Think back to that road trip at the end of November. You remember the one. When Portland lost at Philadelphia, at Washington, at Boston, and at New Jersey. Saturday’s win at home for the Blazers against the Nets looked a lot like the loss they suffered in Jersey. In that game, the Blazers had a world of trouble maintaining its energy on offense, were at times out of sync, and made a mad push at the end of the game that fell short. On November 28th they lost, and Rip City looked poised to implode completely. On January 15th, Portland looked stagnant at times, helpless on defense at others. The difference? On Saturday the Blazers made a commitment to defense in the fourth quarter, and as New Jersey’s offense fell apart, Portland’s looked poised, got easy baskets, and got to the free throw line.
Oh yeah, there was one more key difference. This time the Blazers were at home. If you were in the Rose Garden Saturday night, give yourself a lot of credit. The home fans have been lackadaisical at times, almost as if the attitude was hurry up and get this season over with so we can get Brandon Roy back and get this championship train back on track. News flash everybody. B Roy isn’t coming back, at least not the B Roy we all once knew. Saturday, though, the Blazer fans got loud. It took most of the evening, but when Portland needed a boost, and a big defensive stand, the crowd was there to provide just the right amount of energy to push the Blazers over the top.
But it was the team that gave the fans something to cheer about. Portland came out flat early, to the point that all but 10 of New Jersey’s first quarter points came in the paint. The Blazers were playing matador defense at its very best. Kris Humphries, Brook Lopez, Derrick Favors, they were all getting gimmes at the rim. Portland’s defensive woes continued in the second quarter. Lopez kept the onslaught going, pouring in 10 points, Sasha Vujacic got involved, adding seven points, and Johan Petro took advantage of the fact that Portland couldn’t stop anybody, getting all six of his points in the second frame. The Blazers trailed by as many as 13 points before halftime. It really looked like Portland hadn’t come close to shaking its last three losses.
I’d like to say that the second half was a different story. Yes the Blazers came out hot, busting out a 17-2 run, turning a seven-point deficit into an eight-point lead, but the consistency still wasn’t there. Again, like in the Phoenix game on Friday, it was Portland’s second unit that struggled. Patty Mills has been instrumental in pushing the pace over the course of his accession to an everyday player. Saturday, though, his third quarter shift coincided with an overall slow-down of Portland’s attack. To Patty’s credit, he did hit a big corner three to keep New Jersey within two possessions. It was Wesley Matthews, though, that set the tone for the final 12 minutes just as the third quarter ended. His steal turned fast break dunk with three seconds remaining in the third showed that Portland wasn’t going to let New Jersey come into the Rose Garden and grab a win.
Wesley’s steal and bucket helped flip the switch as the Blazers ramped up their defense for the final period of the evening. In the last two minutes Friday night, New Jersey had a string of possessions that went a little something like this: 1:56 to play, steal LaMarcus Aldridge; 1:34 to play steal Aldridge; 1:05 to play steal Wesley Matthews; 51.9 to play, offensive foul drawn by Matthews. It was at this time that the Rose Garden crowd reached a fever pitch. Not 2008-09 Brandon going for 52 level, but maybe the best it’s been all year. The Blazers played like they knew just how important it was to finish the first half of the season with a winning record.
Portland has the benefit of five more home games in the month of January. It’s a chance to get some rest, traveling only as far as Sacramento, and it’s a chance to build a head of steam going into the second half of the season. So far this season the Blazers have matched three or four game winning streaks with losing streaks of equal length. Continuity and carryover are going to be buzz words down the stretch. Although Saturday’s win was far from convincing, breaking a losing skid, finishing one game over .500 at the halfway point, and protecting home court against a scrappy team that has won only four times since November 28th are all positive takeaways.
The Blazers have Sunday off before taking on the Minnesota Timberwolves back at the Rose Garden on Monday.
Just a few quick thoughts:
- Portland’s starters logged big minutes Friday, the second night of a back-to-back. All of Portland’s starting five played more than 34 minutes, with LA leading the pack with 39. Following the game head coach Nate McMillan said he left his starters on the floor as long as he did because he wanted to go with the guys that were playing well. Again it was the starters that did all the heavy lifting on offense. Of the 96 total points scored by Portland Friday night, only 13 came from the four guys that got minutes as substitutes.
- Nicolas Batum reached a new season high in scoring with 23 points. Too bad his best looking shot of the night didn’t count. As the shot clock expired early in the fourth quarter, Nic chased down a long errant pass and tossed in a forty footer from the sideline. Had there been one tick on the clock it would have been a SportsCenter top play. As it is, it’s just a fond memory.
- Andre Miller and LaMarcus Aldridge continue to be the most consistent offensive players Portland has. LA led the Blazers in scoring with 27 points, and Andre added 19 points. More than once, Dre came through with either a short jumper or a layup when Portland’s offense was struggling to get buckets. Post game I asked Dre if he felt like he was looking for his shot more. He toed the party line nicely, saying he’s doing whatever it takes to get a win.
- Just so you know, Marcus Camby’s goal is to “get LA to LA,” meaning the All Star Game. As for LaMarcus: “I can’t really worry about that (the All Star Game) I have to focus on getting wins first. If it happens it happens.”