another place Portland just seems to be unable to play. Savior Monday’s big W, but just think how sweet it will be to cap it off with a win in Denver.

Just a few quick thoughts:

  • Deron Williams is unbelievably good. You have to wonder what kind of team Utah would be without him. The short answer is, probably not a good one. Williams was good early, and almost good enough to rip the hearts out of the whole Rose City late. Williams finished with 31 points, and after his second three-pointer in the last 30 seconds cut Portland’s lead to one possession, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in having Paul Milsap in Miami type flashbacks.
  • The talk about LaMarcus Aldridge for the All-Star game are of course slightly premature and have a lot to do with the bias of home town fans. Having said that, Monday’s game was the best possible thing LA could have done to better his chances at getting voted in by the coaches. He played hard even when his shot wasn’t going, and he was able to step up in the clutch not only on the offensive end but also on defense. A few more games like Monday’s and we could be firmly in All-Star snub territory. The only thing that would have made LA’s game better, besides a few more rebounds, would have been if Monday’s game was on national TV.
  • Marcus Camby played a pretty excellent 22 0dd minutes before rolling his ankle and leaving the game, not to return. It seems to be the fate of the Blazers to take one giant leap forward and two hobbling steps back. No news on Camby’s status for Tuesday’s game.
  • In non-Blazer related news, NBA TV carried the broadcast of the Memphis Grizzlies and the Toronto Raptors Monday evening. I didn’t see too much, but I saw enough to hear one of the Memphis broadcasters mention some of the reasons Jerryd Bayless has seemed to bounce around so much so far in his career. He mentioned out of control and ill-advised drives to the hoop and turnovers. I go back and forth about how Portland would be doing this season with Bayless. I would take his experience over Patty Mills and Armon Johnson at this point, especially with Brandon being out, but bad offense is definitely not something Portland needs more of. I’m not trying to slam Bayless, I just think it’s interesting how different players shake out. Time will tell with Jerryd.

Box Score

Standings

Twitter: @mikeacker | @ripcityproject

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Tags: Andre Miller Blazers Jazz LaMarcus Aldridge Marcus Camby Rudy Fernandez

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