There have been plenty of nights this season when Portland has played against a team that makes the fan base day dream about what this season could have been. A healthy Brandon Roy, a healthy Greg Oden, a developing LaMarcus Aldridge, and it could be Portland that is the toast of the West Conference not Oklahoma City or a team of equal or greater value. Then there’s nights that hopefully the fan base gets a taste of what this team would look like if, in a moment of frenzy or manic psychosis, Rich Cho, Paul Allen, and Larry Miller decided to blow the team up and rebuild. Although Monday wasn’t really an evening in which Portland fans got a chance to see 2010-11’s Western Conference champions, it was a chance to see the Blazers take on a team that is much worse shape, across the board, than they are. There aren’t too many of those, so we should all relish them when they come.
Monday night began and ended with LaMarcus Aldridge. The hype surrounding the Timberwolves/Blazers match up focused almost entirely on the battle between LA and Oregon native Kevin Love. Love and Aldridge are on the short list of guys that are in the hunt for the Western Conference All-Star team. Love made his case early, with ungodly rebounding and scoring nights early in the season, and LaMarcus has made his case late, stepping ably into the role of “The Man” since Brandon Roy went down. The best way, of course, to gauge which one of these fellas is ready for the big game is to put them head-to-head.
Unfortunately for the hype machine, LaMarcus and K Love didn’t get too many chances to go mano-a-mano. LA mostly drew Darko Milicic on offense, so there wasn’t really much of a chance for Love to showcase his defensive talents. On the other side, Love was defended by both LA and Dante Cunningham. DC was effective at keeping Love from scoring too much, with LA helping in that effort as well. But, like I said, this game really belonged to LA, regardless of who he was guarding, who was guarding him, or how much emphasis was placed on his battle with Kevin Love. LaMarcus finished with a new career high in scoring, with 37, and he looked as comfortable as he’s been all season with his back to the basket and employing now fully legit low-post moves. Darko is a big body, with the defensive style of the Great Wall of China. LA got hit, lots of times. Each time he came back with a nice spin move, or a follow-up dunk, something that kept Portland’s offense rolling. In the third period, the quarter that turned Monday from a close game to a blowout, LaMarcus collected 12 points. In that third period the Blazers cruised to 38 points, easily one of their best quarters of the season.
Along with LA, a few guys that have struggled with consistency showed up on Monday as well. Wesley Matthew found his three-point stroke in the second half, and Rudy Fernandez provided all kinds of spark, both on offense and defense. One of the remarkable performances of the evening, though, came from Joel Przybilla. Joel’s evening was great, and should give Blazer fans something tangible on which to mount their hopes and expectations, not because he had great numbers, but because he stayed on the court for nearly 18 minutes. Oh yeah, he grabbed seven rebounds and scored six points. Joel’s movement is still severely limited, his jumping also, but the learning curve in the NBA, or the recovery curve in Joel’s case, is always steepest when a player is actually out on the floor. If Joel can get 10+ minutes a night, expect him to be a real factor down the stretch. Rudy finished Monday night with 13 points and a new career high with five steals. Portland’s bench scoring was rounded out by Dante Cunningham with nine points and Patty Mills with five points. The Blazers’ week point is still the bench, but night’s like Monday show that at the very least, they can play. Matthews returned to form, contributing 23 points, 18 of which came in the second half.
Back to LaMarcus Aldridge one more time to wrap it all up. Post game Nate McMillan said that LaMarcus is really learning how to play, developing an array of effective moves while excelling as the centerpiece of the offense. LaMarcus mentioned in his post game comments that part of what is making him play better in this most recent stretch is the confidence he gets from the coaching staff and his team making him the number one option. Confidence has always been a key with LaMarcus. Monday he showed a ton of confidence in his low post game, and in his ability to make tough shots. If LA continues to play at a consistent level, not scoring 37 a night, but consistently attacking and scoring in the post, Portland has a good shot to win some games down the stretch. He may not make the All-Star game, but this isn’t just about this season. LA’s development may mean that the championship window for this Trail Blazer team might still be cracked just the smallest amount.
Portland travels down to Sacramento to face the Kings on Wednesday, then come back to the Rose Garden to finish out the first month of 2011 at home.
Just a few quick thoughts:
- Speaking of the All-Star Game one more time. The third name thrown around in the LA, K Love discussion is LA Clipper Blake Griffin. Griffin has two knocks against him; his team isn’t good, and he’s a rookie. Before this evening I would have said that LA was the leader of those three guys in regards to the coaches filling out the All-Star roster. Tonight Blake Griffin went and dropped 47 points on the Indiana Pacers. The Clips have posted wins against the Miami Heat and their LA rivals, and have emerged as one of the more exciting bad teams in the league. I’m going to say it, and few people will disagree, but Blake Griffin has basically guaranteed himself a spot on the All-Star roster. That’s one less spot for LaMarcus, but it doesn’t mean he isn’t going.
- Minnesota has one of the more enigmatic young men that the NBA has seen in some time on their roster. Micheal Beasley is a freaking animal. As talented as any player on any team, big, strong, franchise level potential. What’s strange is that sometime it seems as if he just doesn’t care. Beasley played great against Portland the last time these two teams squared off at the Rose Garden, but Monday was a little bit of a different story. Beasley had 10 points in the first half, and punished the Blazers a few times when they left him open. In the second half, though, B Easy was pulled in the middle of the third quarter and didn’t come back until late in the fourth. He took only one shot in the second half, and scored his only two points from the free throw line. Beasley seemed disinterested at times, or maybe more interested in being a clown, sticking his head into a Blazer huddle before one of his teammates shot a free throw. It’s hard to know what to make of Beasley, his problems with drugs have been well publicized, and there is a very real sense that he has done irreparable harm to his image and marketability. You wonder if on a winning team he would get his act together. The catch-22 there is that no winning team is likely to reach out to him.
- Marcus Camby left the game in the first half, complaining of pain in his knee, and didn’t return. Post game the prognosis was vague, and no doubt there will be more information about his condition as it becomes available.
- If you weren’t in the Rose Garden Monday you missed one of the better halftime shows of the year. The past few seasons, as a celebration of Martin Luther King Day, the artist David Garibaldi comes to town and busts out a portrait of Dr. King at halftime to music. Check out his official website.